Pierpont Presbyterian Church, located in Ashtabula County about three miles from Pennsylvania some 70 miles east of Cleveland and south of Lake Erie, wrapped up its affiliation with the PCUSA and the Presbytery of the Western Reserve (PWR) when its decision to leave the denomination was formally recognized during a May 22 presbytery meeting.
The 110-member church sought to leave the PCUSA by disaffiliating and took steps to begin that process only to be informed that it did not conduct its congregational vote in the appropriate manner.
Members of the Pierpont session, in a conference call with The Layman, cited a more liberal stance by the presbytery and PCUSA as a major factor in the decision to sever ties.
“The members of the Presbytery of the Western Reserve for a number of years have become more liberal than conservative, which we consider ourselves to be. We are a small, rural church and felt we had been largely ignored,” Elder Lincoln Morris said. “There have been a number of changes in the PCUSA over the years that we have been dissatisfied with, so we began looking at what we could do about the situation.”
Pierpont’s session began informing the congregation of changes and concerns within the denomination around 2008, primarily the pro-choice stance on abortion and issues related to homosexuality. When Amendment 10A (regarding the ordination of homosexuals) and the new Form of Government (nFOG) came to fruition in 2011, it was time to make a move.
A loose interpretation of Scripture by the PCUSA and an apparent disregard for the Book of Order also factored into the decision to look elsewhere for a denominational tie.
“It finally came to a head with 10A and the new Form of Government, and we felt it was time to take action,” Morris explained.
The 10-member session, which supported leaving the PCUSA, sent letters to congregants and informed them from the pulpit about a congregational vote set for June 5, 2011, that would determine the church’s future.
That vote, attended by members of PWR, yielded a 55-2 result (96 percent) in favor of seeking dismissal. However, the session was informed by PWR representatives after the vote that it was not conducted properly. In making such a claim, the PWR went against the Book of Order’s provisions in stating that a higher number of people was needed for the vote to be legitimate.
Following guidelines set forth in the BOO, the session ignored the claim and acted on their vote. The next day, Pierpont’s elders sent a letter to the presbytery announcing the church had disaffiliated and would be seeking a different way of worship.
The Presbytery of the Western Reserve did not respond to an email from The Layman regarding the disaffiliation.
Clerk of Session Bruce Hoover indicated it was 13 months before an Administrative Commission (AC) formed to work with the church had a meeting with Pierpont representatives.
Ed Diehl, who had been pastor at the church, died shortly after the vote, and the presbytery apparently used that to give the congregation a time to heal before resuming discussions. Pierpont’s session surmised that the presbytery thought that in his absence the church might forget about the vote taken to leave and thus remain in the PCUSA.
When there were talks in July 2012, the AC informed Pierpont leaders that the church was behind on per-capita payments (it had stopped making them in 2009), that the church property belonged to the PCUSA through the trust clause and that all original church records would have to be provided.
The church sent copies of the records but was informed that the originals had to be sent. By December 2012, about a month after Dustin Leimgruber was called to be Pierpont’s new pastor, a letter was received from the presbytery that was conciliatory in nature and indicated a willingness to forego some of the PCUSA demands for leaving the denomination, though there was stipulation for discussion of a financial negotiation.
During a session meeting in January 2013, Pierpont’s elders determined that a payment of $2,500 be recommended to the presbytery, designated for mission work to honor the time of ministry between the church and PWR.
Additionally, the session agreed to send original church records to the Presbyterian Historical Society and have them microfilmed at a cost of $40, also paying for that expense, with the understanding that they would be returned to the church.
The presbytery accepted the offer.
“Twenty-five hundred dollars seemed awfully low, but they did not negotiate at all,” said Hoover, adding that the presbytery indicated the church owed $6,879 in per capita from 2009-2012. “Our assumption was that (the presbytery) figured the GA (General Assembly) would be looking at it so they had to make sure they got something for a settlement.”
Pierpont’s session retained an attorney for representation if there was a legal challenge, an act they did not think went over well with the presbytery. They were advised that under Ohio law, there were no legal mandatory conditions they had to fulfill to leave the denomination. Also, they were advised that they would win a court case if it came to that. Ohio, as a neutral-principles state, does not recognize the PCUSA’s trust clause.
“We were not willing to walk away from our property because our deed does not show anything to do with the PCUSA,” Morris said. “There was some contention early on because of the trust clause and what it would entail. We thought we might be dragged into court, and it might take more time and money to leave. But they let us off with our property.”
Pierpont opted to align with the EPC because of a similar theological understanding that was firm in an interpretation of the Scripture and application of the Westminster Confession. The congregation was accepted as a transitional member in April 2012 and fully entered into the EPC’s Presbytery of the Alleghenies in April 2013.
Members of the session are glad to have the denominational wrangling behind them, paving the way for the Pierpont church to focus on ministry and answering God’s call.
“Hallelujah!” Hoover exclaimed.
Elder Elaine Sundman added, “I think it’s a great relief that it’s all over.”
“This allows us an opportunity to spend all our energy going forward and reaching out into the community more than we have in the past,” Morris said. “We have a good, young pastor with some new ideas, and we look forward to implementing them, doing more of what God wants us to do.”