New Lebanon Presbyterian Church, located in Jasper 60 miles north of Atlanta in the northwest corner of the state, has become a member of ECO: a Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians following its dismissal from the PCUSA during the May 28 meeting of Cherokee Presbytery.
The Rev. Ben Laughlin, pastor of New Lebanon, said the church will have to seek a loan to make the lump sum payment up front as required in the settlement agreement by August.
“We’re required to pay $130,000, and that’s the part that really hurts,” Laughlin said. “It’s going to be a struggle. We’re a small congregation, and we’ll do what we have to do. We know we’ll be able to do it. We’re looking at funding efforts.”
The Administrative Commission (AC) from the presbytery took into consideration the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruling from October 2012 that required property values to be considered when negotiating terms of dismissal.
New Lebanon will be paying $50,000 for continued support of Cherokee Presbytery (calculated as five years of its current annual contribution) and $80,000 for land, building and property “held in trust” for the PCUSA.
The session of New Lebanon penned a letter to the AC in mid-April, indicating it did not feel the settlement was fair based on past presbytery actions and was not consistent with terms of dismissal of congregations recently dismissed by the presbytery. Some members indicated they did not know if the debt that would be incurred could be paid off and allow the church to continue its ministry in an effective manner.
However, the letter went on to state that a congregational meeting would take place to approve obtaining a loan in the settlement amount to complete the negotiating process. A second letter sent to the Administrative Commission the first week of May revealed a vote by the NLPC congregation to approve the conditions, setting the stage for the dismissal vote by presbyters less than four weeks later.
“The negotiating process was difficult and challenging, certainly frustrating,” Laughlin said. “Some churches that have left (the PCUSA) did not have to pay. Going forward, they all probably will have to pay.”
Laughlin said there were some anxious moments for NLPC congregants who attended the May presbytery meeting, especially when a motion was made to extend the process for another six months. That motion was defeated, paving the way for the final vote.
“For four or five weeks prior to the meeting we had hoped this would work out,” he said. “When that motion was made, it was a time of tension. You could hear some of our folks start weeping. We’ve tried to be the church we need to be, even with all this weight hanging over our head. We’ve tried to take all our concerns and put them at the foot of the cross and be faithful.”
Laughlin said that New Lebanon has long been a conservative group of believers that has had a somewhat strained relationship with the PCUSA as it drifted toward a more liberal stance.
“There’s a difference in theology,” he said. “We stayed to be a faithful witness, to see if we could hold the line for the Word. But the gap kept growing wider and wider. The change of the ordination standards (Amendment 10A) took things too far, and we had to make a move.”
The pastor said NLPC’s membership dropped from 165 when the process started to 120 by its end, a period of about a year. That was a combination of culling rolls, some leaving because they wanted to remain with the PCUSA and others departing simply because they did not want to be involved in the dismissal process.
“That ordination standard change started getting a lot of people antsy,” Laughlin said. “It became a crisis of conscience, an issue between the people and God.”
Enough so, that session members made the recommendation to leave the PCUSA for ECO, a move that was supported by about 85 percent of the active voting members of the church.
“ECO is a really good fit for us theologically and otherwise,” Laughlin observed. “There’s a flat, top-down governmental structure with no hierarchy; governance is driven by the church. And it’s a denomination that gets back to real theology rather than fighting over social justice issues.”
Additionally, ECO is a mission-minded denomination, something tailored to a strength of the NLPC congregation.
“We’re already mission-minded. Twenty-five percent of our budget is for mission work,” Laughlin said.
New Lebanon would like to continue to support mission work of the presbytery that it has long held dear. The church already has committed to continue support of three PCUSA missionaries and plans to uphold its commitment to them.
“We still think we can do missional work with the presbytery,” Laughlin explained. “We’ve always supported the local presbytery. There are good folks in Cherokee Presbytery, and we’ve enjoyed working with them. There’s no anger toward Cherokee Presbytery. Our frustration is more on a national scale than locally.”
Now it’s time for New Lebanon’s membership to faithfully serve God in a new and growing denomination.
“We’re very excited to be moving ahead, and we look forward to developing partnerships with other Georgia churches that have joined ECO,” Laughlin said. “We want to be the church we’ve been called to be by God and do it in the Presbyterian Reformed tradition.”