Three Pennsylvania churches
begin possible dismissal process
By Jason P. Reagan, The Layman, August 17, 2011
Three Pennsylvania churches may join the ever-growing ranks of congregations leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) following a change to the denomination’s constitution.
In July, Guinston, Round Hill and Kennett Square Presbyterian churches contacted the Presbytery of Donegal to begin a discernment process that could lead to one or more congregations leaving the PCUSA.
Donegal, a presbytery that includes 58 congregations, has lost seven churches since 2007 due to dismissal. The presbytery narrowly voted in favor of Amendment 10A, which deleted the chastity/fidelity clause from the PCUSA Book of Order, by an 83-80 vote. The amendment effectively permits presbyteries to ordain gay or lesbian candidates as deacons, elders and pastors.
The churches now enter a process in which the presbytery will meet with each congregation to decide the question of dismissal in hopes of avoiding property battles in the future.
Under Donegal’s “Policy on Reconciliation/Dismissal,” the process begins by forming a discernment team of four church representatives and four representatives from the presbytery. The presbytery’s council will appoint a moderator, who will have an equal vote.
Adopted in January, the policy states the teams must meet three times in six months.
“It’s a process that commits both the presbytery and the church to seek God’s will,” said the Rev. Daniel Moore, pastor of Guinston Presbytery Church in Airville. The congregation voted to begin the discernment process in June.
“We recognize that we live in a time when our unity in Christ is being tested and our ability to work together in mission is being tried,” the Donegal policy states, adding, “We covenant that even in times of disagreements and conflict we will seek to uphold one another, build up one another, respect one another, and love one another, to the end that the mission of Christ be fulfilled.”
According to the presbytery, the process is designed to minimize “confrontations while we seek to discern and follow the will of Christ.”
Presbytery officials say the process won’t likely get underway until fall. So far, Kennett Square has conducted some discernment sessions with Donegal – although the outcome is not known at this time. Guinston and Round Hill have not yet named discernment team representatives.
According to a source familiar with the discernment process, the presbytery has asked the congregations not to discuss proceedings with the media.
During the first meeting, according to the policy, both sides will share their understanding of theological issues that may have led to conflicts between the congregation and the PCUSA.
“The first meeting will primarily be a listening session,” the policy states.
The team moderator will guide a dialogue in the second meeting for a further discussion of theological differences. “The purpose of this discussion is to determine how much common theological ground exists between the congregation and the presbytery/denomination,” the policy stated.
“Are the theological differences confined to certain issues or do the conflicts run deeper to ecclesiological, Christological or other foundational theological issues?”
In the third meeting, both sides will determine if further meetings are necessary. The discernment team will make a recommendation to the congregation in question and Donegal Presbytery which will lead to one of two decisions:
“It may, through its authorized representatives continue to negotiate with the presbytery to seek different terms for dismissal, and then offer these to the congregation for another vote (under the same terms as the previous meeting and voting requirements),” or the church may decide to recommit to the PCUSA and rescind its earlier vote.
From a financial perspective, a dismissing church will be required by the policy to “remit to the presbytery a sum equal to three times the annual amount of the presbytery portion of per capita at the time the initial congregational meeting is held.” The presbytery council will decide how the funds will be used. Also, any endowments to a departing church naming the PCUSA as the beneficiary must be transferred to Donegal.