The Fellowship of Presbyterians is parting ways structurally with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians and is joining with Presbyterians for Renewal to work with “gospel-centered” congregations and individuals in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
In a joint statement released May 30, the Fellowship and Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR) announced that they are launching a “new movement” called the Fellowship Community, hoping to “nurture and connect gospel-centered PC(USA) congregations and expand relationships with our counterparts in other mainline traditions.”
The idea is to create a spiritual and theological home for evangelical pastors, leaders and congregations remaining in the PC(USA) ― “an environment of encouragement and joy that promotes gospel-centered discipleship and mission,” one of the documents states.
The Fellowship and Presbyterians for Renewal plan to work together at the 221st General Assembly, which starts in Detroit on June 14, and to fully merge their organizations by Jan. 1, 2015.
The statement also says that “the new Fellowship Community will be ending our corporate connection with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. We will, however, continue to nurture relationships through common values, the Essential Tenets ― a way of articulating our confessional faith created by theologians in the PC(USA) and ECO, Mission Affinity Groups, and other relational opportunities.”
The Fellowship and ECO still will co-sponsor a joint “From Consumerism to Community” national gathering Aug. 18-20 in Dallas, where “an ecumenical conversation group will be commissioned to explore the ways our new community can intersect with our counterparts in other denominations,” according to the statement.
In an accompanying document, leaders of the Fellowship Community describe themselves as “apprentices of Jesus” who are “beginning in the PC(USA) and reaching out in every direction, irrespective of denominations and labels, to welcome, challenge, befriend and embrace anyone who seeks to grow in joyful obedience to our Redeemer and in service to the world he is redeeming.”
That document also states that “the Fellowship Community is not a club, or an agency, or another association to join ― it is not designed to rescue institutions or advocate ideologies. The goal of the Fellowship Community is to create and sustain a movement within the Church that will replicate itself in a thousand different locations and give contemporary disciples the community we so desperately need as we love and serve Jesus Christ and embrace the mission to which God has called us.”
There’s also acknowledgment of the pain some Presbyterians have felt as evangelical churches have left the PC(USA) for ECO and other denominations.
“Departure from the PC(USA) will not be getting easier,” the document states. “Even the process of discernment may cause more harm than good in many congregations. The Fellowship Community is not a waiting room for departure. It is a community for those God has called to prosper where they are (Jeremiah 29).”
The Fellowship of Presbyterians and ECO both took root after a group of Presbyterian pastors published a White Paper in February 2011 declaring the PC(USA) to be “deathly ill” and inviting Presbyterians to seek a new approach.
In January 2012, the Fellowship convened a Covenanting Conference, and in April 2012 ECO began accepting member congregations. More than 100 churches, including some of the denomination’s largest, have left the PC(USA) for ECO over the last two years.
From the beginning, the organizers made it clear there was room under the Fellowship umbrella both for those planning to stay in the PC(USA) and for those who did plan to leave, or were trying to discern what path to take.
The ties between the Fellowship and PFR also have been close — with Paul Detterman serving for roughly three years now as executive director of both groups. Now, the Fellowship is executing a structural shift — ending its formal connection to ECO and aligning with the PFR to form the new Fellowship Community, while continuing to nurture ministry commitments and relationships among evangelicals across all of those boundaries.
Language in the documents hints at the sense of dislocation many evangelicals in the PC(USA) have felt in recent years, as the denomination has permitted gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be ordained and is on the cusp of taking another vote on whether to allow Presbyterian ministers to perform same-gender marriages.
The documents refer to the importance of “authentic community” ― a multicultural community “where we can truly belong” and where there’s humility, mutual accountability and a recognition of radical change in the world and the institutional church.
“Our current denominational structures are becoming a thing of the past — and so are ministries designed to work with them,” one of the documents states. “Yet the mission field of the former mainline church — including liturgy and holy mystery — is where many are turning in their search for answers to significant questions of life and faith. The gospel has those answers. We are committed to sharing gospel truth in love.”
Among the elements of the new Fellowship Community:
- Pastors would participate in a “defined and structured ‘order’ with clear expectations and accountability for a rule of life, and participation in a Pastor Covenant Group which nurtures that order.”
- Sessions would participate in a Mission Affinity Group with the same expectations.
- Congregations would provide “substantial support through both prayer and financial resources.”
- All who participate would be expected to understand the Fellowship’s essential tenets “as a reliable guide to identifying and explaining the core teachings of our confessional heritage.”
- The Fellowship would offer gathering and retreats to support alternative approaches to ministry.
The Fellowship also would involve “reaching out” as an ecumenical expression.
“Imagine an organization totally unencumbered by the day-to-day details of denominations; either creating them, “renewing” them, or providing hospice care for them — connecting the great minds and hearts of pastors, theologians, spiritual directors, and missional leaders across traditions, building on their vision and dreams, addressing their needs, and helping bring their ideas to fruition,” the document states.
It describes a “disciple-making network whose roots are in the former mainline world.”