Sessions from a host of churches have submitted letters to the Presbytery of Los Ranchos (PLR) seeking the opportunity to engage in a discernment and exploration process to discuss their status in the PCUSA.
Los Ranchos Executive Presbyter Steve Yamaguchi confirmed that letters have been received from the sessions of nine churches. Some have indicated they want to leave the national denomination, and others have indicated a desire to “enter into serious discussion” through a time of discernment with the presbytery.
“Some have said they want to be dismissed, but each situation is different,” Yamaguchi said. “The letters have been coming in for the last few weeks. Each letter is different. Each (congregation) has been through a different process to determine whether the PCUSA is a place to remain in ministry or if it has gone so far astray that (the congregations) can no longer be affiliated with or governed by it.”
The Layman has learned that St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, Christ Presbyterian Church in Huntington Beach, St. Pauls Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, First Presbyterian Church in Westminster, Christ Presbyterian Church in Lakewood and Community Presbyterian Church in Long Beach are among the churches that have sent formal requests to Anaheim-based Presbytery of Los Ranchos.
Of those requesting to enter the process based on Los Ranchos’ new property policy and procedures adopted in June 2013, St. Andrew’s is the largest with more than 3,000 members, while Trinity has an enrollment of more than 1,500 members, and Christ-Huntington Beach has about 550 members. The others range from 50 to 250 in terms of membership.
Christ in Lakewood and Community in Long Beach are seeking discernment separately but have plans to merge into one congregation. Yamaguchi noted that the two churches already have started worshiping together and having joint programs.
The Rev. Dr. Rich Kannwischer, pastor of St. Andrew’s, sent a letter to the congregation with results of a straw poll vote taken June 3-9 to determine if the session should engage in further discussions with the presbytery. The vote was 923-120 in favor of having discussions with Los Ranchos.
“We want to update you on our denominational affiliation,” Kannwischer wrote. “As you know, your church session leaders have been praying and working on how we can be most effective in our mission. This has included countless hours of prayer and study, as well as the church-wide straw poll vote, where 88.5 percent of St. Andrew’s members supported our beginning discussions with the Presbytery, which could lead to our transfer to another denomination. At its last meeting, the session voted to send a letter to the Presbytery to begin discussions regarding the possibility that our congregation would affiliate with another denomination. This letter of request, which Presbytery received today, begins a structured and formal process with the presbytery. As you might imagine, this process will not be done in haste, and so it will take months to accomplish. Therefore, we will keep you informed of the progress.”
Likewise, Trinity’s voting membership was in favor of having its session engage the presbytery in a joint process that could lead to the transfer of the church (with property) to another Reformed Presbyterian denomination. A June 10 straw poll showed nearly 80 percent of the members in favor of such action (544-106 with 33 undecided). One-hundred forty-four of 182 voting non-members (79 percent) also were in favor of the move.
Prior to the straw vote, Trinity’s session sent a letter to the congregation that stated, “We believe the time has come for our congregation to make a change. It is a change to find a more congruent theological fit in our Presbyterian denominational affiliation, a more Biblically consistent commitment to calling us all to faithfulness in our belief and behavior, and a forward focus on freedom from politicized and polarized conflicts in order to focus on fulfilling God’s mission entrusted to us.”
The requests to engage the presbytery’s newly adopted policy comes on the heels of an open season of presbytery-wide discernment on issues confronting congregations involved in such periods of reflection.
“The presbytery encouraged all churches to go through the discernment process to determine whether the congregations can best fulfill their missions in the PCUSA or in another Reformed body,” said Gary Watkins, pastor of Christ-Huntington Beach, which had 94 percent of those who voted indicate they were inclined to seek a new denominational home. “We (the presbytery) did not want to have a process or situation that would prevent us from having open, honest discussion with each other.
“We’re not assuming an outcome of the process. We’re not going through it just to push an outcome. We are seeking the Lord’s guidance.”
Yamaguchi explained that the new presbytery policy evolved after there were numerous property disputes in southern California with Korean denominations that led to a number of confusing situations and costly legal fees to the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii.
“In light of that we decided to adopt a policy we thought would be good to have in anticipation of such issues since some of our congregations began exploring and considering their denominational affiliation, and what it would mean to leave the PCUSA,” he said. “We didn’t expect it to happen but thought we needed to have the policy in case it did.”
Yamaguchi added that most congregations expressed concerns about “unfriendly” language in the previous policy, hence the need to look at modifying it.
A primary component of the newly adopted policy, Yamaguchi points out, is that outside of the Tom v. San Francisco ruling that requires property value be considered in the dismissal process, there is no specific formula to follow in the process.
The policy stipulates, “Each request for dismissal will be approached on its individual merits. There will be no single formula for determining decisions and no agreement to dismiss will be considered a precedent for any other congregation seeking dismissal.”
“It’s not a formula for dismissal. It’s a calling to reason together thoroughly and carefully,” Yamaguchi said. “We will look at each (request) on a case by case basis. That’s the heart of the policy to me.
“Every situation has to be discerned on its own merit. Every situation is unique.”
Yamaguchi indicated that the letters received by the presbytery from sessions seeking to begin the process have pointed to the decisions of the PCUSA General Assembly as the focus of their discontent and rationale for even entertaining the idea of requesting dialogue with Los Ranchos representatives about the matter.
“People’s concerns are not surprising. They have been very clear about the issues at the national level,” he said. “(The letters) consistently say the concerns are not with the presbytery but with the national denomination. That’s been almost universal.”
Watkins said that is a pretty accurate assessment.
“Unfortunately, the presbytery cannot change any of that. We’ve been standing firm in the faith, but the issues are with the national church (PCUSA),” he said. “We have a long history of good relationships in the presbytery.”
Yamaguchi said the intent of the new policy is to engage in meaningful and direct dialogue with the leadership of congregations, striving to work in good faith and openly seek what is best for the mission of Christ and God’s Kingdom.
“The point of the policy is when a request comes to enter the discernment process together that we have serious conversations, listening to each other’s concerns and exploring what options there are to come to a decision,” he said. “In my opinion, the old policy allowed for everything the new one does, but didn’t spell things out. The new process is not as punitive, harsh or judgmental.
“Some places have already made up their minds, but others need to determine where they are. Each situation will be treated differently and have its own unique factors.”
Some of those factors will be financial arrangements related to property and continued mission giving to the presbytery.
“How we work through the process of discerning separation concerns is as important as the decisions we make,” Yamaguchi admitted. “I don’t see any reason for us not to get there in a way that is not a mutually respectful, mutually agreed upon process.
“There is a lot of good will among the presbytery and these churches. For the sake of the (overall) church preserving relationships and maintaining unity, this will be integral to the mission of the church in this region in the future.”
The executive presbyter even noted that some of the churches who are engaging in the process don’t want to sever all their relationships with the presbytery, just the national denomination. He, too, would like to see the churches remain partners in ministry with the presbytery.
“If we have to part denominations I hope and expect that we would be fully engaged as ecumenical partners in this region,” Yamaguchi said. “I don’t see any reason for us to be adversarial. I don’t think there’s any sense in that.”
Yamaguchi said it is unlikely that any action will be taken for the churches who have indicated their desire to enter the process with Los Ranchos at the Sept. 19 stated meeting of the presbytery.
“It’s going to take months to work through the process,” he said candidly. “There is a provision that the presbytery respond within 30 days (actually four weeks, according to the policy) of receipt of the letter, but I think there is an understanding it is going to take some time. I can appreciate that some people are eager (to engage in the process and move forward) because they have been struggling with this for some time. For the most part, though, people are patient. We’re working as fast as we can.”