The exodus from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues, as congregations seeking a more conservative home leave for other denominations. Some are small congregations ― 20 or 30 members ― and some are among the largest and wealthiest churches in the PC(USA).
The departures, mostly for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, have been ongoing for some time now, but the cumulative impact is adding up. ECO reports that 60 congregations so far have formally joined its ranks, with more either in discernment or on the way.
The PC(USA) reported that in 2012, the denomination dismissed 110 congregations to other denominations, compared to 21 in 2011. Another 86 congregations were dissolved ― typically, too small to continue operating ― and overall, the PC(USA) lost more than 102,000 members in 2012, according to the denomination’s 2012 comparative statistics report.
That 5 percent membership loss constituted the denomination’s net numerical loss since the 1970s and largest loss, in percentage terms, in almost 50 years of ongoing membership declines. The PC(USA) now reports 1.84 million members, less than half of its peak membership of 4.25 million members in 1965 and down from 1.95 million members in 2011.
Some of the potential departures have been low on drama, particularly in presbyteries with gracious separation policies. Others have involved lawsuits over who owns the property ― such as the one Highland Park Presbyterian Church, with nearly 4,900 members, filed Sept. 10 in Dallas County District Court against Grace Presbytery.
The court filed a temporary restraining order, which for 13 days would prevent the PC(USA) from interfering with the congregation or the property. A key focus of the dispute is whether Texas courts are likely to rule that a local congregation owns its own property, or whether the courts would consider that the property is held “in trust” for the denomination.
Grace Presbytery posted a statement on its website that “we are shocked and saddened” that Highland Park chose to file the lawsuit. “There has been no conversation at the presbytery level to seek control of their property or establish a commission to work with the church during their period of discernment as to whether or not to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA),” the statement continues.
Some other prominent congregations are currently in the discernment process ― meaning that departure may be imminent, although no formal decision has yet been made.
Among them are Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in San Francisco Presbytery, with more than 3,300 members, whose session voted June 11 to seek dismissal from the PC(USA) and to affiliate with ECO. Menlo Park’s pastor, John Ortberg, was a speaker at ECO’s national gathering in Orlando in January 2012.
Another considering leaving is St. Andrews Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif. In June, the 3,000-member congregation voted 923-120 to begin discussions with the Presbytery of Los Ranchos that could lead to St. Andrews’ departure to another denomination.
In June, Los Ranchos adopted a new “property policy and procedures,” which outlines how the presbytery will be in conversation with congregations considering leaving the PC(USA).
Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., with more than 5,300 members, voted 86 percent in a congregational straw poll in December 2012 in favor of moving to ECO. In May 2013, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area appointed an administrative committee to work through the departure process with the congregation.
First Presbyterian Church of Houston, with more than 3,500 members, voted in January 2013 to enter into the discernment process that the Presbytery of New Covenant has established for congregations contemplating transferring to other denominations.
Other congregations, such as First Presbyterian Church, Bellevue, Wash., and First Presbyterian Church, Fort Collins, Colo., First Presbyterian, Hollywood, Calif. have opted to stay ― with some of them joining the Fellowship of Presbyterians as a means of finding common ground with other evangelical and mission-focused PC(USA) Presbyterians.
“What is the problem we are trying to solve?” Fellowship president Jim Singleton asked in a September e-mail news update. “How can The Fellowship help stagnant congregations flourish?”