Attorneys for Covenant Presbyterian Church (CPC) in Ligonier, Pa., and Redstone Presbytery negotiated an agreement in January that led to a March recommendation of the congregation’s dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
That dismissal took place during the May 20 presbytery meeting, ending a lengthy process that saw both parties seek summary judgment from Judge Gary Caruso of the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas.
Rather than ruling on those requests and going through a trial that possibly could lead to future appeals, Caruso brought the sides together for five hours of negotiations on Jan. 11, and they hammered out an agreement to avoid further litigation.
The agreement entailed a resubmitted request for dismissal by Covenant and acceptance of a presbytery-appointed Administrative Commission (AC) as the ruling body of the church prior to dismissal. CPC also agreed to make a financial contribution of $35,000 to support Camp Pine Springs.
Covenant is a congregation of approximately 500 members that was founded in 1817 in western Pennsylvania about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. It is the fourth church to be dismissed from Redstone Presbytery since 2008 along with St. Paul’s, Fort Palmer and Ardara United.
Officials with Redstone Presbytery did not provide answers to questions sent by email from The Layman.
No end in sight
Covenant expressed its intent to leave the denomination in June 2009 and started the dismissal process. Pastor Bob Cummings said it became clear that Redstone was not going to grant an exit from the PCUSA so the church opted to disaffiliate rather than continue through the dismissal process, a move that led to the presbytery’s action of filing suit against the church in December 2011, contending that the Ligonier congregation did not comply with requirements of its dismissal policy to leave the denomination.
Cummings said CPC worked with the AC into 2010 before negotiations broke down.
“It became clear in the negotiating process that there was no real end game in sight,” he said. “Covenant decided there should be an end game and informed Redstone we would be walking away from the PCUSA.”
He added that the Covenant’s leadership never was given a reason for not being released, though he noted the congregation was the first seek dismissal under the presbytery’s revised policy at the time.
Cummings was complimentary of the direction Caruso took the proceedings, steering the sides toward negotiations as a mediator rather than ruling one way or the other as a judge.
“The judge thought it would be a counterproductive process to render a ruling and brought the sides together to work out an agreement in his presence, though it took hours and a lot of hard work,” said Cummings, who has been at Covenant for 18 years. “We’re grateful for that.”
During the process there was a constant threat that Covenant may lose its property, and court documents filed by Redstone Presbytery even asked for a judge to issue an injunction to compel the church to turn over keys to its building and financial and membership records. It also asked that the church not be allowed to transfer assets to the EPC pending the outcome of the suit.
Though CPC never faced any of those issues, its leadership was prepared to take the necessary steps to address them if there had been such a need.
“We would have taken appropriate legal action if that had occurred,” Cummings said. “We understood that our filings of injunctions would not have allowed that to happen. We received excellent legal counsel through this process. We’re very appreciative of that.”
United we stand
Cummings indicated that the general tone and direction of the PCUSA were the major reasons for CPC’s decision to leave the denomination. He noted that events taking place within the presbytery and at General Assembly gatherings made it more and more obvious that the PCUSA was straying from Biblical authority, and that did not sit well with Covenant’s body.
“It came to the point for us that the PCUSA had abandoned Biblical authority, and that really was the driving factor that led to our decision to leave,” he said.
Even with a drawn-out process, a civil suit filed against the church and the threat of losing its property, the CPC congregation remained unified, even if it meant playing things a little more closely to the vest in terms of expenditures and decision-making.
“This congregation was terrific, and the leadership was phenomenal,” Cummings said. “We knew we had available funds but we may have to use those for (the lawsuit), so we cautiously weighed our decisions. Even though there was some tension at times about how we should address some of the issues, we remained united.”
God’s faithfulness adds strength
Ultimately it was God’s direction that led CPC down the path to leave the denomination for a home in the EPC.
“We were in constant prayer for the clarity of God’s leadership,” Cummings said. “We felt clearly led by the Spirit to do the things we did to get to this point. Our leadership was very engaged and did a great job informing our people and getting their views. It was a great example of God’s faithfulness. We kept seeing that with every decision that was made.
“It’s emotionally exhausting to go through something like this but also an opportunity to see clearly God’s faithfulness in the midst of such turmoil.”
Now that the denominational wrangling has ceased, Covenant’s focus is on exploring and becoming more engaged in new avenues of ministry and mission work – locally and internationally.
Cummings said he already has seen signs of growth in the church, even though it still is new to the EPC. He cited more significantly defined leadership, better stewardship of financial resources and a clearer witness of beliefs to make members more effective in sharing the Gospel as a few examples.
“I think in the end, this will have made Covenant a stronger church,” Cummings said. “It will make us a better church in a lot of ways.”