The session of First Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas will vote for a second time on seeking dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Nov. 1.
If the motion – “that First Presbyterian Church of Houston shall request dismissal from the PCUSA and affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians” – is approved by a majority of the congregation, the session will ask the Presbytery of New Covenant to dismiss it at its Nov. 19th meeting.
The congregation’s first vote to leave the denomination in February of 2014 failed — by 31 votes — to meet the required super-majority approval needed for dismissal.
First-Houston remained in the PCUSA, but according to an Oct. 13 letter sent to church members, “in the minds of the significant majority of those voting, the vote left us in the worst possible position: nearly two-thirds of our church wanting to leave the PCUSA but being prevented from doing so by an inability to comply with a PCUSA-mandated process. That process, which caused so much divisiveness within our congregation three years ago, was later determined by the PCUSA to violate its own constitution and has since been abandoned.”
While current PCUSA policy states that the church session has the “exclusive authority” to request dismissal from the PCUSA, the session at First-Houston is seeking input from church membership.
According to the session’s letter, before the vote is held:
- A time for prayer and worship has been scheduled for tomorrow, Oct. 19, and Oct. 26;
- An online survey is being conducted asking for input on the dismissal issue and other issues. The survey will also be available at the church for those without Internet access on Oct. 23. Results of the survey will be available Oct. 27.
- A Q&A will be held Oct. 23 with representatives of ECO;
- And resources from the 2012-2014 discernment process have been made available on the church web site.
The letter also included a summary of the “reasons why we believe that the denominational affiliation issue should be addressed now.” They include:
- “The current direction of the PCUSA, particularly its theological drift and its focus on political activism and legislative and lobbying efforts at the expense of evangelism and mission work, is fundamentally out of sync with FPC’s Mission Statement and the objectives of Vision 2020.
- “The relationship of FPC’s session and current pastors (and presumably future pastors) with the PCUSA is often unproductive, unhealthy and highly politicized. The session devotes considerable time and attention to issues created by positions taken by the PCUSA and working to avoid criticism of FPC and its pastors by the PCUSA. For the last five years, denominational issues have often dominated session agendas.
- “The dysfunctional relationship of evangelical pastors with the denomination, and the potential of discipline by the PCUSA against those pastors who embrace views contrary to those of the PCUSA, create an atmosphere of anxiety and conflict that is counterproductive to the effective conduct of ministry. Moreover, under PCUSA polity, presbytery plays a significant role in the selection of ordained pastors by FPC, and there is considerable concern as to whether FPC will be able to call pastors in the future who embrace the orthodox view of theology that is affirmed by FPC’s Statement of Faith.
- “An ongoing affiliation with the PCUSA challenges FPC’s ability to live into the ministry and mission focus of Vision 2020, particularly in the area of church planting.
- “The continued overhang of an unresolved denominational issue is confusing to the congregation — particularly new members — and promotes an atmosphere of uncertainty within the membership regarding the direction of FPC.”
Property will not be an issue during the vote. First-Houston has clear title to its property after reaching a settlement agreement with New Covenant Presbytery in May, 2016. The church agreed to pay the presbytery $1 million as part of an agreement to end two years of civil litigation after the church filed a civil lawsuit in 2014 seeking to clear the title of its property from claims by the denomination that it holds a trust interest in FPC’s property.
The $1 million payment includes payments of $700,000 in semi-annual installments of $175,000. Also, the church will make a $300,000 mission payment — four quarterly payments of $15,000 for five years — to a mission partner chosen by FPC Houston in consultation with the presbytery.
According the PCUSA statistics, First-Houston has 3,132 members.