Members of Darlington Presbyterian Church call it a disaffiliation. New Harmony Presbytery refers to it as a dismissal. Whatever terminology used, Darlington’s departure from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and subsequent acceptance into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has been fulfilling for the South Carolina congregation as its seeks to follow God’s will.
The DPC congregation voted in January 2012 to disaffiliate from the PCUSA, an act not recognized by the national denomination. However, Darlington and its leadership worked with New Harmony Presbytery’s Administrative Commission (AC) to negotiate a settlement.
“We have not been part of the PCUSA, but we did want to work graciously with New Harmony Presbytery to resolve the dispute over property in our separation,” said the Rev. Kevin Cauley, who has pastored the 390-member, 186-year-old church located northwest of Florence for nearly six years. “The matter is settled, we’re moving forward and very happy with the EPC.
“It’s a chapter we’re glad is behind us, and we see much better things for Darlington Presbyterian Church as we move forward.”
Following the DPC session’s approval of the settlement terms on May 5, New Harmony Presbytery voted May 14 to approve the terms of dismissal for the congregation, which recognized its January 2012 disaffiliation vote and April 1, 2012, acceptance into the EPC as the start of its new denominational affiliation.
In the EPC, Darlington is part of a denomination that Cauley said has a “deep commitment to authority of Scripture and Lordship of Jesus Christ.” He has attended two General Assembly meetings since DPC aligned with the EPC and noted the clarity in beliefs of the denomination and its members.
“There is a clear call to go into the world and make disciples, seek the lost and go forth to different parts of the world that people may know Jesus and the salvation He brings,” Cauley explained. “That call is so clear.”
Cauley added that the essentials of faith are clearly stated by the EPC and there is a commitment to the Westminster Confession, which speak to the heritage of the Darlington church. Additionally, there is a strong focus on missions and church planting, areas of interest for the DPC membership.
“We are a church committed to missions, and it’s important to our members that we continue to give,” he said, adding that the EPC’s Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic meetings are about equipping, worshiping and missions along with the business of the denomination. “People are not ashamed to proclaim Jesus Christ and the Gospel. The nature of the church is being shaped positively through a call of commitment to be better disciples of Jesus Christ. I’m excited and think this will further the mission of our church. These are all things we rejoice about.”
The congregation did not inform New Harmony Presbytery of its disaffiliation. The DPC session informed church members in December 2011 of a congregational meeting and vote on the matter of disaffiliating from the PCUSA.
According to the AC report from New Harmony, presbytery officials learned of the vote and were granted a meeting with the Darlington session on Jan. 4, 2012, four days before the scheduled congregational vote.
The DPC session indicated that dissension over denominational actions taken through the years, primarily the passage of Amendment 10A regarding ordination standards in May 2011, led to the decision to disaffiliate. The AC report indicated elders were concerned that entering the dismissal process would be time-consuming and could lead to further cuts in giving by members that may hamper the church’s ministry.
“We determined that was the healthiest process for us,” Cauley said of the disaffiliation route taken by the church. “Our congregation had people who felt very strongly about actions of the PCUSA, and going through a long (dismissal) process would not have been healthy for us. If people were upset about policies and decisions being made, then giving would go down. If giving goes down, it hurts missions, and we are a mission-oriented church.
“Going through a long process would have made it difficult to sustain the life of the church, its ministry and mission.”
The issue of ordination standards was but one source of contention for Darlington’s membership, and it was a side effect of the PCUSA’s stance on the Lordship of Jesus Christ and authority of
“When you have the Bible in your hands, you’re holding the Word of God,” Cauley said. “Our congregation is deeply committed to an understanding that the Bible is the Word of God.”
The congregational meeting took place Jan. 8, 2012, and voting members approved disaffiliation by a 197-51 margin.
Shortly thereafter, DPC officials began having conversations with the EPC about alignment, which was finalized in April 2012.
While there was not a split within the church, there were a number of members who left following the vote for disaffiliation.
“We lost some members, people we loved and cared about after the vote, and there was a sense of grief for those we lost,” Cauley said. “But we definitely felt (voting results) were an affirmation of where the Lord was leading us. It was confirmation we were doing the right thing.”
There was some talk of litigation, but the Darlington congregation and the Administrative Commission assigned to the church both were against such action. The AC report even indicates that litigation “would be a last resort because of its expenses and lengthy diversion of presbytery resources.”
“We were afraid (litigation) may happen, but New Harmony Presbytery worked with us and we worked with them in a very gracious manner to bring this to a resolution. Neither of us felt (litigation) represented Christ before the world in the best way,” Cauley said. “The resolution we came to was done in a very Christ-honoring process. It was an answer to prayer to end in such a peaceful, gracious way.”
The presbytery made a proposal for the settlement in September 2012 that was countered by DPC. Negotiations continued until agreeable terms were reached and presented to the church session on April 29, 2013.
Under the terms reached, the church paid $35,825 within 45 days of the presbytery’s approval of the agreement and will make payments of $28,058.33 by Dec. 31, 2013, $28,058.33 by Dec. 21, 2014, and $28,058.34 by Dec. 31, 2015. The total payment is $120,000, and the church will retain its property and name.
If DPC leaves the EPC for a denomination not recognized as a Reformed body within five years, the presbytery will not be deemed to have waived the right to assert its property rights against the church property under the trust clause, nor will Darlington be precluded from defending title to the property. Additionally, DPC is required to turn over all original session minutes and membership rolls within a year.
Cauley said there were some disagreements throughout the process of reaching a settlement agreeable to both parties, but the two sides still worked in a respectful manner.
“We recognized we had disaffiliated and no longer felt we were part of the PCUSA, but we tried to work as graciously as possible with the presbytery,” Cauley said. “Representatives from the presbytery and our church came together. They were honest about their disagreements but sought to work graciously to bring this to a resolution. We just wanted to be where we can be the most faithful to do what God has called us to do.”
With all aspects of the disaffiliation behind them, Darlington’s members have shown a sense of relief and desire to get back the business at hand after relying on the Lord to see them through a difficult period in the church’s history.
“It’s never an easy thing for any church going through a process that’s difficult like this, but I do feel like we have moved past that,” Cauley said. “We are still very much Darlington Presbyterian Church, and this has been a positive move for us.
“We all are relying on God to lead us in the way we are supposed to go. We’re always growing into our identities as disciples, and this is a step in that direction. We are looking to get back to what we are supposed to be and what Jesus has called us to do. My prayer is that as we focus on that mission and move beyond any difficulties we may face.”