In recent years, as Christian denominations voted to allow openly gay and lesbian clergy, hundreds of congregations have broken away to affiliate with more theologically conservative bodies. It is a painful process, fraught often with acrimony, recriminations and lawsuits over property.
But a Presbyterian congregation in Sheboygan County and the Presbytery of Milwaukee are trying to forge a new way.
In what appears to be a first for the Presbyterian Church USA, the denomination’s 45 local congregations have been invited to take part in a prayerful and collaborative process aimed at negotiating a reconciliation or amicable divorce.
The First Presbyterian Church of Oostburg is the first congregation in southeastern Wisconsin to petition to leave the Presbyterian Church USA following a 2010 vote approving the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy in July 2011.
On Feb. 1, Milwaukee’s Zeidler Center for Public Discussion will mediate a church-wide conversation over that request in a process that will focus not just on money and property, but mission and what it means to be part of a faith community.
“We don’t have an end game; that’s the whole idea,” said the Rev. Craig Howard, executive presbyter of the 11-county Presbytery of Milwaukee.
Oostburg’s pastor, the Rev. Brian Jacobson, said he feels a sense of hopefulness about the process.
“It feels like a genuine attempt—in Christian language—to make room for the spirit,” Jacobson said. “It feels to me like this could be a way forward that would honor both sides.”
First Presbyterian is seeking to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a theologically conservative denomination that formed after the 2011 vote.
Since then, about 260 congregations have left the 2.8 million-member Presbyterian Church USA, said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who serves as the stated clerk of the church’s general assembly in Louisville. Similar schisms have erupted in the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Locally, the conflict appears to have been brewing for some time, causing disappointment and distrust on all sides.
First Presbyterian of Oostburg is a thriving congregation in a conservative pocket of a primarily progressive presbytery. With 260 members, First Presbyterian draws about 200 on Sunday, far higher than the 50% attendance for most Presbyterian churches.
“The thing I really like about this church is their fervor about evangelizing,” Howard said. “This church is really about witnessing for Jesus Christ. I can see it with Brian’s leadership doing great things in the community.”
But Jacobson’s members no longer feel part of the Presbyterian USA. The ordination vote, he said, was just one symptom of the broader issues it has with the denomination over questions of theology and the authority of scripture.
“We believe that the PCUSA has kind of left the moorings of the historical orthodox Christian faith,” Jacobson said. “I would characterize what happened in July 2011 as the straw that broke the camel’s back for us.”
In return for permission to leave, the Oostburg congregation offered a $100,000 “gift” to the presbytery that would be used for ministry in keeping with the conscience of the congregation. In return, it would keep the church property, valued at about $750,000.
A church committee formed to study the Oostburg request has raised concerns about releasing the congregation to a denomination it considers not yet stable.
In the end, the Presbytery doesn’t want Oostburg to leave, Howard said, suggesting the inclusion of dissonant voices helps the broader church in its discernment.
“The challenge is how do we honor them as a church of Jesus Christ and at the same time honor the commitment to the PCUSA, which means there’s a financial piece there,” Howard said.