Community Presbyterian Church of Clewiston is now part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) despite a delay in the dismissal process that came about as a result of changes in the Presbytery of Tropical Florida’s gracious separation agreement.
CPC-Clewiston – located in northeast Hendry County, Florida east of Fort Myers – was dismissed from Presbytery of Tropical Florida (PTF) during the Sept. 24 meeting and formally was received as a member of the EPC on Oct. 12, ending a 21-month journey to a new denominational home.
The Rev. John Slager noted the delay in the process that came as a result of the presbytery’s decision to make changes in the dismissal policy.
“It was an involved journey,” said Slager, who has been designated pastor of the 45-member Clewiston congregation since 2010. “There were delays. Our elders had to push the process along at times, set dates (for meetings) and then inform the presbytery. We just had a hard time meeting with the PRT (Presbytery Response Team) to start things.”
The church, founded in 1927, decided in January 2012 to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA), basing its decision to do so on a perceived liberal interpretation of Scripture by the PCUSA that paved the way for the passage of Amendment 10A, which changed ordination standards. A lack of evangelistic focus within the national denomination also was an issue that factored into the decision.
“When I first arrived, I heard a lot of talk about the liberalism within the (Presbyterian) Church,” Slager said. “I think the kicker was when Amendment 10A took chastity and fidelity out of the ordination requirements and allowed homosexuals to assume positions of leadership in the church. We did not feel we could abide by that ruling of the church.”
Slager continued, “The session was not happy, but we’re grateful to this presbytery for forming a policy to grant dismissal. If we had not had a process to follow, we may have been stuck.”
A delay in the process
Following a May 2012 congregational meeting, Slager said the congregation was informed that it would be dismissed during the June 2012 presbytery meeting, but the dismissal process was halted before that meeting took place as PTF sought to make changes to its gracious separation agreement.
The decision to amend the agreement came on the heels of nine churches being dismissed from the presbytery in May 2012, many of them leaving with minimal payments to the presbytery. Noting that a pledge for mission was not specific in the original separation agreement, PTF opted to negotiate a tithe to be given by departing congregations.
The change to the agreement requires that a monetary obligation be made to the presbytery, ordinarily 10 percent, with the presbytery considering each congregation and its circumstances when making a settlement recommendation.
“Our initial gracious separation policy was unbalanced and made assumptions that the process would be fair for both the presbytery and the departing church,” PTF Administrator Amalie Ash wrote in an email to The Layman. “The policy needed to be more specific and less assuming. The policy needed to be aligned with the Book of Order and then recent judicial decisions (such as the ruling in the case of Wilber Tom, David Hawbecker and Thomas Conrad vs. the Presbytery of San Francisco that took property value into consideration).”
The new policy was not finished until December 2012, but CPC-Clewiston moved forward in determining which denomination it would align with for the future. Meetings with representatives of the EPC and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians took place, with the session recommending affiliation with the EPC, basing that decision on the denomination’s stability, history, longevity and a shared theological alignment.
Agreeing to terms
Once the new policy was in place, the process continued with some other snags along the way but finally led to a meeting with the PRT on Aug. 11, 2013. Two weeks later, the congregation voted 27-1 to leave the PCUSA for the EPC by accepting financial terms negotiated between the parties.
Slager said the tithe on the church property to benefit the mission of the presbytery came to $28,000 annually for three years. The first payment was made on the date of departure, with subsequent payments due by Nov. 30 each year to reach the full amount of $84,000.
There also is a reversionary clause that kicks in after five years that gives the property back to the presbytery if CPC-Clewiston dissolves or fails to remain under the ecclesiastical authority of the EPC.
“We knew it was going to cost something for us to be dismissed with our property,” Slager said. “As far as this session is concerned, they felt the presbytery acted graciously. Some of those churches previously dismissed did not have to pay that much to leave, but others that follow will have to pay.”
Lengthy but amicable
Observing that the process took nearly two years to complete, Slager acknowledged the amicable way the dismissal work took place, even if there were some hiccups along the way that slowed things a bit.
“When we were recognized and dismissed by a unanimous vote, we were applauded for our participation in the process,” he said. “It was gracious, very amicable. We saw those first nine churches – with more resources – leave with much less cost, but this session was committed to leading us where God called us to be.”
Ash agreed that the process worked out well and noted that the presbytery and church remain in communication.
“The process was positive. We respect the position of the congregation and their thorough and careful discernment. The EPC is a better fit for them at this time,” she wrote. “We are still in communication. We continue to pray for one another. We have let them know they are always welcome to join us for events, and they have invited us to come and join them for worship. We are friends.”
Slager said attendance has been on the rise since the dismissal, and some families that left several years ago because of the PCUSA’s liberal leanings have started coming back to the church.
“This is an opportunity to really do a lot of things differently,” Slager said. “We have the momentum of change on our side, and we need to build on that. The church now feels it can present itself and its beliefs with more confidence and pride. There no arguments over what we believe. I think the community is going to see a church that has taken a stand for conservative, Biblical values and be drawn to that.”