Mountain Presbyterian Church, located at the foot of “Little Mountain” near the city of Sunbury (Susquehanna River Valley), was dismissed from the PCUSA on Jan. 19 by the Presbytery of Northumberland to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
Started in 1828, MPC has a membership of 86 with an average attendance of about 75 under the pastoral care of CLP Robert T. Reich, who spoke highly of the dismissal process afforded his congregation by the presbytery.
“It’s almost indescribable to try to comprehend what we have experienced,” said Reich, who indicated that while the Presbytery of Northumberland was in the process of developing a gracious separation policy MPC made known its intent to leave the denomination. “The presbytery knew we were anxious to move ahead, and we were really blessed that they were so wonderful in making it an easy process for us. The presbytery was very gracious, very accommodating. They have been wonderful.”
Reich said Presbytery of Northumberland continues its work to develop a gracious separation policy (having developed substantial protocol procedures utilized for the MPC dismissal process) in light of other churches seeking dismissal from the PCUSA.
“Our congregation is so excited,” he said. “We feel like we do no longer have to apologize to potential new members who desired to join our congregation, but who frowned on theological issues supported by PCUSA. It’s a victory in Jesus that is overwhelming.”
Church leaders and members had strong feelings about property issues, feeling that the trust clause of the PCUSA was a way for the denomination to hold the congregation “hostage to theological positions counter to our beliefs.”
When the PCUSA began to foster theological positions no longer acceptable to the congregation, a change was in order. MPC’s leadership saw the PCUSA bending more to meet a cultural theology rather than a Biblical one. For that reason, the MPC session spent almost a year in discernment and prayer regarding the future of the church.
Firmly believing the Bible to be the infallible Word of God and the final authority in all matters of faith, the MPC session and membership determined that the Bible alone should bind their conscience rather than mandates from a council or assembly that contradicts the teaching given by the Word of God.
MPC did not see that from the PCUSA based on a perceived pragmatic philosophy that appeals to the prevalent culture instead of informing that culture through the Word of God.
The church took exception to General Assembly action changing ordination standards to allow the ordination of individuals in same-sex relationships as well as the debate on redefining marriage from being between one man and one woman to being between two people.
The questioning of the centrality of Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation and the PCUSA’s turn from the Gospel’s teaching a life of holiness and disregard for the confessions upon which the Presbyterian Church was built were other factors that led the congregation to vote unanimously to begin the process of seeking gracious dismissal from the PCUSA.
Reich said, “Had the PCUSA remained faithful to the historical values upon which the Presbyterian denomination was established, dismissal would not have been considered.”
Initially, the session joined the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) after Reich attended several conferences hosted by the group. In October 2012, a vote was taken to request dismissal and seek membership with ECO. Again, the vote was unanimous to pursue dismissal and join ECO.
The presbytery formed an Administrative Commission (AC) that met several times with the MPC session and recommended dismissal for the congregation. The AC, in counsel with the presbytery’s executive presbyter, developed a sound step-by-step process for considering dismissal, which was the protocol followed in its commission work.
Attorneys for both sides ironed out details for terms of dismissal that were agreed upon by the presbytery and the MPC congregation.
Those terms included that all PCUSA logos and references be removed from church documents and signage, and that church records be turned over to the presbytery. In addition, MPC paid three years of per capita, totaling $7,900, in advance of its departure.
“It was very fair, and we were extremely pleased (with terms),” Reich said. “We had a wonderful commission that during its inquiry was very cooperative with us, and after assessing our session and congregation’s desire to be dismissed, worked effectively to document its findings and recommendations to presbytery.”
Mountain Presbyterian Church also considered the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) as a potential denominational home before settling on ECO.
The decision was based on a more concise polity for ECO that remains comprehensive enough for a connectional church relationship that will enable the church to carry out its governance in an effective manner as well as ECO’s belief in smaller presbyteries that provide a connectional relationship of churches focused on discipleship and a missional approach.
ECO does not have per-capita payments, instead requiring a 1-percent annual fee of local church budgets for membership, and it has a flatter governmental structure.
In addition, ECO has essential tenets of doctrinal beliefs for its membership, holding them accountable through participation in partnership arrangements with other churches to provide assistance and support in holding to those essentials.
“This congregation has a whole new lease on life,” Reich said. “We are so excited about what we see for the future of our church.”