Founded in 1857, the church of approximately 160 members located north of Chicago near the border of Illinois and Wisconsin on Lake Michigan, was released from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
The Rev. Dave Eikenberry, who has been pastor of the Waukegan church for 21 years after Dr. Norm Herbert led the congregation for a quarter of a century, said authority of Scripture and how it was used by the PCUSA had become a hot topic for FPC-Waukegan members.
“This congregation has had a longtime concern with the direction of the PCUSA,” he said. “The commitment to authority of Scripture and the way it is used in the church has really been a key issue, a concern, for a while. It started coming to a head and reached a critical point with the passage of the new Form of Government (nFOG) and Amendment 10A. Those were the catalysts for us to start talking openly about whether we needed to respond in some way.”
nFOG and 10A
Ruling Elder Gregg Walter, in an email response to The Layman, indicated that the passage of nFOG and 10A “broke the peace, unity and purity of the church.”
“We went on to cite they circumvented Scripture (with many examples), erroneously redefined qualifications for elders and deacons, a redefinition of marriage could not be far behind, and they turned away from the doctrine of the confessions,” Walter wrote. “Our conclusion begins: ‘As elders who will one day stand before God to account for our personal actions and those actions directly affecting our church, we find there is no acceptable ground for compromise with a denomination which has accepted a lower view of Scripture. The action we are taking is a response to the change in direction the PCUSA has taken away from Scriptural standards.”
Waukegan’s session entered a time of discernment and prayer regarding its response early in 2011, and all nine members ultimately determined the PCUSA was no longer ideal to safely shelter the flock of believers.
Small group sessions took place with church elders in the fall of 2011 to inform congregants of what was taking place and why the session felt Waukegan no longer should be in the PCUSA. Even with a united session, there still was a need to know how the congregation viewed such a change.
A congregational vote in December 2011 showed 93 of 104 members (89.4 percent) were in favor of departing the PCUSA. Eikenberry said there was considerable debate about the matter that included various opinions. Members spoke with passion and respect, ultimately voting with a strong sense of unity.
A few days later, the session sent a letter informing the presbytery of its desire to enter the gracious dismissal process.
The presbytery formed an Administrative Commission (AC) in February in 2012 that went through a period of discernment with FPC-Waukegan. The AC tried to seek reconciliation, but when it could not, members had to begin the process of crafting a dismissal policy. The presbytery did not have one prior to Waukegan’s decision to leave.
Eikenberry pointed to a September 2012 congregational meeting as one of most rewarding days of his ministry when members of the congregation explained to AC members why they felt the desire to put the PCUSA in their rear-view mirror and travel down God’s intended path for them.
“Our elders already had talked with the Administrative Commission, so they did not speak,” said, Eikenberry, also released from the PCUSA to labor in the EPC. “It was such a strong witness by our members. They spoke clearly, passionately, Biblically about their reasons for leaving. I am grateful to them for standing up for their convictions. It was an expression of the faithfulness required of us. What a remarkable day that was!”
Terms of dismissal
The presbytery dismissed Waukegan with its property after reaching the following terms of dismissal:
- That upon the timely release of existing original church documents (register, roll, and minutes of Session) of FPC-Waukegan to the Presbyterian Historical Society, the presbytery and FPC Waukegan will share the expense of microfilming.
- That FPC-Waukegan may retain ownership and use of the name “First Presbyterian Church of Waukegan” for as long as it remains affiliated with a Presbyterian denomination. To avoid confusion regarding denomination, the symbol and logo of the PCUSA shall be removed from all signs, church decorations, paper documents, and electronic media.
- That a document will be prepared by appropriate legal representatives that will release responsibility for each party’s liabilities.
- That the Presbytery will release any claim or title to the property currently held and managed by FPC-Waukegan with the understating that a dismissal fee of$128,759 will be given to the Presbytery on the following terms: a) After considering the value of the property (as the recent GAPJC ruling requires), compensation of 10 percent of the church property value, not including the manse, will be made by FPC-Waukegan to the Presbytery. The appraised value of the church building is $1.1 million and the appraised value of the manse is $95,000. As such, property compensation will be $110,000. This amount shall be paid in full no later than three years from the execution and signing of this agreement; and b) If FPC-Waukegan is able to pay this compensation for property within one year of the acceptance of the terms, execution and signing of the dismissal agreement, the Presbytery will settle compensation for property at 5 percent, or $55,000; and c) FPC-Waukegan will repay unpaid per capita from 2010 to 2013 in the amount of $18,759 due upon execution and signing of this agreement.
- FPC Waukegan agrees to include in its articles of incorporation a provision that all assets of the corporation will become the property of the Presbytery of Chicago if the congregation ceases to be a continuing Christian church within 10 years of the date of the agreement.
- Upon the effective date of this agreement, the presbytery shall transfer to FPC Waukegan all rights, title, and interest in the real property held by FPC-Waukegan.
- Upon the effective date of this agreement, the presbytery shall transfer by bill of sale all rights, title and interest the Presbytery may have in personal property owned by FPC-Waukegan.
- 11. Costs for lawyer fees, titles, transfers, name changes, and other related expenses will be paid by FPC Waukegan. FPC Waukegan will reimburse the Presbytery of Chicago for any legal advice, not to exceed $5,000.
The Waukegan congregation approved the terms of dismissal June 16, and two days later was dismissed to a new denominational home.
Eikenberry said it is the congregation’s intent to take care of its financial responsibility within a year to reduce the amount it has to pay substantially.
“We’re grateful to God for many things,” he said. “The Commission was very fair in dealing with us. We’ve heard a lot of stories of churches feeling abused by the process, but we were treated very fair. It was not an acrimonious process at all but a pretty collegial one. It was not easy. We felt we had taken steps to assert the property belonged to us; we do not believe in the trust clause. But we did not feel right about taking our brothers and sisters to court either. Neither side was interested in litigation.
“It was a gracious agreement reached in a God-honoring way. It was certainly an amicable process. We are thankful for that.”
While amicable, the process did not unfold without some pains along the way. Eikenberry said some members left the church over the decision to engage in the dismissal process, but the faith of those who persevered was rewarded by God’s faith in and to them.
“We have a lot of gratitude for God’s faithfulness carrying us through,” he said.
Walter pointed out that many members of the Waukegan congregation did not want to pay an “exit fee” but discovered it was less expensive than a lawsuit that may not have guaranteed an outcome in the church’s favor.
“All of our deliberations with the Commission were cordial and respectful,” Walter wrote. “The worst part of the journey was not knowing exactly what the final outcome would be. That’s where trusting God was essential.”
The EPC was one of several choices of denominational homes considered, and Eikenberry indicated it seemed to be the one that had the most in common with Waukegan and its beliefs.
“We’re very similar already to the EPC,” Eikenberry explained. “EPC seemed like a really good fit, and we could make an almost seamless transition. ECO was just starting to take shape, and we didn’t feel it was solidified enough.”
Eikenberry said clearly spelled-out essentials that are Biblically grounded and allowing women in leadership roles were major draws to joining the denomination.
“The EPC is very close to who we are,” he said.
Walter reiterated those points, adding that the Rivers and Lakes Presbytery of the EPC covers four states and has doubled in size in two years, from 16 to 32 churches.
“When I attended my first meeting I could not believe the difference,” he wrote. “Such a warm, caring group that spends so much time in faithful prayer, much in the way of willingness to help other churches navigating the dismissal process. The EPC is locked in their adherence to the great confessions.”
Walter wrote that the decision to depart the PCUSA clearly was the route that needed to be taken to preserve the church, its worship of God and what its members have stood for so many years.
“We embarked on this journey for two reasons. We know what Scripture says – this is the right thing to do – and we wanted to save our church,” he wrote in his email. “We have a 155-year legacy. So many others over the decades have given of their talents and treasure in the service of our Lord. Had we done nothing after the passage of 10-A and nFOG we would have lost so many members our church could not have sustained itself. That would have been unconscionable.”
While the dismissal has taken place, challenges remain for Waukegan. That is not lost on Eikenberry, church elders or members as they look to the future.
“We know there still is a lot of work to do; we know there are still challenges ahead,” he admitted. “This was an amicable process but a time-consuming one. It’s a relief to have it behind us, but it’s time for us to redirect our focus and get back to what the Lord has called us to do. We want to reach out in this community and be a witness for Christ as a strong and worshipping community. We need to seek God’s will in all we do, maintain our presence in Waukegan and be more active in witnessing and sharing the Gospel.”