Divisiveness has become more and more common within the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination, and a Virginia church experienced it in such a way that it led to a fracturing that resulted in two congregations.
First Presbyterian Church of Waynesboro, located west of Charlottesville in Waynesboro, Va., broke into a pair of congregations after an Administrative Commission (AC) from Presbytery of Shenandoah assumed original jurisdiction following the resignation of session members on March 17.
Pastor Glen Holman tendered his resignation in February. During a March 17 meeting, the congregation unanimously approved his resignation, effective April 1, as well as a six-month severance package. Holman preached his final service at FPC-Waynesboro on Easter Sunday.
He acknowledged the difficulties created for both sides by the rift.
“It’s been a hard process and did not turn out the way it was expected,” Holman said, noting that he is leaving his options open to see what God has in store for the future.
During that same meeting, the Administrative Commission proposed that session members resign, allowing the AC to function as the session of the church. Session members unanimously approved the motion and resigned immediately, giving the AC control of church operations.
“We voted to allow the AC to (assume original jurisdiction for the presbytery), though thinking back, we did so regrettably,” said Maury Davis, one of the former FPC-Waynesboro elders who now is part of a transitional leadership team for the newly-formed Waynesboro Mission Church (WMC) that was commissioned by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) on April 21. “We were not forced to resign, and as we think about it, in hindsight, maybe we should not have resigned.”
Regardless, there was tension within the church of approximately 375 members. The session had voted by a 10-2 margin in November 2012 to seek dismissal from the PCUSA only to have the AC intervene and determine that a majority of the congregation wanted to remain in the PCUSA.
A March 19 letter to the congregation from Holman and Acting General Presbyter/AC Co-Moderator Dr. Randy Webb briefly outlined the session’s resignation and decision to have the AC assume original jurisdiction, and noted that a new designated interim pastor will be in place for FPC-Waynesboro on May 1.
“The session believed this action was in the best interest of the entire congregation,” the letter read. “While First Presbyterian Church obviously has been divided regarding this process, we believe all members want what is best for the entire body. It behooves us to work together to have the best possible witness for Jesus Christ in our community.”
Webb did not respond to calls and emails from The Layman.
The AC report, found on the FPC-Waynesboro web site, gave reasons for seeking original jurisdiction, reading, “In that regard we believe that for FPC to move forward in a positive way it would be best if the Administrative Commission assumed original jurisdiction and functioned as the transitional session of FPC, beginning March 17, 2013. Reasons for this include the following:
a. “There is a significant disconnect between the session’s desire to leave the PCUSA and the congregation’s desire to stay. The longer this disconnect is allowed to continue the deeper will be the division in the congregation, and the bitterness associated with it.”
b. “There are significant trust issues (in both directions) between a majority of the session and a majority of the congregation’s membership. It is not possible for the session to function effectively in leadership with this lack of trust. “
c. “As a result of the lack of trust there is a total breakdown of communication between the session and a significant portion of the congregation. They cannot hear each other because they are all listening through their own filters.”
d. “The session is in the awkward position of negotiating with the congregation it has been elected to serve, for property and resources it wants to take away from the congregation to use for a purpose other than to serve FPC. “
e. “The session appears to be serving the best interests of a yet-to-be-formed EPC congregation, rather than the best interests of FPC.”
Davis said the church had not reached the point of taking a formal congregational vote on seeking dismissal when the AC made the recommendation for the session to resign. He said there was some hesitancy after what happened with New Hanover Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsville, Va. In that situation, the majority of the membership was in favor of dismissal, but an Administrative Commission determined there was a viable remnant of the congregation and deemed that to be the true church, leaving a miniscule number of members with the church property.
“We had thought a remnant may be given the church any way,” Davis said. “We knew something like what happened in Mechanicsville could happen. As elders we saw the PCUSA falling away from Scripture and not following Biblical principles. It just seemed like it was the right thing to do.”
Davis said an initial straw poll from a congregational meeting March 3 showed a slight majority in favor of leaving the PCUSA, but the AC allowed an additional two weeks to receive feedback from members. The AC report from the March 17 meeting shows that 53 percent (107) of the 203 members casting votes indicated a desire to remain in the PCUSA, and noted that the 85 voting for dismissal represented less than a quarter of the total membership.
“We were told the results would be used to inform us, but the Administrative Commission used the results to resolve the issue,” Davis said, noting that multiple services (contemporary and traditional) offered by the church almost seemed to split the church into two congregations any way. “The battle seemed to be drawn along those lines. In my mind it had become almost an argument over worship styles.”
The findings of the report shown on the church web site also substantiate Davis’ claim that the AC deemed the issue to be resolved.
Additionally, Davis said session members also were disheartened by a decision the AC made to rescind severance packages to other paid church staff members that had been reached by the session before its resignation.
With the AC assuming control of the property and operations of the church, those seeking to leave the PCUSA did so, forming as a mission church of the EPC. They worked out an agreement to meet at 10 a.m. on Sundays in the fellowship hall of Church of the Brethren not far from their former home. Their first service was April 7 with 142 people in attendance. The numbers have dropped off some since then, but they have been steady as the new church begins to take root. Davis indicated plans to elect permanent church leadership and said pastoral care duties are a shared responsibility at this time.
“It’s sad to see this situation, and we never meant for it to be a harsh split,” Davis said. “But it was a matter of conscience. We can’t be part of the PCUSA any longer. There is so much infighting that it has been hard to focus on the ministry of reaching out.
“We’ve had a great turnout so far from a good group of spiritually-minded people. We’re committed to this new calling, and we will see it through as we continue healing from this turn of events.”
Now, a church that once was united finds itself fractured into separate entities seeking to serve the Lord.
“I’m sure (FPC-Waynesboro members) want to recover from the wounds and scars of this battle,” Davis said. “It was not intended to be that way, but when you are fighting for what you believe in, it’s tough. I’m not saying that anyone is right or wrong, but there is a difference of opinion.
“It’s time to put the bickering and battling behind us. Both churches need to heal and move forward.”
That is Holman’s prayer for two groups of people he grew to know and love so much during the last eight years.
“While I’m saddened, I know God holds a future for them, those remaining at FPC-Waynesboro and those beginning new work with the Waynesboro Mission Church,” Holman said. “I’m a pastor, and I love the people regardless of the decisions they made. I’m confident God will lead them and provide for them. I’m praying for both churches. I want to see them both do God’s work as He leads them.”