The south-central California congregation was dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) during a May 18 meeting of the San Joaquin Presbytery to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
Northminster’s dismissal to ECO was the culmination of more than two years of discernment and prayer centered on the decision needed to address issues within the PCUSA. Ultimately, the congregation of 140 members – located in Bakersfield and formed in 1949 – chose a fresh start in the up-and-coming denomination.
“We have been watching the evolution of the PCUSA for many years on different issues, and we were tired of seeing the denomination moving away from the fundamental values we hold dear,” said Randy Metz, a member of the NPC session. “The PCUSA has been following a greater political agenda and placing less focus on mission and ministry.”
That focus on political and social issues by the PCUSA led the Northminster session to make the recommendation to leave and affiliate with a denomination more in line with the congregation’s theological beliefs.
The amendment passed to change ordination standards (10A in May 2011) was pretty much the tipping point for the NPC session, which formed a task force to see what impact the change would have on the church.
“The PCUSA was getting away from its focus on getting the Gospel out into the world,” Metz said, citing the national denomination’s stances on the inerrancy of the Bible, abortion and support for Israel as a few other factors that played into the decision to leave.
Some of those decisions made at the national level led to the gradual loss of members at Northminster.
Six options were discussed for the congregation initially. They included:
- Remaining in the PCUSA;
- Affiliation with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC);
- Choosing another Presbyterian denominational home;
- Organizing into a new form of Presbyterianism;
- Becoming a non-denominational church with affiliation;
- Becoming a non-denominational church without affiliation.
“We really got serious about looking at the future of Northminster two years ago,” Metz said, noting that ECO was not in existence when the task force started exploring options for the church.
But the formation of the new denomination in January 2012 provided some new and exciting ideas that seemed to be in line with Northminster’s beliefs. After NPC leaders attended several of the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP)/ECO gatherings at the end of 2011 and in early 2012, the fledgling denomination was targeted as the congregation’s denominational destination.
“When ECO came along it seemed like the right choice,” Metz observed. “It was a denomination that was up front with its essentials of the faith, and it was outreach-oriented, missional in its approach to ministry.”
Metz also indicated that Northminster’s leadership liked the governance of the new denomination, the accountability and stability put in place rather than having changes made year after year, as seems to be the case in the PCUSA.
“It’s new, and we can be part of the molding and growth of a new thing in California. We look forward to that,” he said.
In August 2012, a poll of members and non-members in the church was taken, and the results showed that 83 percent of those active voting members (more than 55 percent participated) who cast ballots were in favor of leaving the PCUSA for ECO. At the same time 100 percent of the non-members who voted were in favor of leaving to join ECO.
NPC’s session voted unanimously on Sept. 13, 2012, to seek dismissal. The congregation was informed of the decision three days later, and a formal letter seeking gracious dismissal was sent to San Joaquin Presbytery on Sept. 18.
“You always need to have a reason to leave something, and when we put together everything that happened, it all showed us that God’s path for us was leading us in a different direction (than that of the PCUSA),” Metz said.
During the dismissal process, Pastor Bill Ekhardt retired in April 2013 after 30 years of service to the church. But as the congregation makes the transition to a new denomination, it will do so under the pastoral care of the Rev. Glen Thorp, serving on an interim basis.
“I think there is an exciting new option God has in store for this church in ECO,” said Thorp, who still is a PCUSA minister and affiliate member of ECO who has been given permission by the presbytery to labor outside ecclesiastical bounds. “I want to help make the transition from the PCUSA to ECO.”
Thorp said it has been painful to see the PCUSA stray away from Biblical principles, but the resolve he has seen in the NPC congregation to follow God’s will has been impressive.
“There has been incredible detail and effort in discerning the will of God for the life of this congregation,” Thorp said. “This church is moving into a new denomination that is focused on growth, ‘baptizing more than they bury,’ and that is an exciting opportunity to help the congregation find ways to reach out with the good news of Jesus Christ.
“We’re not leaving the PCUSA. The PCUSA has left us.”
Northminster exits the PCUSA and San Joaquin Presbytery with all its property. The settlement reached with the presbytery allowed the congregation to pay approximately $10,500 in exchange for the property.
NPC will make two years of per-capita payments and continue to support ministries of the presbytery, such as Calvin Crest Camp, an outreach located near Yosemite that the church has supported for a number of years.
Metz indicated the congregation planned to support several of the presbytery’s ministries anyway, simply because it had been involved with many of them for a number of years.
Parting with the presbytery was somewhat bittersweet for Northminster, though very much a necessity to sever ties with the PCUSA.
“We had to decide if we wanted to stay and fight or go elsewhere,” Metz said. “We have a wonderful presbytery here, and they have been more than wonderful in all of this. It was very sad because of that relationship, and they tried to talk us into staying. Their beliefs are in line with ours, and it felt a little like we were deserting our comrades. Deciding to leave and sever ties with the presbytery was the tough part, but once we got over that, it was a very amicable process.”
The visioning process of Northminster led the congregation away from the PCUSA into what Metz called a wilderness, much like the Israelites who followed Moses out of Egypt.
“I feel like we are at the edge of a wilderness we’re entering to see what God has in store for us,” he said. “We will be looking to find our way in a new denomination, but we see real opportunities for growth on the horizon. Now we will prayerfully determine God’s path for this church.”