Westminster Presbyterian Church in Burlington, N.C., was dismissed from the national denomination during a May 4 meeting of Salem Presbytery to align itself with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
Westminster follows Mebane Presbyterian Church, another Alamance County congregation, into the EPC. Mebane was dismissed from Salem Presbytery into the EPC during a February meeting.
The 85-member congregation, under the direction of the Rev. Powell Sykes, is in the midst of its centennial celebration this year after getting its start in 1913.
Sykes said the congregation started the process of seeking dismissal in February 2012 with a session recommendation to leave the PCUSA, noting that leadership really began to discern and discuss such a move not long after the passage of Amendment 10A in May 2011. Amendment 10A deleted the explicit “fidelity/chastity” requirement from the constitutional ordination standard, and now allows the PCUSA to ordain gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as deacons, elders and pastors. It removed the requirement for ministers to live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”
“We already were working our way toward (dismissal), trying to understand what was going on in the denomination,” Sykes said. “We were trying to see if we, as a congregation, could survive in the denomination post-10A.”
Sykes said theology, or a perceived lack thereof, led to session’s recommendation to depart the PCUSA.
“It seemed that sound Biblically-based theology, the things we think are essential, was optional in the PCUSA,” he said. “There was none that became clear, and our leadership felt we needed to make a change.”
Sykes said Westminster’s beliefs are that the Bible is the infallible Word of God in all matters of faith and practice as well as what followers should believe and do in their lives. He said it points to Jesus Christ as God incarnate who died for our sins, rose from the grave and will be returning again.
“Those are our fundamentals,” he said. “In the PCUSA, that’s one option.”
The congregational vote on the matter took place in December 2012, and the membership voted 51-10 in favor of departing the PCUSA for alignment with the EPC.
Sykes indicated the process was one that had its share of pain and heartache, though negotiations throughout were handled amicably with Salem Presbytery.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Sykes said. “It was agonizing at times. The problems we had were not so much with the presbytery but some of the relationships within our congregation that were strained. We lost some members because of this. There were disagreements, but we always tried to remain cordial.”
Westminster followed the gracious separation policy that already was put in place by Salem Presbytery, and that actually worked to the congregation’s benefit.
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruling that required a presbytery to “fulfill its fiduciary duty under the trust clause” when it considers dismissing a congregation from the Presbyterian Church (USA) into another Reformed body was not rendered until October 2012, well after Westminster notified Salem Presbytery of its intent to seek departure.
That duty “requires that the presbytery exercise due diligence regarding the value of the property of the congregation seeking dismissal,” making note that payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for the separate evaluation of the value of the property held in trust.
Because Salem had not been considering property value in such a way, and the ruling was handed down while Westminster already was in the process of seeking dismissal, the presbytery allowed the dismissal without considering the property value.
“They let us go through the process without any grief,” Sykes said. “It was a great relief. We’re glad we decided to go out when we did. They were much more gracious than they had to be.”
Salem Presbytery documents show that Westminster’s congregation made a $5,000 contribution to the presbytery upon dismissal.
Sykes said the decision to affiliate with EPC came about as a result of agreement with the seven essentials of the denomination.
“They have seven essentials that are completely in harmony with what we believe,” he said of the EPC. “They follow historic Presbyterian essentials that focus on Scripture and the personal work of Jesus, and place an importance on the Great Commission.”
He added that there are a number of EPC churches in the surrounding area that Westminster can forge relationships with, something that would prove to be difficult with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which was organized in January 2012 and still is growing its membership.
“There are many EPC churches in this part of the country,” Sykes said. “We have friends and allies with the Mid-Atlantic Presbytery of the EPC. ECO was just starting when we began this process, and it would take some time to build up a church base to provide the support that would meet the needs of our congregation.”
While a change of denomination allows Westminster’s congregation to escape the vices of the PCUSA, Sykes pointed out it is not a cure-all. That comes in the form of “being in the world” to do God’s work rather than “being of the world.”
“Changing denominations does not fix all the problems a church has,” Sykes said. “It’s foolish for us as Presbyterians to think that changing denominations will fix everything. We need to be committed to the spreading of the Gospel, sharing our faith and winning souls to Jesus. That’s what we should all be about. We want to get on with the business of the kingdom now.”