A trio of Office of the General Assembly (OGA) leaders briefed the 300-strong Mid Council Leaders Gathering here Sunday (October 15) evening on the progress – or lack thereof – of conversations between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) over the sometimes chaotic process of departure of churches from the PC(USA) to ECO.

“We spent two days [September 27-28] having deep conversations about governance, ecclesiology and ecumenism,” said General Assembly Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II, of a meeting between PC(USA) and ECO leaders that was convened by the World Communion of Reformed Churches. “The conversations have given us some clarity, but we are not done.”

According to Laurie Griffith, OGA’s director for constitutional services, reported that in the last five years, 303 PC(USA) congregations have departed for ECO – though not all have been formally dismissed by their PC(USA) presbyteries. They represent 52 percent of all dismissals in that time period – most of the rest were dismissed to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church – but the 121,000 members of those 303 churches represent 73 percent of the total number of members dismissed.

“We have two very different understandings of ecclesiology,” said the Rev. Robina Winbush, associate stated clerk for ecumenical relations. “For the PC(USA), the locus of mission is the presbyteries, which are deeply invested in their congregations,” she explained. “ECO sees congregations as the locus of mission with the presbytery as a voluntary organization of support.”

One “agreement” struck at the September meeting is that if a PC(USA) congregation wants to leave, the ECO presbytery will talk with the corresponding PCUSA presbytery. This new presbytery-to-presbytery deliberation means, Winbush said, that discernment about leaving will not place the congregation in the middle of an adversarial relationship and, especially, in civil court against its presbytery.

“Departure will no longer be automatic,” Winbush said, “but will be a matter of discernment between presbyteries.”

The PC(USA) and ECO also agreed “to seek to tell the whole truth about each other” rather than the selective, self-serving “truth” Winbush said both sides have been guilty of in the past. And they agreed to, as much as possible, seek solutions outside the civil courts.

The WCRC, which admitted ECO to its membership in 2014 against the wishes of the PC(USA). It has agreed to attempt to mediate the current tensions. 

The PC(USA) leaders said they are cautiously optimistic, with a decided emphasis on caution.

“Committees on Ministry must do due diligence about receiving ministers who may have pastored churches that left the denomination,” Winbush said.

Nelson agreed. “We have to tighten up our own system … lest presbyteries and congregations are turned upside down. I know what this agreement is, but I also know what our history is, so we must have serious examination of prospective calls to pastors,” he said. “There is no certainty that we won’t have to deal with these [dismissal-related] issues again.”