On Nov. 1, the session of First Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas voted 21-2 to request dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
The session has said that it would request that the Presbytery of New Covenant include the dismissal request on the agenda of its Nov. 19 meeting, and would also apply for membership in ECO’s Presbytery of Texas and Louisiana.
According to a letter from the session posted on the church web site, the secret ballot vote was taken during an open session meeting and concluded “a process that began in late 2015 and included many months of prayer, discussion, study, and more recently, the evaluation of congregational feedback through individual conversations and emails, two town hall gatherings and a survey completed by nearly 1,200 people.”
Congregational Survey Report
Of the 1,185 responses to the congregational survey, 67 percent said “Yes” to the question, “Should First Presbyterian Church Houston seek dismissal from the PCUSA and affiliate with ECO?” Twenty-four percent said “No” and 9 percent did not care.
Seventy-three percent of those responding said they would stay with the congregation if it was dismissed from the PCUSA and joined ECO, while 16 percent said they would “most likely leave, or stop attending regularly.” Eleven percent did not know what they would do.
Other survey questions and the responses included:
- “Do you agree or disagree that Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Savior?” Ninety percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed.
- “How important is it that First Presbyterian Church Houston affirms the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation with God?” Of those responding to the question, 91 percent said it was mildly important or very important.
- “How important is it that First Presbyterian Church Houston affirms the Bible as God’s authoritative Word for Christians?” A strong majority — 92 percent — answered this question as mildly important or very important.
TAG Consulting conducted the survey for the church. The company works with churches and other organizations to help each understand its unique role and calling, and to help each become more effective and efficient for the future.
‘Sobering and difficult’ decision
“We recognize our membership holds diverse positions on this question and that the reaction to our decision will vary from agreement, to relief to disappointment,” read the letter from the session. “As our congregation’s elected leaders, it was sobering and difficult to have to make a decision that we knew would disappoint many within our body, regardless of what was decided. That said, the vote demonstrates our firm and prayerful conviction that FPC’s long-term best interests will be better served by joining ECO than by remaining in the PCUSA.”
The letter continued, “While our hope and prayer is that no one will make a quick decision regarding membership, if you are thinking that you would prefer to maintain affiliation with the PCUSA, you will have the opportunity to either transfer your membership to another PCUSA church in the area, or to transfer your membership to the Presbytery of New Covenant while you consider other options.”
The session arranged for Mike Cole, general presbyter of New Covenant Presbytery, to meet with any church members interested in staying in the PCUSA in the church chapel from 5-6 p.m. on Sunday (Nov. 6).
The session’s letter ended by saying “Finally, let us acknowledge that the next days and weeks will test our ability to love one another even across our disagreements – and that the healing of relationships within our body cannot be accomplished in a single worship service, or through a committee, but only through hundreds of individual decisions to seek that healing and to intentionally do our part in reaching out to those with whom we need to reconcile. May we join together in Christ to accomplish that purpose.”
The congregation first voted on seeking dismissal from the PCUSA in February of 2014. That congregational vote 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, 2016 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.”
Therefore, the session vote was scheduled for November.
The session did not have to consider the church’s property during its meeting. 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.