Formal discussion of leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) had not taken place between the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Amarillo and its session. Not until action by Palo Duro Presbytery warranted it, that is.
Now, the church has voted to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and the presbytery.
The FPC-Amarillo congregation voted by an overwhelming 96.5 percent majority (438-16) on Oct. 23 to disaffiliate from the national denomination and join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
“It was an impressive movement of God’s Spirit and unity in our midst,” FPC-Amarillo Pastor Howard Griffin said. “We know that God is in control of all this.”
A letter from the presbytery to the session, trustees and Griffin indicated that a meeting had been called to form an Administrative Commission (AC) to assume original jurisdiction by serving as the trustees and to rescind action taken by the church regarding its articles of incorporation.
“Our session had some conversations about what was going on in the PCUSA and its perceived theological drift, but the session had not brought these concerns before the congregation,” Griffin said. “The letter we were sent by the Committee on Ministry (COM) of Palo Duro Presbytery forced us to expedite that process.”
Griffin explained that a member left a house to the church, and the property committee wanted to sell it.
In determining who the church trustees were for purposes of selling the property, it was discovered that two sets of articles of incorporation had been filed, one in 1911 for First Presbyterian Church-Amarillo and another in 1998 for First Presbyterian Church-Amarillo, Inc. A decision was made to clean up the articles and specify trustees for the church of nearly 1,000 members located in Potter County in the Texas Panhandle.
FPC-Amarillo decided during a Sept. 29 meeting to name the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP), which it joined in June 2012, as the recipient of all church assets if it ever was dissolved. Apparently, presbytery received word of what was taking place and took action to block such movement after the amendments to the articles of incorporation and bylaws were approved unanimously at that congregational meeting.
“We had joined the Fellowship of Presbyterians more than a year ago, and we were excited about what we saw the Lord doing in this organization,” Griffin said. “The session was realizing that the direction and theological drift (of the PCUSA) was not a good fit for us, so we joined other PCUSA churches that are conservative in the Fellowship of Presbyterians. We thought someday we might have to vote to leave the PCUSA, but we did not know what the trigger would be for us to make a move.”
The letter dated Oct. 7 from Palo Duro Presbytery Stated Clerk Ruth Clendenin proved to be that trigger.
Clendenin’s letter indicated that the action naming the FOP as owners of the property and assets in the event of dissolution was in conflict with the PCUSA Constitution. It indicated that the issue was addressed in an Oct. 7 called meeting of the presbytery’s COM, which requested a special called meeting of the presbytery for Oct. 26 to form an AC to work with the congregation in regard to its property concerns and future in the denomination.
The Administrative Commission would have the power to assume original jurisdiction by serving as trustees for FPC-Amarillo and FPC-Amarillo, Inc. in all matters related to the corporations, though session still would have jurisdiction over all matters related to the ministry and mission of the congregation.
Additionally, it would rescind action by the session and congregation regarding the articles of incorporation approved Sept. 29, and begin the process of discerning the church’s future in the PCUSA.
Clendenin referenced the presbytery’s February 2013 adoption of principles for congregations seeking to withdraw from the PCUSA in her letter, encouraging FPC-Amarillo to review it and consider full participation in that process.
“I realize that preserving the property and assets of a particular congregation is of utmost importance to a session. I believe that participating fully, openly and honestly in this process will facilitate a healthy outcome for you, your session and your congregation, and for the presbytery,” she wrote.
The presbytery did not respond to an email sent by The Layman.
The presbytery’s letter sparked a two-week process of bringing the congregation up to speed on what was taking place in the PCUSA, actions taken by the presbytery and discussion of ECO as a new denominational home.
“Our vote to disaffiliate was overwhelmingly driven by the letter from the presbytery,” Griffin said. “Our congregation kept asking why the presbytery wanted to take over. We were not going to let them remove our trustees. We knew about the dismissal process that the presbytery had adopted, which basically is decided on a case-by case scenario. A similar church to ours went through this process recently and had to pay 10 percent of its total assets. That seemed like too high a fee to our session, particularly when most of our money is tied up in donor restricted funds. Our session did not want to go through their process.”
That left the option of disaffiliation, which was upheld by the church membership, to preserve property with deeds listing it only in the name of the church. The property is not attached to the presbytery or PCUSA, according to its deeds and articles of incorporation.
“We weren’t looking at starting departure or even having a congregational conversation until next year some time, but this changed things,” Griffin said. “We knew we needed to change the articles of incorporation anyway because they didn’t match. The change (to give all assets to the FOP) is what upset the presbytery.”
Following FPC-Amarillo’s disaffiliation vote, which featured no one volunteering to speak on behalf of the PCUSA from the congregation, the COM removed its motion to assume original jurisdiction and rescind actions taken regarding the articles of incorporation, leaving only the provision of discussing FPC-Amarillo’s future with the PCUSA once it formed the AC at the Oct. 26 meeting.
Griffin said the next step will be meetings between the AC and church attorneys to reach some sort of financial settlement to avoid a path leading to costly litigation for either side, though he is not sure when that will be finalized. The next presbytery meeting takes place in January 2014.
“Legally, the property is in our name. We’d rather this not lead to a lawsuit, so we want to work out an agreement for a gift that can be used to help other churches in the presbytery,” Griffin said. “Our hope is that we can have an amicable departure. We want to bless the presbytery as we leave and avoid litigation. We would still like to do mission and ministry with PCUSA churches in the Texas Panhandle when possible because we view them as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our session and congregation have just decided it is time to go to ECO, and so we are trying to withdraw peaceably.”
Griffin indicated that FPC-Amarillo already is engaged in a transition process to become part of ECO, and its articles of incorporation probably will be revised to reflect assets be given to ECO if the congregation is ever dissolved, not the Fellowship of Presbyterians as it currently states.