From its inception ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians has advocated an ethic and practice of focusing on the positive possible future and not the negative experiential past. However, building bridges over troubled waters is treacherous and provides no guarantee that all will arrive safely on the other side.
The 2012 dismissal of the Grace Community Church was held up because disciplinary charges were filed in Tropical Florida Presbytery against the pastor. Pastors cannot be transferred out of the PCUSA to other denominations as long as such charges are pending. The presbytery’s investigative process took more than a year to complete and ultimately resulted in a Permanent Judicial Commission trial in June 2013. However, as has been reported, the pastor renounced the jurisdiction of the PCUSA when attempts to have the charges thrown out failed.
With the pastor no longer under the jurisdiction of the PCUSA, the barrier to the church’s dismissal was removed. Tropical Florida Presbytery dismissed Grace Community Church to ECO.
But what about the pastor? If he made application to ECO for membership the new denomination’s standards of leadership and ordination practices would be publicly tested.
Application was made and membership in ECO declined..
According to the August 30, 2013 report, the process followed by ECO included the formation of a special task force that reviewed a wide range of materials and conducted several interviews. The task force did not consider the “merits of the case” against the applicant but did consider “the nature of the case that was pending at the time of renunciation” as “critical.” They also considered the particular issues surrounding renunciation of jurisdiction from the PCUSA in this case.
Documents indicated that the pastor renounced because:
- “He determined that he would not be able to obtain a fair trial, so a guilty verdict was inevitable,
- “The process of going through a trial by the PJC would, by the publicity generated, be greatly damaging to his family and to his congregation, particularly in light of his belief that the outcome of the trial was predetermined to be a guilty verdict. Any appeal from a guilty verdict would have cost time, money, and further damage to his reputation and that of his family and congregation, and he wanted to avoid this,
- “The dismissal of GCC to ECO was improperly tied to the disposition of his PJC case by the PTF, and renouncing jurisdiction appeared to be an expedient way he could sever this.”
The report from the ECO task force answers:
“We reviewed his claims but find under the circumstances that they are not persuasive.”
- “While he claims that he could not obtain a fair trial, he does not claim, nor can he establish, that he would have not received a just verdict through the PCUSA’s overall judicial process. Indeed, his lawyer was convinced that they would win on appeal.
- “While his claim that a guilty verdict from the PTF’s PJC would have cost time, money, and damage to his reputation, this, sadly, may be one of the costs of responding to God’s call to the ministry. Every minister takes a risk to his/her personal reputation in being in a position of leadership and public trust. In becoming an ordained minister in the PCUSA, one inherently agrees to abide by the denomination’s rules, including its judicial process. Under that process, when a minister finds himself falsely accused of this type of offense, he must be willing to let the process unfold—as long and as messy as it may be—to be exonerated.
- “While it appears that the dismissal of GCC to ECO was improperly tied to the disposition of the case, our Task Force does not see why steps were not taken to decouple the two issues. We are not sure of all the possibilities, but we considered some. For example, the GCC Session could have taken PTF to court to seek to enforce its negotiated settlement. Another possibility would have been for (the pastor) to have resigned his position as senior pastor at GCC, thereby freeing the congregation while he remained behind to clear his name and reputation.”
So, the church is in ECO but the pastor is not. Nor does the pastor have standing in the PCUSA, having renounced jurisdiction.
Building bridges to new futures over troubled waters is no easy task and provides no guarantee that all will make it safely to other side.