“If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” Those words found in Mark 3:25 ring true for First Presbyterian Church of Peachtree City in Georgia, which has split into a pair of congregations.
The Easter Sunday service for First Presbyterian Church of Peachtree City was the first with segregated congregations, one remaining at the Willow Bend Road location with the other meeting at an alternate site.
A large faction of the Georgia church broke away to form as a new member of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
That group, compromising the bulk of the nearly 700-member congregation, had its first service on Easter, March 31, at the Peachtree City United Methodist Church Annex located at South Peachtree Parkway.
About 425 people attended the 9 a.m. service at the facility shared with the congregation of All Saints Anglican Church, which came in later for a 10:45 a.m. service. All Saints was formed almost six years ago when it broke away from the Episcopal Church.
The new Presbyterian church has been incorporated and is operating under the name of the New Church, Peachtree City, according to its web site. It is slated to be accepted into ECO during a May 1 denominational meeting and will continue meeting at the Methodist Annex for the time being.
While those members were beginning life anew, those remaining at FPC-Peachtree City had their Easter service with a smaller congregation under the direction of the Rev. Joan Gray, one of two interim pastors appointed by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta following the retirement of Pastor David Miller, effective March 27.
The Rev. Stephen Kolderup, who confirmed the pastoral appointments by the presbytery, also was sent to serve as an interim pastor at the church.
Miller, who had been at Peachtree City for nearly nine years, decided to retire after 33 years of ministry with the Presbyterian Church (USA). He submitted his retirement to the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta the week before Palm Sunday and preached his final service at FPC-Peachtree City on March 24. Like the congregants who departed FPC-Peachtree City for the New Church of Peachtree City, Miller intends to join ECO and serve as pastor for the New Church, Peachtree City. The new church’s current web site lists him as the senior pastor.
In the September 2012 church newsletter, Miller wrote that “For almost two years your elders have struggled with the issues, debated with each other, listened to your thoughts and concerns, and prayed for God’s guidance. They have come to the conclusion that now is the time to begin the process of Gracious Separation from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. … Let me assure you, the congregation will still be Presbyterian whether our members vote to remain in the PCUSA or vote to be dismissed to the ECO (Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians).”
As reported in the October 2012 edition of The Layman, the session of First Presbyterian Church of Peachtree City voted to enter into the Gracious Separation Process with the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.
According to the announcement found at that time on the church web site, which now is no longer operational, “This decision comes after months of prayer, debate, study and listening to our congregation. At the conclusion of this process the session intends to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).”
The Rev. Penny Hill, transitional presbyter for Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, indicated that supporters of the PCUSA remain at FPC-Peachtree City and stressed that the congregation was not dismissed from the PCUSA.
Contacted by The Layman about FPC-Peachtree City seeking dismissal from the PCUSA, Hill adamantly emphasized on two occasions that there was not a dismissal and would not be a dismissal from the PCUSA.
“David (Miller) chose to leave, and there were those who chose to leave with him,” Hill said. “There were some who were seeking dismissal, but that has not happened. There will be no dismissal (from the PCUSA).”
“There are lots of PCUSA supporters still there (at FPC-Peachtree City), and the church remains in the PCUSA. There is still a PCUSA congregation there in Peachtree City that is thriving.”
Kolderup said a number of leaders have emerged at FPC-Peachtree City, which has helped the transition that has been made. He added that he and Gray are working with the congregation as they look to the future of the church.
“God’s hand works sometimes with us and in spite of us, but His hand works,” Kolderup said. “We need to be attentive to God’s leading and do the right thing as we go forward. Joan and I are preaching that everyone needs to get their focus back on their baptismal vows and promises to be disciples of Jesus Christ, reminding them they need to be fully involved in the life of the church.”
Hill said the presence of the two churches in Peachtree City, located 31 miles southwest of Atlanta, should lead to more opportunities to share the Word of Christ.
“Isn’t it exciting that there will be two Presbyterian churches there that can reach out for Christ?” she asked. “I know you wish blessings, like this presbytery, upon the churches in Peachtree City.”
Kolderup added, “A split is painful in the Body of Christ. We are encouraging people to maintain their friendships built over time. There are now two witnesses to Jesus Christ here, and we wish the new church all the best.”
A joint statement from the Special Committee of the Congregation (SCC) and Presbytery Engagement Team (PET) sent to members of FPC-Peachtree City acquired by the The Layman outlined the division of the church.
The two bodies gathered March 26 to discuss and negotiate the gracious separation process, and after a week the sides reached a compromise.
According to the joint statement, it was agreed that FPC-Peachtree City (PCUSA) retain the real property, which is held in trust for the use and benefit of the PCUSA. That congregation will retain the rights and responsibilities of the property. The parties also agreed it was in the best interest of both sides for the remaining assets of the church to be divided in accordance with a mutual agreement of the parties, including a $150,000 gift made to those leaving the PCUSA to support their ministry.
The statement goes on to show since both parties mutually agreed to a division of assets that the two separate churches should “go forward in their respective ministries to the glory of God and in service to Jesus Christ, with no further action relating to gracious separation.”
It further reads, “Therefore, the parties mutually agreed that this disposition of assets and agreement constitutes a formal conclusion to the gracious separation process and will be submitted to presbytery for final acceptance without the necessity of a congregational vote relating to gracious separation or formal dismissal by presbytery.”
An additional letter from former session members of the church also was sent to the membership. It noted that the congregation was “a house divided” and that the session initiated the gracious separation process because of a conscience that no longer permitted it to support the will of the majority within the PCUSA. The letter notes that a sizable group within the congregation “is unable to support the will of the local church majority to be dismissed from the PCUSA. Thus the process has led us to this time to part ways. We do so with immense sadness.”
The letter indicates that the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta was notified that ties would be severed with the PCUSA and gives the resignation of the 10 ruling elders of the session. Notably, it does not include the resignation nor renunciation of the duly called and installed Associate Pastor Drew Elling, who continues to seek to serve in his call to the PCUSA.
“While one church family has now become two, we remain Presbyterian. We pray that both churches will remain beacons of light in this community,” the letter reads.