“Russell … a church for the community.” That has been the motto of a small South Carolina congregation for a number of years. So perhaps it is only fitting that the congregation now carries the banner of Russell Community Church.
Formerly known as Russell Memorial Presbyterian Church, the name was changed in accordance with the congregation’s dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
The dismissal of the 52-member church in Berea, west of Greenville, took place during the Aug. 17 meeting of Foothills Presbytery. Less than a week later, members of Russell were able to attend an ECO conference held at nearby First Presbyterian Church of Greenville.
Russell actually was formed as a mission church of First Presbyterian Church of Greenville about 50 years ago. FPC-Greenville, a church of 3,500 members, was dismissed to ECO in August 2012.
An attention grabber
Dale Youngs, who has been the stated supply pastor at Russell since 2008, said the Russell congregation had been watching actions of the General Assembly, and the move by FPC-Greenville was an attention grabber.
“We saw things we did not agree with going on in the national denomination. Our members started to be alarmed and expressed concern about what was taking place,” Youngs said. “When First (Presbyterian)-Greenville left, that got everyone’s attention. Everyone looked at that church, and its decision sent a message. That really triggered investigation and research about what was taking place.”
“They (Russell’s members) read their Bibles and say, ‘This is what it says; this is what we do.’ There’s not a lot of nuance theology done by the congregation,” he said. “That there could be another way of doing things was unfathomable.”
In December 2012, the session expressed the desire to leave the PCUSA. At a January 2013 elders retreat, they looked at options for the church’s future and voted unanimously (6-0) to recommend departing the PCUSA for ECO on March 20.
A town hall meeting of members also yielded a unanimous vote to proceed in such a way, leading to the decision to leave the denomination in April. Foothills Presbytery formed a task force that held three meetings with Russell’s pastor and an elder, its session and its membership. That task force ultimately determined that the congregation was firm and united in its decision to leave the PCUSA.
“We had widespread support throughout the church,” Youngs said, adding that a church vote yielded a unanimous decision to seek dismissal. “No one was against the move.”
Youngs said the task force that worked with Russell’s leadership operated quickly and efficiently in reaching terms to grant dismissal.
“It was never a situation where we felt the enemy was coming,” he said. “They were very sympathetic of where we were and where we wanted to be. The process moved very quickly for us. It wasn’t bad at all. In fact, they were extremely gracious.”
Gordon Raynal, interim presbytery pastor and stated clerk for Foothills Presbytery, acknowledged the attitudes of all involved with the dismissal process.
“Russell Memorial Church was established as a chapel by First Presbyterian Church in Greenville and became a particular congregation in the late 1990s,” Raynal wrote in an email to The Layman. “The process of their requesting dismissal from the PCUSA was handled most graciously by the session and members there and by our Gracious Dismissal Task Force members assigned to deal with their request. The communications from them were that they were not upset by Foothills Presbytery or their relations here, but rather with denominational stands. And so, it was an amicable process.
“The non-hostile attitude by the members there meant that the process moved smoothly and according to schedule. As a general rule the hope in our Gracious Dismissal Policy is to complete the process within a 90-day period. Because of the non-hostile attitude and because of the expert work of our Task Force, we were able to help them through the process without major problems.”
Leaving with property
Youngs added that Russell leaves the PCUSA with all its property. He said the church has a quarter-million dollar debt and is in need of some repairs to the sanctuary from flood damage sustained in July, prompting a move into the fellowship hall for services until funding for repairs can be secured.
A quit claim deed was signed at the presbytery meeting, giving the property to the church without any payment to the presbytery. Youngs said the fact that the church has a debt and is in need of repairs may have played a role in such a gracious and quick separation agreement reached between the sides.
“Our story is not like what is going on in the rest of the denomination where there tends to be so much stridency and anger between the parties,” Youngs said. “You hear stories of the congregation and presbytery not speaking to each other, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Ours was an amicable parting. We really believe God granted us favor in the way our dismissal was handled.”
Hispanic ministry remains
In addition to keeping its property intact, Russell also will continue to host a Foothills Presbytery-sponsored Hispanic ministry congregation.
“(Presbytery leaders) decided to leave that congregation in our midst, and we get to work with them,” Youngs said. “That’s peace in the midst of this division and shows that we are working together.”
Raynal wrote of the importance of continuing that ministry at Russell for now, even as the presbytery re-evaluates plans for the future.
“The issue of our Latino Ministry in Foothills is important,” Raynal wrote. “It would be entirely disruptive to those members to relocate at this time. The budget for 2013 is already set, and it is now time to plan for 2014. Presbytery agreed to continue our obligations to that ministry in 2013. In the budget-making process we have also proposed to continue the support of that ministry for next year. That noted, Foothills Presbytery is in a time of rethinking and revisiting our structures and our mission work. This is a comprehensive rethinking that includes all aspects of presbytery’s life, structure and mission. Thus, we did not make any precise promises for 2014. Hispanic and other ethnic ministries will go forward, but the ways in which we do that are being revisited. The Russell Memorial people, our Latino Ministry Team and the congregants of that community understand this.”
While that Hispanic congregation is comprised of PCUSA members at the present time (at least until they are ready to join a different denomination), Russell’s membership will be laboring in ECO, a new home that appeared as the best fit for the church in terms of core beliefs, essentials and spirit of the denomination. It provides a fresh start for a church sporting a new name that seeks to reach the community for Christ.
“We don’t have to worry about this (dismissal procedure) anymore,” Youngs said. “It’s been a distraction but now we can focus on the kingdom again. It’s all about winning the world for Christ.”