More than three years have passed since First Presbyterian Church of Kingwood started its journey to a new denominational home. At long last, the trek out of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has come to its end.
FPC-Kingwood, located in Harris County Texas, about 20 miles from the center of Houston, saw its move from the PCUSA to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians come to fruition when final paperwork was signed and payment to New Covenant Presbytery was made Sept. 26. A service of commissioning and blessing took place Oct. 6 on World Communion Sunday.
“It’s kind of a peaceful feeling,” said the Rev. Dr. Jim Davis, pastor of FPC-Kingwood since November 2007. “We’ve made a faithful decision, and now we let the Spirit fill our sails and show us our direction. There is a feeling of hope that God is going to call us into an exciting future that will be the next chapter for this church.”
Kingwood, started in 1982, has 1,637 members. It is one of six churches to depart the PCUSA from New Covenant Presbytery (NCP) in the last 18 months and is the biggest to do so. First Presbyterian Church of Houston also is engaged in the presbytery’s dismissal process at this time.
The Rev. Mike Cole, general presbyter of New Covenant, indicated in an email sent to The Layman that discontentment with denominational decisions is the primary reason churches are choosing to leave the PCUSA.
“Unhappiness with denominational decisions on ordination, assumption that local membership losses are due to the denominational affiliation and perceptions of theological disagreement with the beliefs of some PCUSA pastors and members,” Cole listed as reasons for departure in his email. “The PCUSA still maintains orthodox theological views in our constitution; 90 percent of congregations who have left the PCUSA have continued to experience membership loss after transfer; we should judge the theology of the PCUSA on the constitution not on anecdotal evidence of individuals with whom we disagree.”
Davis indicated that FPC-Kingwood formed a Denominational Relations Study Task Force to look at four major issues that came out of the 219th General Assembly in 2010: proposed changes to ordination standards, proposed changes to marriage standards, the new Form of Government (nFOG) and the proposed addition of the Belhar Confession.
Additionally, there were deeper rooted issues of the authority of Scripture, the singular saving work of Jesus Christ,and naming of the Trinity.
“We really saw those root issues driving decisions of the General Assembly,” Davis explained. “Diminishing respect was being paid to authority of Scripture in the denomination. It was being reinterpreted in terms of present desires, and culture was determining the interpretation. We were watching the decay of the denomination.”
Davis said FPC-Kingwood felt strongly that it was important to maintain the traditional names of the Trinity given in Scripture and differentiate names from metaphors. In addition, he said that if Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, “we don’t believe we have the authority to say anything different.”
He said the feeling was that Belhar lacked qualities necessary to a full confession of faith in the Book of Order, and proposed changes to ordination standards were not in accord with Scripture or its standards for appropriate moral conduct. Additionally, nFOG took control away from local congregations and gave it to the presbyteries.
The process of departure
Acting on the findings of the DRST, a Denominational Action Committee (DAC) was formed in March 2012 to explore possible denominational homes for the Kingwood congregation, with ECO and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) emerging as the top choices.
Three months later, the congregation voted 270-30 to enter the gracious dismissal process of New Covenant Presbytery. Following a number of meetings with a presbytery discernment team, a Denominational Determination Committee (DCC) was formed in March 2013 to recommend either ECO or the EPC. The DCC recommended ECO as the new denomination home, and the presbytery discernment team recommended allowing a vote by the congregation.
On May 5, 2013, Kingwood had a congregational vote that yielded a 358-165 margin (68.5 percent) in favor of leaving the PCUSA for ECO. The vote was higher than the required two-thirds needed for dismissal as outlined in the NCP gracious dismissal policy.
At the June 8, 2013, presbytery meeting, FPC-Kingwood was dismissed by voice vote with no dissent.
Finalization of the dismissal was held up while the presbytery determined if there was interest in a new church development (NCD). A poll by the presbytery taken during the May 5 meeting showed 26 people interested in such a formation, one more than the number required by the policy to explore a new church development. NCP Stated Clerk Lynn Hargrove then requested the church’s membership rolls.
Kingwood’s leadership surmised there may have been some attempt to solicit the membership. After a series of meetings with persons interested presbytery submitted a total list of 31 persons interested in being part of an NCD. Kingwood contacted each person on the list individually by phone or email to confirm their intent and ended up only being able to confirm 21 people committed to forming an NCD.
In addition, 23 people requested their membership be transferred to the presbytery but not to any NCD.
Cole pointed out that presbytery leaders are meeting with these former Kingwood members who have transferred their membership to the presbytery for the time being, while they explore the possibilities of starting a new church in that area. They are meeting on Sunday nights for worship, fellowship, study and visioning.
Davis said session leaders opted against challenging the presbytery’s numbers and causing further delay.
“It would have held up the process, and we decided we wanted to be as gracious as we could be,” Davis said. “We wanted to move forward and take care of things.”
The financial terms
FPC-Kingwood’s session opted to make a one-time payment to handle its dismissal rather than make payments over a period of five years. That fee totaled $277,782.30, and the presbytery requested that it be paid by cashier’s check. Davis said it was paid on Sept. 26 when all the papers were signed.
The lump sum was broken into three separate amounts. The standard contribution based on the number of members totaled $144,132.30, with an additional $117,612 paid to address the new church development as well as $16,038 of voluntary property consideration fees.
Cole expressed sadness that the presbytery lost another congregation, but he did not think it would have any financial impact.
“The loss will be spiritual, emotional and psychological,” he wrote. “We are losing another part of our presbytery family. That hurts, especially when we have stood beside them through some very difficult times. The presbytery will not experience any financial loss because this congregation has not contributed to the mission and ministry of the presbytery for more than six years.”
Davis said the process of leaving the denomination was one that was friendly at times, contentious in others.
“We’ve had a struggle with our presbytery,” Davis said. “We’re the sixth church to leave and by far the biggest. I think the presbytery saw a number of holes in their gracious dismissal policy and saw an opportunity to be a little tougher with a larger church. We’re leaving with some regrets that the process could have been more gracious.
“An amicable process, yes, but there were moments when both sides struggled. As time went on, those struggles became more profound, and by the end of the process, they really came to the forefront.”
That being said, Davis pointed out that FPC-Kingwood and New Covenant Presbytery have not broken off all conversations and relationships. He said his Presbyterian congregation is merely moving to another form of the Reformed denomination.
“We’re not leaving the Presbyterian Church. We’re moving from one part of the Presbyterian family to another part,” he said. “We’re being faithful to God’s call.”
Heeding that call led Kingwood to ECO, the newest Presbyterian denomination. Davis noted that there were a number of similarities between ECO and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), but pointed out ECO’s respect for women in the ministry, a missional focus, mission affinity group, theological integrity, and accountability among pastors, elders and congregations along with the evangelical emphasis were the determining factors that led the congregation to the denomination.
“We’re really excited about the new friends we have found in ECO,” Davis said, pointing out that there are already ECO congregations in nearby Spring and Galveston. “We really feel as if though this is where God has called us and where we belong.”