The process took two years to complete, but First Presbyterian Church Gloucester, Va., is now a member of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians after being dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in April.
The Presbytery of Eastern Virginia dismissed the congregation by a vote of 77-8 at its April 25 meeting, but at a cost. Not only was the church required to change its name – it is now known as Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church – it was also required to pay the presbytery $400,000.
The first $200,000 installment has been paid and two more $100,000 payments are required by Dec. 31, 2017, and June 30, 2018.
Weathering the storm
“There is a high level of excitement at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church,” said the Rev. Dr. Douglas (Doug) Nagel, pastor of the church. “We weathered the storm through much prayer and support.”
Nagel said that four years earlier, the church had started a monthly Celtic Prayer Gathering. “Participation at that monthly service really picked up in August of 2014 when we were faced with making a decision as to what to do in reference to the actions of the General Assembly. It continued with increasing participation as we moved forward through the process.”
It was during the 2014 General Assembly that commissioners voted to change the definition of marriage and allow same-sex marriages to be conducted by PCUSA pastors and in PCUSA churches. Presbyteries ratified that decision in the spring of 2015.
Prayer also saturated other areas of church life. Nagel said the church’s session began every meeting praying that “God’s will might be done and that God might be glorified in whatever outcome we experienced. In addition, we asked for and received the prayers of the ECO staff, the prayers of our fellow churches in our ECO presbytery, and from others throughout the country.”
Discernment with presbytery
In August 2015, the church asked the presbytery to “initiate a period of discernment to help the session of FPC consider whether or not dismissal to another Reformed and Presbyterian denomination is the best solution for the continued future spiritual development of our congregation.
In its Aug. 25th letter (see page 69) to the presbytery, the session said it felt that “the direction of the PCUSA:
- “Lacks broad and consistent theological conviction across the denomination
- “Provides inadequate defense of sound Biblical doctrine
- “Desires to alter the biblical message of the PCUSA to align with culture
- “In a number of instances has subordinated the guidance of Scriptures and the Book of Confessions to the Book of Order.”
- “The actions of the most recent General Assembly have already negatively affected our mission and our budget. PCUSA changes have become a distraction to the pursuit of our community mission. We wish to remain in fellowship with the worldwide Christian church from which the PCUSA is diverging. We have never stopped identifying strongly has a Reformed and Presbyterian congregation.”
On Sept. 11, 2016, the congregation voted by 88 percent to leave the PCUSA and join ECO. At its Oct. 25, 2016 meeting, the presbytery voted by 74 percent to dismiss the church “pending settlement of property issues.”
As representatives from the church and presbytery worked to negotiate a settlement, Nagel said the congregation “continued to pray. Many in our congregation believe the turning point was when we ‘prayer-walked’ our property and claimed it for the glory of God and our continued presence and ministry as a Presbyterian congregation in this location.”
Looking toward a future in ECO, Nagel said:
“Our plans and hopes are a continuation of our direction prior to 2014. We participated in the Healthy, Growing Congregations Initiative of our presbytery and had made commitments to becoming an outwardly-focused, missional congregation that would seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We are continuing in the direction. Preaching, teaching, and Sunday School classes for adults are all more intentionally directed toward building reliance upon the Holy Spirit, spiritual disciplines, and theological foundations. I have just finished a two-year sermon series on the Westminster Shorted Catechism. I am currently engaged in a preaching series called “Design for Discipleship.”
“Session is currently reading and discussing Growing the Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit (Brad Long, Paul Stokes, Cindy Strickler) and beginning in January of 2018, we will begin participating in “Becoming a Flourishing Church.” We will “re-launch” our church as Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in the fall with a celebration service and installation service for pastor and officers.”