With a congregational vote regarding dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) looming in March, members of the leadership team of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC) have indicated a willingness to give up their homes to meet the $8.89 million price tag sought by the Presbytery of San Francisco to grant a release to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
In the first of a series of messages regarding the state of MPPC, its future and the joy that can be received in the unknown on Sunday, Feb. 2 Menlo Park Senior Pastor John Ortberg spoke of how God provides “immeasurably more” than people can even ask for or understand as he spoke of what lies ahead for the congregation in preparation for the March 2 vote.
Referring to Menlo Park as a “Jesus church” that offers an invitation to follow Christ, Ortberg acknowledged that the congregation has been through a volatile and contentious season, especially since its session unanimously voted in June 2013 to recommend dismissal from the PCUSA. It’s a move that Ortberg explained as necessary for MPPC to effectively reach thousands in the Bay Area who need Jesus in their lives.
For the good of the church
For that dismissal to take place, the church will have to make a payment of $8.89 million to the presbytery. Members of the church leadership team have stepped up to do their part, offering to allow the homes they live in be sold to help offset the finances needed to pay the dismissal settlement.
Ortberg indicated that he and his wife Nancy could move out of the home they live in, owned by the Church of the Pioneers Foundation (COPF), which manages nine homes that provide residences for Menlo Park’s pastors and senior staff members and their families. That would allow the Foundation to sell or mortgage the house, or use its value to help pay the price tag needed to receive dismissal.
“We have 10 years of memories in that house; we love it,” Ortberg said. “The first time we ever looked at that house … Nancy looked at it and said, ‘I want to live here until I die, and when I die I want to be buried in the back yard.’”
The pastor said it had been good for he and his wife to think about things they have been holding on to a little too tightly, choosing instead to be willing to let them go for a greater good.
Noting that the church has about $2.5 million in contributions that can be used without tapping reserves, Ortberg said selling the home he and his wife live in could get the congregation more than halfway toward the amount needed.
He added that the Church of the Pioneers Foundation has “voluntarily and quite generously committed to contribute further funds that are needed to help make the agreed upon payment. And the upshot to all this is that we will be able to make the $8.89 million payment without going into debt and without cutting any staff.”
Not alone in such an endeavor
Noting that he had experienced and seen God at work in the process, Ortberg said three members of the leadership team had approached him with a willingness to take similar action to help raise the funds needed.
Teaching Pastor and Multisite Leader Scotty Scruggs and Campus Pastor Charley Scandlyn both said they would move out of their houses if it would help, and Director of Human Resources and Support Services Grace Griffin offered to work without a salary.
“I told them all we don’t have to do that,” Ortberg said. “I want to tell you something, for a church to have people on its staff who have that level of commitment to this congregation and its well-being … I will never forget that day. That’s a wonderful gift that God has given to us. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something like that.”
Ortberg implored the congregation to make this situation in the life of the church a spiritual journey rather than merely looking at it as a decision or opportunity to express an opinion on one issue or another.
“We are the body of Christ,” he said. “If you’re a member ask God, ‘God, what are you saying to me through this? God, what are you asking of me? God, what do you have for us?’ Too much is at stake here, guys. Then on March 2 at 9:30 (a.m.) we need every member to be studied up, and to be prayed up, and come and vote because we have a mission. We’re not a club. We’re not a human-powered organization. It matters. This matters. There are eternal issues at stake.”
Ortberg pointed out that there is great concern that the settlement sought by the Presbytery of San Francisco is too high and that maybe the congregation should simply stay in the denomination. Just staying, he said, is not an option as the elders determined in their unanimous vote to leave the PCUSA.
So what are the options?
Ortberg said going to court was not the route to take, that public litigation “would be a bad witness for the church, it’s not good for the bride of Jesus. It’s not what God is calling us to do, and nobody wanted to do that.”
Another option would be simply handing the campus and all the church assets over to the presbytery and starting anew elsewhere. But, Ortberg explained, that would be a bad financial decision and would be too wrenching an experience to put the congregation through if it was not forced to make such a move.
Staying in the denomination or being an independent church also were mentioned as options, but Ortberg explained that the presbytery could appoint an Administrative Commission to take over the church governance and leadership (remove the ordained pastors and elders) if it determined the congregation was not in compliance with the denomination’s polity.
Therefore, while the price tag was steeper than anticipated, Menlo Park’s elders opted to accept the amount and send the dismissal vote to the MPPC membership because of a belief in the importance to have clear ownership of the church property and a freedom to pursue the mission God has for the church.
God is in control
As he began to wind down his remarks, Ortberg referenced a prayer from Paul found in Ephesians 3:14-17, 20-21 that pointed out how God is in control and able to do immeasurably more than man can ask. He admitted that not being in control is a good thing.
“I am learning what a good thing it is not to be able to control outcomes,” he said. “I cannot control how this vote will come out. I can’t control what articles might get written about in the press. I can’t control what kind of issues people might decide they want to try to focus on. … The chance to trust God in the middle of not knowing is the best … because we’re not in control of anything, we’re not. We don’t know what the outcomes of particular circumstances (are). Only God knows that.”
Suggesting that the opportunity before Menlo Park to trust, love and be generous is one of the greatest moments of his life, Ortberg said he would not trade going through the dismissal experience for anything, calling it an energizing experience.
He then issued a challenge related to the spirit the money should be given in if the congregation votes to seek dismissal under the proposed financial terms. He referenced a teaching from Jesus that said if someone asks for your shirt, you also give your cloak, leading him to speak of God loving the cheerful giver and saying, “Ultimately, when we give we’re trusting God. We’re letting go.
“So we’re going to pray through this process, if the vote goes forward, ‘God use this money in amazing ways to extend your kingdom, to bless this presbytery, to bless the world beyond it in ways that delight and surprise us, and honor Jesus that none of us even imagines right now. If we give this money, when we give it, we’re going to give it with joy.”
Trusting God to do ‘immeasurably more’
In closing, Ortberg asked those in attendance to kneel in prayer, committing to make the remainder of February a spiritual journey to trust God.
He read the final two verses of the third chapter of Ephesians, where Paul wrote, “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever! Amen.”
“God is the god of the immeasurably more,” Ortberg said. “We want to be the church that believes our God can do immeasurably more.”
Ortberg asked that people take cards with the prayer written on them, learn it and commit themselves to living it in their daily lives, returning on March 2 and making that prayer their final words said together before the vote for dismissal.
“And then we’re just going to trust God,” Ortberg said.