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.