Pastor Tom Gomola summed up Leesburg’s dismissal from the PCUSA to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians by the Presbytery of Shenango as one that was “truly gracious.”
“We were blessed there was not much controversy over leaving,” said Gomola, who has been at the western Pennsylvania church for 15 years. “They call it a gracious dismissal policy, and it truly is gracious.”
Leesburg was dismissed from the PCUSA during the Feb. 26 presbytery meeting with all its property and no financial requirement for departure. Gomola said the requirement of Shenango was that the Leesburg congregation remember the long-standing relationship it had with the presbytery through the years.
To show its appreciation for such a gracious dismissal, Leesburg paid the presbytery a little more than three years worth of per capita, a total that came to about $15,000 and was a figure determined by the church. Gomola also pointed to Executive Presbyter Dave Dawson’s handling of the dismissal as a reason the process worked out so smoothly.
“The presbytery has been wonderful throughout this process,” Gomola said. “There was no rancorous debate, nothing negative at all. We feel good about Presbytery of Shenango. It was not so much about leaving them as it was leaving the PCUSA.”
Located in Volant, Pa., north of Pittsburgh, Leesburg Presbyterian Church has 186 members. The church was founded in 1856. The church leadership started the process of seeking dismissal about 22 months ago, not long after Amendment 10A deleted the explicit “fidelity/chastity” requirement from the constitutional ordination standard, and now allows the PCUSA to ordain gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as deacons, elders and pastors.
The church took its first vote in June 2011 right after that move and then waited until the Presbytery of Shenango enacted its dismissal policy in November 2011 to inform the presbytery of its intent.
“When it became known that the ordination standards were going to change, we knew we wanted to leave (the PCUSA),” Gomola said. “We were unhappy with the direction the PCUSA was heading, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We were anticipating something on same-sex marriage pretty soon.”
The congregational vote to leave the PCUSA was 92-4 following a unanimous vote for departure by the session. Both numbers were well above the presbytery’s dismissal guidelines that required a 75 percent session vote, 35 percent quorum membership vote and 80 percent majority in favor of leaving.
“We seemed to be of one purpose,” Gomola said of the widespread voting margins.
A year later, the congregation voted 90-0 to seek affiliation with ECO.
“We were interested in being part of a Word-centered denomination,” Gomola said. “Scripture doesn’t seem to be the first and foremost thought in the PCUSA. It’s more of a which way the wind blows for social issues approach. ECO places an emphasis on going into the world and making disciples. We felt that kinship with ECO.”
A fresh and new denomination, ECO also encourages partnerships, or covenants, between churches, particularly in mission work. Gomola said that was something Leesburg may be able to do with some existing programs already in place between his congregation and others.
“It gives us more of an opportunity to participate in ministries we believe are good for the kingdom and that are Christ-centered,” he said. “ECO encourages staying with ministries that are working and places an emphasis on those partnerships.”
Gomola said the congregation has shown great relief in being able to put the dismissal process in the rear-view mirror as it seeks to get back to the mission work that stalled for a time while it sought separation from the PCUSA.
“Our congregation is very excited, and we look forward to a new ministry through ECO,” Gomola said. “This is a good congregation that has been made stronger through this process, and we are ready for fellowship with ECO. We want to do the work that is good for the kingdom.”