Those were the words of Steve O’Neal, commissioned ruling elder of First Presbyterian Church of Fitzgerald, in regard to his congregation’s spring dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA).
FPC-Fitzgerald, a 55-member church located in Benhill County of southwest Georgia some 100 miles south of Macon, was released from Flint River Presbytery in late April to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians in a process O’Neal deemed to be most gracious.
His reason for the smooth separation process: the power of prayer.
“We bathed this whole process in prayer,” O’Neal said. “We got down on our faces before God and prayed ardently. It sounds old-fashioned, but it kept us encouraged. God kept love in our hearts and opened doors for us. There’s no doubt He led us through this process.”
O’Neal has been the full-time leader of the church, permanently assigned by the presbytery, for the last seven years and has served the congregation, formed in 1896, off and on for 16 years. He said representatives from the church attended the Fellowship of Presbyterians/ECO gathering in Minneapolis in August 2011 after growing increasingly frustrated with the direction of the PCUSA.
“There was discontent from the top down,” O’Neal noted. “It was a straying of Biblical truth and Biblical inerrancy. We just were not happy with the direction the denomination was heading.”
O’Neal said frustrations of the FPC-Fitzgerald congregation were not permeated throughout the presbytery as much as they were on a national level. Loose interpretation of Scriptural authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ along with options of beliefs given by the PCUSA did not sit well with members.
“There was an unsettledness of trying to blend into the carnal world view instead of God’s world view,” O’Neal said. “Instead of taking the Bible and making a difference in the world, there is an attempt to adapt to the world around us.”
Not wanting to adhere to such vices, the Fitzgerald session unanimously voted to recommend the church seek dismissal from the PCUSA. That recommendation was accepted unanimously by approximately 40 members who cast ballots during a congregational vote on the issue in August 2012.
Flint River Presbytery assigned an Administrative Commission (AC) to work with the congregation. O’Neal said the AC was granted the authority to dismiss the congregation without bringing the matter before the entire presbytery for a vote.
The congregation unanimously accepted financial terms to retain rights to the church property, agreeing to pledge financial support in the amount of $5,500 (the church’s average giving to the presbytery during the last five years). Funds already had been put back in escrow by the church, which has made the payment.
“It was the most cooperative, gracious process,” O’Neal admitted, applauding the leadership of Executive Presbyter Paul Luthman and Stated Clerk Jerry Watts. “Our presbytery couldn’t have been more gracious. In the beginning, they purposed, and we did too, that this was not going to be any kind of row with any animosity. We entered into it prayerfully.
“God put us together with a very gracious group of people. We have been blessed to go through such a smooth transition.”
A conservative congregation, FPC-Fitzgerald always has had a desire to serve God by serving others, evidenced by its commitments – with finances and manpower – to various outreach programs in the local community and abroad.
Many congregations have grown tired of the PCUSA’s diminished emphasis on missions work and have sought denominational homes that robustly support such endeavors. FPC-Fitzgerald is no different.
O’Neal mentioned a garden, playground and walking area developed by church members on the property as well as its financial support of and service to a local food bank, clothes closet and Christian Kitchen, Inc., started by one of the FPC-Fitzgerald members. The organization, which O’Neal serves as CEO, is locally supported and serves meals to 150 people a day.
“The people at this church are some of best I’ve ever been associated with,” he said. “There is a long, established history of service here, a real love for God and God’s kingdom. We may be small, but God has blessed us and allowed us to do tremendous things.
“For us, this work has been practical ministry of the Gospel, touching people’s lives as Christ commands us.”
That led to ECO as the choice for a new denominational home. Fitzgerald’s leadership and members like the missional view developed by ECO, the emphasis the denomination places on outreach, as well as a form of governance that is less bureaucratic than that of the PCUSA.
“We like that missional view and the desire to be true to God’s Word as we advance the kingdom,” O’Neal explained. “There also seems to be more of a ‘church up’ mentality. The PCUSA had become more ‘top down.’
“We found ECO to be a suitable home for us.”
FPC-Fitzgerald would like to continue relationships with churches in Flint River Presbytery, partnering with them in various projects.
“We still plan to have contact and continue that connectedness we have,” O’Neal said.
With the PCUSA now in their past, Fitzgerald’s members have their sights set on establishing relationships with other ECO churches and following the path God has laid before them.
“God has been gracious in answering our prayers. We did not go though any horrendous wrenching, instead having a very Biblical handling of this process,” O’Neal said. “We’re free to move in the direction God leads us, and we’re excited about where that will be. As Presbyterians like to say, this was done in an orderly way and very pleasing in God’s sight.”
FPC-Eldorado dismissed by Tres Rios Presbytery
First Presbyterian Church of Eldorado was dismissed from the PCUSA during a June 14 meeting of Tres Rios Presbytery.
According to a presbytery document, the congregation was dismissed with its property to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
Eldorado is located in Schleicher County, northeast of Austin and San Antonio in west Texas.
The 85-member church, under the pastoral care of the Rev. Joseph McGee, will make a financial gift of $10,000 to the Small Church Fund of Tres Rios Presbytery along with a gift of $6,500 to Project Dignidad, a mission under the umbrella of Tres Rios, in honor of the relationship and shared ministry the church has had with the presbytery during its time within the denomination.