On Jan. 27, the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church (FPC) of Houston, Texas, voted 620-271 to enter into the Presbytery of New Covenant’s reconciliation and dismissal process.
The Rev. Jim Birchfield, senior pastor of the church, told the Houston Chronicle that “As with any step into an unknown future, the biggest question is, ‘Where will this all lead us?’ There is a general concern of not knowing, and among people who feel strongly on either side, a concern that we won’t end up where they want us to end up.”
The presbytery’s “Gracious Reconciliation and Dismissal Procedure” seeks to answer three questions – which it deems “paramount:”
- “Is God leading this particular congregation to restore fellowship with the Presbyterian Church (USA), or to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
- “If God is leading this congregation toward restoration of fellowship with the Presbyterian Church (USA), how can that be accomplished in a way that honors Jesus Christ and strengthens both the congregation and the presbytery?
- “If God is leading this congregation to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA), how can that be accomplished in a way that honors Jesus Christ and strengthens both the congregation and the presbytery?”
Following the vote, a discernment team made up of four members of presbytery and four members of the congregation (one staff member, one session member, two at-large active members) with meet together for a time of prayer and discernment.
After that, the session can call for a congregational meeting to vote on the dismissal question. A quorum of 30 percent and a 2/3rds affirmative vote it required for dismissal into another Reformed body. If both requirement are met, the presbytery “shall agree to the dismissal, permitting the congregation to depart with all of its property intact,” according to the policy.
Prior to the dismissal, the congregation must agree to “contribute to the presbytery the greater of: the per member share of the current presbytery budget or the average of the congregation’s past three years’ presbytery contributions. These contributions will be contributed on a declining scale over a five year period according to the following schedule:
- “Year one – 100 percent
- “Year two – 80 percent
- “Year three – 60 percent
- “Year four – 40 percent
- “Year five – 20 percent
- “Year six and beyond – 0 percent”
The motion that was presented to the congregation had been approved unanimously by its session at its Jan. 8 meeting. In a letter to the congregation, the session said, “The meeting is NOT being called in order to vote on whether we should remain affiliated with the PCUSA – but only to determine whether you believe it would be beneficial to go through the discernment process.”
The letter said that the PCUSA has made changes in several areas that reflected a “significant turning away from the traditional confessions of our faith and from the historically orthodox understanding of the authority and interpretation of Scripture outlined in the brief ‘Statement of Faith’ that was unanimously adopted by session in 2011 and 2012.”
The statement of faith outlines the session’s beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the authority and interpretation of Scripture, sin, salvation, sanctification and God’s redemptive purpose.
The letter continued by stating that the session “has come to believe that these changes have become a distraction to FPC’s ability to pursue our mission to ‘carry the Gospel to Houston and the world’ and are making it more and more difficult to remain in fellowship and common mission with those whose core theological beliefs are so different from those historically held by First Presbyterian.”
According to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 2011 comparative statistics, compiled by Research Services, First Presbyterian, Houston is the eighth largest church in the denomination with 4,300 members.
Of the other churches in the 15 largest PCUSA congregations list – two are no longer in the denomination. First Presbyterian, Colorado Springs, Colo., (14) is now a member of ECO: a Covenant Order of Presbyterians. First Presbyterian, Orlando, Fla., is a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
Four other churches in the top 15 are members of the Fellowship of Presbyterians. They include:
- Peachtree Presbyterian, Atlanta, Ga., (1) with 8,675 members
- Christ Presbyterian, Edina, Minn., (2) with 5,541
- Highland Park Presbyterian, Dallas, Texas, (4) with 4,854 members
- Memorial Drive Presbyterian, Houston, Texas (6) with 4,343 members
The session of one other church on the list – Menlo Park Presbyterian Church of Menlo Park, Calif. (10) – voted in September 2012 to enter into the reconciliation and dismissal process with San Francisco Presbytery. The presbytery policy allows churches to “engage with the presbytery to consider leaving the denomination for another Reformed denomination,” according to the church web site.