Dismissed with its property to be an Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) congregation during a May 14 meeting of the New Harmony Presbytery in South Carolina, the body of believers now is focused on determining the kind of church it is called to be by the Lord.
“The challenge now is to discern from this point on what kind of church the Lord would have us be,” said the Rev. Ken Hicks, pastor at Bishopville for nearly 10 years. “How can we more effectively reach the lost? How can we more effectively minister to those in need? How can we more effectively be the salt and light in this world? That call is still before us no matter what denomination we’re part of.”
Bishopville, formed in 1838 and located west of Darlington and Florence, began to look into the idea of seeking dismissal last year. The session of the 128-member church was unanimous in its decision to enter the process and informed the presbytery of its intent to do so July 17, 2012.
“The church had for months been studying and considering if it was the right time and the right thing to do,” Hicks said. “It was not only a question of if we wanted to leave but if it was what we felt the Lord was leading us to do. It finally became clear.”
A straw poll taken after the session’s recommendation to leave the PCUSA yielded unanimous support of the decision. When the terms of gracious dismissal reached by the session and New Harmony’s Presbytery Response Team (PRT) were presented for approval, Bishopville’s congregation voted 90-0 to accept them and leave the national denomination for a home in the EPC.
Hicks said actions taken by the General Assembly in recent years led to the decision to leave the PCUSA.
“A frequently heard expression or phrase of the session was, ‘We are not leaving the PCUSA, the PCUSA has left us,’” Hicks said. “The theological view held by the Bishopville congregation is the theology we have held for decades. The direction of the PCUSA is changing from what it has been. The traditionally Reformed theology held by the (Presbyterian) church for years is changing.”
Changes to the Book of Order and statements by PCUSA leadership seemed to counter the beliefs of Bishopville’s membership, leaving the session to decide a change for the congregation was in order, a change supported by members.
“The session studied specific issues, and their findings impacted our decision,” Hicks added.
The session agreed to terms with the PRT during a March 14 meeting. Among the terms reached was payment of mission shared giving until dismissal of Bishopville as well as payment of its per capita for 2013. References on all signage to the PCUSA were to be removed, and session minutes were to be turned over to the presbytery.
Should Bishopville separate from the EPC’s Mid-Atlantic Presbytery within a five-year period of the date of dismissal, the property reverts to New Harmony Presbytery.
Hicks noted that the terms reached were not amendable by the presbytery or congregation.
“They were favorable conditions,” Hicks said, noting that the PRT took into consideration the church’s property value as required by a GA Permanent Judicial Commission ruling handed down last year. We felt the terms were acceptable and very fair, and we left with all our property.”
Hicks added that the process was indeed a gracious one, citing I Corinthians 13: 1-3 as a basis for such harmony in personal relationships.
“Our PRT, specifically, and presbytery, generally, were gracious throughout the process from beginning to end,” he said, observing that there were no nays cast when the presbytery voted on the dismissal. “It was a Christ-honoring process. I firmly believe that we as Christians in working with each other should always be Christ-honoring and must do what we do in love.
“The presbytery, at its meeting was truly gracious. They wished us well as we move forward, just as we wish New Harmony Presbytery well and pray God’s blessings on that ministry.”
In explaining why Bishopville opted to align with the EPC, Hicks explained that the church’s new denominational affiliate is one that uses Westminster as is its confessional standard along with the longer and shorter catechism.
“The Westminster Confession has been our theological standard for more than a decade; we’re more comfortable with that, and it was something attractive for our church,” Hicks said. “The essential tenets are defined. The contents of the essential tenets defined by the EPC were attractive to our session and our church. That is what we believe.”
Hicks said the Bishopville congregation is excited about mission opportunities that will be available as a member of the EPC and a chance to work with the likes of Ken Priddy, who serves as a resource to help believers plant churches, vitalize and revitalize existing churches.
“Jesus said, ‘You are My witnesses.’ Well, how do you do that?” Hicks asked. “Ken is someone who can help us more effectively spread the Gospel, to carry out the Great Commission. This is an opportunity for Bishopville to truly be the church it can be.
“The fields are white for harvest. I pray that churches and presbyteries have the vision to reach out and carry out the Great Commission. That’s what it’s all about.”