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First Church Houston is staying in PC(USA)

Vote to leave for ECO falls just short of two-thirds requirement

February 24, 2014

Houston’s First Presbyterian Church will remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

At a congregation meeting Feb. 23, 64.5 percent of the present members voted in favor of transferring to ECO – A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. However, the votes fell 36 short of the two-thirds majority required to adopt the proposal. The actual vote was 1085 in favor, 596 opposed. 

The church’s session studied the possibility of making such a move through much of 2011 and 2012, and then the whole congregation spent the last 13 months engaging in a congregational discernment process, in cooperation with the Presbytery of New Covenant’s Reconciliation and Dismissal Procedure.

Last month, the church’s session (its governing board comprised of 5 teaching elders and 18 ruling elders) presented its unanimous recommendation that the congregation vote in support of what it believed to be “God’s clear call to seek dismissal from PC(USA) and to seek membership in ECO.” 

The congregation was launched 175 years ago as a part of the mainline Presbyterian denomination. The PC(USA) presently includes more than 10,000 congregations and about 1.8 million members. 

ECO was established in 2012 in response to a perception of incompatible theology, catalyzed in particular by the mainline church’s lifting of a categorical ban on ordaining actively homosexual persons ― making that a local decision. In two years, 116 PC(USA) congregations have transferred to ECO, and an additional 100 or more PC(USA) churches have begun the process that could lead to their transfer.

Out of 3,130 members, 1,683 attended the meeting, nearly 54 percent, about double a typical Sunday’s worship attendance. This response at the culmination of the discernment process underlined the earnestness of effort carried out through the year. 

Adult members of the congregation studied the process of Christian discernment in a series of Sunday school classes on the subject in September. Through the rest of the fall, the church’s Gracious Reconciliation Implementation Team (GRIT) organized a series of evening “Learning Journeys,” in which guest speakers presented pro-and-con lectures followed by question-and-answer sessions.

Those events were interspersed with “Café Dialogues,” at which the members debriefed and shared opinions on previous weeks’ presentations.  An intense program of prayer services and fellowship dinners filled out the members’ calendars.

The voting meeting was held in three campus locations simultaneously. The Grand Hall hosted all of those who wished to speak in the meeting, including the moderator, Pastor Jim Birchfield.  When it filled up, other members filled the pews of the main sanctuary.  Still others overflowed into the church’s fellowship hall.

Ruling elder Eric Thomas, presented on behalf of the session the recommendation to leave the PC(USA).  Leaders of the denomination have been “compromising the message of the gospel,” he said, allowing “human ideas” to replace God’s word and will. 

The Rev. Mike Cole, the general presbyter of the Presbytery of New Covenant, was invited to offer a rebuttal. He recounted the church’s 175-year history of relating to the presbytery and denomination, mentioning two sets of difficulties with pastors in which the presbytery provided support and guidance and urging the congregation not to “rend asunder the covenant.”

Nearly 30 members followed, presenting arguments pro-and-con. 

Supporters of the ECO plan lifted up the unanimity of the congregation’s leaders, listed names of significant churches and pastors that have joined or are planning to join ECO, decried the PC(USA)’s lobbying on behalf of liberal political issues, accused the denomination of “theological drift” into liberalism, and urged one another to “step out in faith” to follow where God is leading.

Those supporting remaining in the PC(USA) lifted up the value of diversity in congregation and denomination, warned that the church would be known as homophobic, cautioned against moving toward intolerance, “retreating into the past,” and worried about the prospect of congregational division ― with pointed reminders of the split the congregation suffered 25 years before.  

At that time the congregation experienced a major division when a group promoted moving the church from the PC(USA) to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a denomination formed in 1983. That vote also fell short of a two-thirds majority. Several hundred members left after that vote to form Christ Evangelical Presbyterian Church, about 10 miles away from First Presbyterian.

Throughout the discernment process, Birchfield and the other leaders have worked intensely and spoken often on the need to stay together and seek reconciliation, regardless of the outcome of the vote. In fact, in the worship-with-communion service prior to the congregational vote, Birchfield preached yet again on reconciliation.

After the voting results were announced to a hushed, stunned crowd, the congregation was dismissed with prayer by Birchfield. 

Then he and many of the elders, obviously shaken by both the closeness of the vote and the gravity of its implications, whispered again and again, “We have a lot of work to do.”  

For disclosure purposes, Presbyterian Outlook Editor Jack Haberer, a minister-member of the Presbytery of New Covenant, served on the presbytery’s discernment team that assisted the congregation’s discernment process. 

  1. The ruling and teaching elders have instead chosen to sue the denomination over an issue that needs no resolution -- unless of course the plan is to leave the denomination, this time without following the gracious reconciliation and dismissal procedure. What the failed vote to leave made abundantly clear to me was that the leadership of the congregation (all of whom sought dismissal) does not fairly or accurately reflect the body of the church. That is what needs to change for healing to occur. Now that litigation has been pursued without any notice to the congregants we are seeing once again that the leaders could care less about the large contingency who disfavored leaving the PCUSA. Those people need the help of this denomination in fighting this attack from within. The Book of Order compels the session to call a congregational meeting when one-fourth of the active members (which is ~ 750 for First Houston) requests it. A congregational meeting called by the congregants to forcibly remove these rogue leaders will put an end to this nonsense once and for all.

    by Luke Lowry

    June 11, 2014

  2. Anytime a congregation moves toward leaving a denomination, it always results in a split, whether the congregation actually leaves or not. To be sure, some members, and maybe some leaders, will leave FPC Houston. How many remains to be seen. The fact is the mission of FPC Houston will be diminished. It's resources will be less than it has been. And the ruling and teaching elders will "have a lot of work to do." Top priority will have to be given to healing, reconciliation, team building, and restoration of trust. These tasks will not be accomplished quickly, and may take years to accomplish. Right now FPC Houston needs the prayers of all Presbyterians.

    by David McCann

    February 25, 2014

  3. Mark, While your church leaders head in one direction with a perceived agenda, is there any discernment about why this outcome happened? What message could God be sending in that being part of an imperfect community of Christ, willing to engage in discourse and influence change, might be more important to the life of the Church than "getting your own way?" Is leaving REALLY the best solution??

    by Heather Libich

    February 25, 2014

  4. Mark, I hope your family and the others in the 65% majority will remain a part of First Houston and not leave. You can take comfort from the experience of Highland Park Presbyterian in Dallas. Highland Park evangelicals fell short with a 55% vote to leave in the 1990's and then engaged in that dreary Presbyterian custom of leaving to start another church. But all of Highland Park is unified today in their desire to leave which will happen in the very near future. If those Highland Park evangelicals hadn't left in a huff 20 years ago, the Holy Spirit could have unified Highland Park to leave in five years rather than twenty years. You folks in the First Houston majority can be serenely confident that the trends in the PC(USA) you have correctly identified will continue inexorably and that if you stick together with your brothers and sisters in the minority, it's just a matter of time before you're all out the door together.

    by Jim Caraher

    February 25, 2014

  5. As a member of this church I am saddened by the outcome...it was the worst outcome that could have happened. Many people chose the "safe" route in staying with PC(USA), and instead left the church in the riskiest position…in a denomination that a majority of its members disagree with enough to go through this process and vote to move. The PC(USA) has serious problems, and instead of addressing these issues over the last 20 years and changing directions they have only accelerated their efforts in moving away from religion and towards politics resulting in the not-so-slow death of the denomination we are now all witnessing. My hope is that this vote will lead to something better such as the beginning of a significant change in PC(USA) national policies. My fear is that there will be no change, First Presbyterian will become split (again), and over the next year you will see my family and others both in the church and in leadership talk with their feet.

    by Mark Stewart

    February 24, 2014

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