College Hill Presbyterian Church began a discernment process some two and a half years ago to determine which denominational affiliation would allow it to best fulfill God’s mission. After much prayer and conversation, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians emerged as the best denomination for the congregation of approximately 400 members.
The denominational switch came to fruition Oct. 1 when College Hill officially became a member of ECO, following dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the Sept. 10 meeting of Cincinnati Presbytery.
A gracious process
The Rev. Drew Smith, pastor of College Hill, noted that the presbytery overwhelmingly affirmed the dismissal of the congregation and pastor to ECO, the culmination of a process he deemed as very gracious in nature.
“We had good, honest, hard conversation done in a way that honored and respected each other,” Smith said of work done by the Discernment Team that recommended dismissal. “We discerned God’s leading for the presbytery and College Hill Presbyterian Church. In true Christian character and a holy indifference, we were seeking to lay aside our own personal preferences on institutional survival so we could pursue the discernment that was totally God’s will and what was best and healthiest for the church at large. Together we really pursued that. It was the attitude we sought to live by as a Discernment Team, session and congregation.”
Smith, who has served at CHPC since 2007, acknowledged the work of the Discernment Team, comprised of four College Hill members and four presbytery representatives.
“I can’t say enough about how the Discernment Team really sought what was healthiest for the church to do,” he said. “They gave their time and energy in true servant leadership as a witness to Christ, even in our disagreements.”
Through the years, a distance developed between the church and presbytery. The Discernment Team recognized that distance and noted that it would take a lot of time and resources for College Hill to come back to a relationship with the presbytery, which may deplete the focus on mission for the church, located in a northern neighborhood of Cincinnati.
College Hill’s denominational affiliation discernment kicked off in earnest in February 2012, and the CHPC session voted to recommend entering a discernment process with the presbytery in May 2012, a about a week after the presbytery approved its dismissal process.
A congregational vote of 191-14 in favor of entering the presbytery’s formal discernment process took place on June 17, 2012, setting the stage for the formation and subsequent meetings of the Discernment Team.
In March 2013, the Discernment Team released its recommendation to the CHPC session and congregation. Three months later, a congregational vote to be dismissed to ECO was taken, yielding a 274-25 margin in favor of joining the up-and-coming denomination.
CHPC was dismissed with its name and property after agreeing to pay a total of $39,951.75 in per capita on a declining scale for the next five years.
Reasons for leaving
Smith indicated several factors as reasons College Hill sought departure from the PCUSA.
“We recognized that we, as a particular church and the church at large, were not reaching the unchurched population very well,” he said. “The last 20 years we have been on a decline in our membership and attendance which parallels the denomination. We recognized we needed to make a significant change to address that. ECO emphasizes such mission work. The church is broken in some ways, and we needed to realign ourselves to fulfill the Great Commission.”
Theological issues also played a role in the decision to depart the PCUSA.
“We were at a different place than the national denomination,” Smith explained, citing the authority of Scripture and the nature of Christ as human and divine as references. “Having such a broad tent can become so broad that we lose focus. We spent a lot of time arguing about theological differences that took away our energy and mission. We felt it best to align with a denomination that was in agreement with our essential tenets.”
That led the church to ECO. Smith said the new and growing denomination’s theological integrity, its clear essential tenets, missional focus and emphasis on planting churches, and its covenantal accountability all were drawing cards.
“They all resonated with us well,” he said. “There’s a clear statement that we are to be about pursuing the Great Commission and the Great Commandment as a church, and right now, we’re not doing that very well. We need to be carrying out God’s mission, and we are failing. It’s going to take some focused attention on changing what we do to change our results.”
Smith said the numbers of baptisms and new converts have been in decline, but with the denominational change comes a more dedicated emphasis to reversing that trend.
“We have to change our ways of doing things and seek new avenues of exploring evangelism,” he added. “We’ve moved to a place that should help us change our methods but keep the message of good news, where people are ready and willing to support and push each other.”
Smith paid particular notice to the ECO motto of “baptizing more than we will bury by 2018.”
“I like that. It makes a nice mantra and a good bumper sticker, but it also recognizes the wholesale change of culture needed by the church,” Smith said, noting the need to be active evangelists. “People are not darkening the door of the church for the message, no matter how well we deliver it. We’ve got to take the message to them. We need to be among and speaking the language of those outside the upper room. It’s going to take time, but we need to be committed to taking the message to them.”
Smith expressed gratitude that College Hill’s dismissal experience was one that was not filled with bickering and backbiting or any arguments over money. Instead, he deemed it to be one that was handled with the best interest of the church and its service to God in mind as the congregation looks to the future.
“It doesn’t have to be acrimonious, characterized by name-calling and sour divisions,” Smith said of dismissal. “It can be a separation of grace, truth, respect and honor. God’s favor was on us, and for that we are grateful. We will continue to do ministry with Presbytery of Cincinnati in the name of Christ, and perhaps the Lord will bless us in ways that we can flourish and learn from each other.”
Smith said his congregation is focused on making disciples inside and outside the church now that it has landed the PCUSA plane smoothly and jumped on the next flight with ECO as it takes off.
“We need to be more intentional and accountable about making disciples,” Smith said. “There’s an excitement and energy about how we live that out through new church development, worshiping communities and living into covenant accountability.”