Stockton Presbyterian Church was granted dismissal to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) during a Feb. 23 meeting of the Presbytery of South Alabama. The church subsequently was admitted to the EPC Feb. 26, bringing its dismissal process to a close.
“There has been a lot of pain in this, but there also has been a lot of determination in that these people would not rest with the status quo,” said the Rev. Jerry Headrick, the stated supply pastor of Stockton, who will make the transition to the EPC with the congregation.
Under terms of dismissal, Stockton has to continue to be a viable congregation in the Reformed tradition and was required to pay off the remaining debt on a loan from the presbytery that was used to remodel a manse. That payment came to approximately $24,000.
“We wanted to pay that off so there would no future obligations,” said Sam Smith, Stockton’s clerk of session.
Headrick described the dismissal process as one that seemed to be cordial in its handling.
“I was amazed at how cordial the process was. I was sort of surprised by that,” he said. “There were some times of tension, but they were overshadowed by a Christ-like attitude. I think it was a very Christ-like process.”
Smith said there is a feeling of relief among church members now that the process of leaving the PCUSA is behind them.
“We’re relieved and determined to make things go in a positive direction,” he said. “We’ve been losing members because of our affiliation with the PCUSA, and we hope to get them back as we move forward.”
Headrick became involved with the dismissal process some time after the session and congregation decided it wanted to leave the PCUSA. Tabbing himself as an “outsider looking in,” Headrick marveled at the way Stockton’s membership remained firm in its decision to leave the national denomination even when some of their fellow members opted to leave.
“I’ve seen their struggles and watched them try to navigate this process,” Headrick said. “They’ve done that. Now, this congregation has to pull together and move ahead. They have really had their attention wrapped around this.”
The process for Stockton has been ongoing for some two years. The church of 75 members had a near unanimous vote to leave the PCUSA based on the Presbytery of South Alabama’s dismissal guidelines.
Founded in 1847, the church has been a pillar of the community in Baldwin County – 30 miles northeast of Mobile – throughout its history. Headrick said the small-town church is located in a conservative community that doesn’t even have a traffic light. That conservative stance is what led the congregation to seek dismissal from a denomination that has become more liberal in its theology.
“There was a creeping feeling that there was a part of the (PCUSA) that the church could not agree with philosophically or theologically,” Headrick explained. “Enough people felt that way that they began to start talking about it.”
The tipping point was the May 2011 passage of Amendment 10A, which 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.
“The 10A vote two years ago began the thought process to seek dismissal,” Smith said. “The direction of the General Assembly and thinking of the body was just not in sync with what we had been reared to believe, both morally and Biblically.”
The church looked at several prospective denominational affiliations before settling on the EPC.
“Geographically, there are some churches close enough that we could feel a kinship with those congregations,” Headrick said. “The members found nothing objectionable from a theological basis. I think it will be a good fit for them.”
And a new start awaits the church members as well.
“It’s not completely over,” Headrick said. “There will be adjustments that have to be made, but they won’t be that much different from what (Stockton’s members) have been doing. It will be a time of transition but one that is being welcomed.”