First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville is one step closer to exiting the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The western North Carolina church took a congregational vote Wednesday, June 5. The tally revealed that 81 percent of active members present were in favor of departing the PCUSA for affiliation with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
Three-hundred thirty-two members cast ballots during the vote, conducted by representatives from the Presbytery of Western North Carolina (PWNC). Of those, 270 were in favor of leaving the PCUSA, with 60 voting to remain with the national denomination. There were two abstentions.
The turnout for the vote was much higher than the required 50 percent of active members on the roll (453 at FPC-Hendersonville), and the result was higher than the 75 percent in favor of dismissal required by the presbytery’s gracious dismissal policy.
“We had members who said they could not give (financially to the PCUSA) any more, and (eventually) members who said they could not stay if we remained with the denomination,” said Dr. Rev. Bill Campbell, pastor of FPC-Hendersonville. “There was a feeling things were not going to get better, and we were concerned if we did not make a move, the church may fall apart. It came to the point where the only way we could hold together was to let (the membership) have a vote.”
FPC-Hendersonville, which has been in existence for 160 years, is no stranger to splits, experiencing two in the last 35 years.
One of those led to the formation of Covenant Presbyterian Church, a member of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). The other resulted in the establishment of Reformation Presbyterian Church, affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC).
Wednesday’s voting outcome spoke volumes about the direction Hendersonville’s membership wants to go and is one that does not follow the same route as the PCUSA.
“There was an excitement coming into the vote,” Campbell observed. “I think there was a quiet sigh of relief when the results were announced. We’re ready to move on.
“This church is so excited. As stressful as this (process) has been, our attendance has grown, our giving has grown, and we have people waiting to join. Our people are really excited, and we see an explosion of ministry getting ready to happen because we obeyed God in this. It has made us stronger, and we have a new unified commitment to making Christ our all.”
The Rev. Carolyn Poteet, associate pastor of FPC-Hendersonville, pointed out that God’s hand was on prominent display throughout the process, and the decision was one that came about through countless hours of prayer.
“The commitment to prayer has been unbelievable,” she said. “We knew from the outset that this could not be done through human strength. It could only be done through God’s strength, and He provided for those who followed Him.”
Reaching this point in the dismissal process has been more than a year in the works for the Hendersonville congregation, though the leadership and many members have been preparing for such a possibility for much longer. Campbell indicated PCUSA decisions that pushed Biblical standards aside in favor of cultural shifts fueled the fire needed to evoke a move.
The church entered a season of prayerful reflection in May 2012, and the session sent a formal letter to the PWNC on Dec. 10, 2012, requesting initiation of the presbytery’s gracious dismissal process.
Among the concerns outlined in the letter to the presbytery was evidence showing that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is no longer a commonly held belief in the national denomination and the belief that Christ is the only way to salvation has been compromised. The erosion of Scripture’s authority as the rule of faith and practice was cited along with concerns regarding the passage of Amendment 10A (removing the requirement of fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness for ordained persons), approval of the new Form of Government (nFOG), the lack of discipline for ministers conducting same-sex marriages and the never-ceasing debate over the definition of marriage.
At the January 2013 stated meeting, the presbytery appointed an Administrative Commission to begin working with the Hendersonville church.
Campbell and Poteet said the session of FPC-Hendersonville carefully analyzed the EPC and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians before making its recommendation to align with the EPC.
“We really felt we needed the stability of the EPC; it was a better fit for our congregation as a whole,” Campbell said. “Either way would be an incredible blessing.”
Poteet added, “The PCUSA is not living out what it says it believes, but the EPC has been faithful living out those essentials of its beliefs.”
According to Poteet, the last two splits of the church involved issues with women in ministerial positions, either as pastors or session members. The EPC supports such a ministry of women.
“I have felt so embraced by the (EPC Mid-Atlantic) presbytery since we started conversations with them,” said Poteet, who has served at FPC-Hendersonville since 2006. “I’m looking forward to being a witness as a male-female ministry team with Bill, to uphold the Bible no matter what. I’m grateful to be with a group of people who care about the Scripture.”
Next up for Hendersonville will be property settlement negotiations. The presbytery will form its settlement team to work with one from the church to reach an agreement on the property, which has a tax value of approximately $4.2 million.
There is nothing at this point to indicate what price tag the congregation will have to pay to keep the property.
“We still have negotiations ahead of us,” Campbell said. “It’s hard to know what (presbyters) will be expecting. We’ll just have to vote on it after both parties have agreed.”
Poteet said once both sides reach an agreeable amount, the presbytery cannot amend the settlement, only vote for or against it.
The vote on the property settlement could occur as soon as the July stated meeting but is more likely to appear on the docket for the October meeting.
A press release from FPC-Hendersonville indicated that churches of a similar size have paid a national average of less than $100,000 over a five-year period.
Along with the property settlement payment, the congregation also will be required to change its name.
“We’ve bounced around the name Hendersonville Presbyterian Church, which was the name of our congregation for its first 100 years,” Poteet said. “It only became First Presbyterian when it celebrated its centennial. Whatever the congregation chooses, we look forward our new name and our new future that God has in store for us!”
Campbell said the decision to leave the PCUSA has allowed the congregation to take on more of a “full kingdom mentality” rather than a “partial country club mentality.”
“This has made people recognize what matters most, and that is God’s will,” he said.
The press release from the church reported that some members who voted not to re-affiliate are talking with the WNC presbytery about establishing a continuing PCUSA congregation with the name First Presbyterian Church in a new location.
There is already another PCUSA church in Hendersonville. Trinity Presbyterian is 1.6 miles from the FPC campus.
“If they do so, they will go with the elders’ support and blessing,” Campbell said. “Our strong preference, however, is that they remain with us. We love all of them, and I believe we can do ministry better together.
“Those opposed have decisions to make, whether to stay (at FPC-Hendersonville), form a new church or join another congregation. We pray God’s blessings upon them and that they are led by the Lord.”