East Brook Presbyterian Church, located in New Castle, Pa., between Pittsburgh and Erie was dismissed graciously from the PCUSA during a Feb. 26 meeting of the Presbytery of Shenango. East Brook was one of six churches dismissed during the meeting.
East Brook’s path down the road to dismissal started in June 2011, about a month after the approval of Amendment 10A and passage of the new Form of Government (nFOG), actions that presented variant views of the authority of Scripture.
The church of 98 members founded in the 1870s entered into a period of discernment to determine its future.
“We entered that time without any real expectation of where we were going or what we would do,” said Jason Schepp, a commissioned lay pastor (CLP) who has served East Brook for nearly seven years. “We just wanted to find the best association for our church.”
Looking at denominational options other than the PCUSA, Schepp and some East Brook members attended the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) meeting in Minneapolis, Minn., in August 2011.
In January 2012, with more than half its membership casting ballots well above the required 35 percent as stated in the presbytery’s dismissal policy, East Brook voted to formally enter the dismissal process. Later that year, in November, the join opted to affiliate itself with ECO.
There was just one dissenting vote cast when the church voted on both matters.
“The session and congregation viewed that as a very favorable response for the direction we were headed,” Schepp said.
A change in the PCUSA’s views over the last 15-20 years weighed heavily in the decision to seek dismissal.
“It’s been a continuous change, something our elders have seen for several years,” Schepp said. “The new Book of Order made changes to what we saw as the authority of Scripture. The direction our church was going was not the one the PCUSA was headed from a Biblical faith standpoint. We began looking more outward to find what the right fit for us is now.”
Schepp noted that East Brook has been in somewhat of a transitional period, trying to become more evangelism-based and mission-focused in its outreach efforts. With that in mind, the session and church membership looked at several denominations, including the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and ECO.
“We wanted to take the gifts and talents God gave us and better serve our community,” Schepp said. “For our members and the vision for our church, ECO was the best fit for those outreach opportunities.”
Schepp said ECO’s focus on growing and planting churches was a definite appeal to East Brook as was the emphasis placed on God leading congregations.
“There’s an excitement of faith, of fully relying on God’s leading,” he said. “It’s a Spirit-led movement, a God-led movement through missions and evangelism. It’s not so much that the church is Presbyterian, Methodist of Baptist. It’s about the church being God’s church and focused on giving His message to non-believers.”
Schepp was in attendance at the FOP/ECO national gathering on Orlando, Fla., Jan. 30-Feb. 1 and heard a statement that summed up God’s calling for East Brook to become part of ECO.
“Someone made the statement that the goal is baptize more than we bury,” he said. “That statement summarizes what we feel ECO is. That’s where we feel we are being led.”
The dismissal terms from Presbytery of Shenango were very fair, Schepp said, adding that there was no cost involved for the congregation to retain the church property.
“It’s a very gracious policy, and the presbytery did a wonderful job helping us through the process,” he said. “They presented an offer we felt was fair.”
East Brook agreed to pay a descending apportionment of per capita for three years that comes to about $8,000-10,000 as well as pledging mission funds to the presbytery for at least the next three years, though Schepp said that may be extended.
“There’s no formal agreement that funds have to be transferred (in the dismissal policy), but the presbytery encourages churches to do what they need to do to serve,” Schepp said. “We wanted to help the presbytery continue its work and continue those relationships that have been established. It was a very somber meeting when we were dismissed.”
Now East Brook’s congregation is looking toward a new future aligned with a new denomination.
“I think our members are excited,” Schepp said. “They’re making new banners, and looking at more missions and evangelical opportunities. I feel a buzz in the church, and that is really exciting. These people want to serve and share God’s word. We have aligned ourselves with a denomination that gives us the encouragement to do that.”
Other churches depart PCUSA
During the same Presbytery of Shenango meeting in February, four other Presbyterian churches were granted gracious dismissal.
Joining East Brook’s departure were Center Presbyterian Church, East Main Presbyterian Church, Neshannock Presbyterian Church and Princeton Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Princeton and Neshannock, both located in New Castle, Pa., were dismissed to join ECO. East Main, in Grove City, also has affiliated with ECO.
Center Presbyterian Church in Grove City has become part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
According to minutes from the presbytery meeting, the churches were granted dismissal without a financial compensation requirement. Reasons for such action were defending the honor of previous members of the churches who had contributed to building of financial assets; noting that the trust clause in the Book of Order exists for the purpose of thwarting the tyranny of the majority and should be applied only when a small majority tries to manipulate a large minority (the Shenango dismissal policy requires an 80 percent affirmative vote by the congregation, and the votes in all the churches was much higher); and the belief that relationships are of great importance. The presbytery noted that all serve in close proximity, and there was a strong desire to foster the best possible relationships.
The presbytery minutes also mentioned the belief that the denominations the churches have affiliated with are considered to be true Reformed churches as well as a desire to spread Christian love and witness rather than squabble over legal rights and property.