The presbytery voted to approve Menlo Park’s dismissal from the national denomination, allowing the church of more than 3,000 members to depart the PCUSA and align with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
Nicole Laubscher, communications director for Menlo Park, said the voice vote taken by the presbytery gave solid approval of the congregation’s request to be dismissed.
The Rev. Jeff Hutcheson, Presbytery of San Francisco’s pastor for mission and vision, noted the passage of the motion by an overwhelming majority, adding that the decision would lead Menlo Park and the presbytery to new callings.
“It was also a heart-wrenching vote. Many expressed sadness and grief over Menlo’s decision to leave but supported their path,” Hutcheson wrote in an email to The Layman. “There was a strong expression of gratitude for all the gifts that Menlo brings to our life and faith. We pray and believe that Jesus is leading us ALL, both Menlo and the presbytery, into a new time, a new freedom and new dreams. It is my hope and belief that the body of Christ is being transfigured to more clearly manifest Christ’s glory.”
The dismissal to ECO also applies to MPPC Senior Pastor John Ortberg and Associates Scott Palmbush, Mark Swarner and Frank VanderZwan.
“This has been a spiritual journey of discernment for our church,” Ortberg said in a press release from the church. “I’m grateful for the learning, praying and engagement of the whole congregation, including those who voted for a different outcome. We are committed to moving forward together in fulfilling our mission as we discern God calling us.”
Menlo Park followed the presbytery’s Policy for Reconciliation and Dismissal of Congregations, adopted in June 2012, then revised and approved again by the presbytery in June 2013, to gain dismissal from the PCUSA.
According to documents related to the motion and settlement terms, the dismissal becomes effective on/after June 10, 2014, for Menlo Park, which was formed 140 years ago in the Bay Area of San Francisco and now offers additional campuses in Mountain View and San Mateo.
The 91-day period from dismissal to finalization allows time for both sides to complete the necessary purchase and transfer documentation. MPPC is communicating with ECO’s leadership to provide a seamless transition at the end of the three-month finalization period.
Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC) will pay $8.89 million to the presbytery – negotiated as a mediated settlement on Jan. 14 and agreed to when the congregation overwhelmingly voted to leave the PCUSA March 2 – in order to make the move to ECO.
That total includes $8,168,125 in asset-related dismissal obligation pertaining to church property at four campuses for MPPC to meet the PCUSA’s trust clause stipulations outlined in the October 2012 ruling in the case of Wilber Tom, David Hawbecker and Thomas Conrad vs. the Presbytery of San Francisco.
Additionally, MPPC will pay five consecutive years of per-capita assessment totaling $721,875 (based on the 2012 membership total of 4,125) to fulfill the $8.89 million price tag and gain its independence from the PCUSA.
The amounts are to be paid in a lump sum. Menlo Park will fund the dismissal fee with $2.5 million from church reserves and additional monies generated from the sale of the home Ortberg and his wife Nancy currently live in. They notified the Church of the Pioneers Foundation (COPF), which owns the home and other buildings used to accommodate staff members of MPPC, that they would move out and seek alternative housing to allow the home they have lived in to be sold to help pay the exit fee. The COPF voluntarily and generously has committed to provide further funds as needed to help make the agreed-upon payment so the church does not have to go into debt or lay off staff.
The agreement also stipulates that property at MPPC’s main campus on Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park will revert back to the presbytery if the congregation does not remain with ECO, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) or the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC) for five calendar years following dismissal.
The Layman reported that the session of Menlo Park voted unanimously on June 11, 2013, to recommend the church seek dismissal from the PCUSA. The vote followed years of questioning, praying, fasting and studying the issue, according to Menlo Park’s “MPPC & denominational affiliation” web site.
More than 64 percent of Menlo Park’s members turned out for the March 2 vote for dismissal and by a 93 percent margin gave approval to leave the PCUSA and join ECO despite the hefty fee associated with their departure. The vote yielded a result of 2,024-158 in favor of dismissal.
According to a denominational affiliation posting on the church’s web site, ECO resonated with Menlo Park in four major areas. Those areas are:
• A Jesus-shaped identity that holds that Jesus Christ must be at the center of our lives and making disciples of Jesus at the core of our ministry based upon Scripture as the unique and authoritative Word of God.
• Missional Centrality: ECO believes in living out the whole of the Great Commission – including evangelism, spiritual formation, compassion and redemptive justice – in our communities and around the world.
• Governance: ECO believes in accountable community and that guidance is a corporate spiritual experience. ECO wants to connect leaders to one another in healthy relationships of accountability, synergy and care.
• Property: A local church owns its own property in ECO.
There also have been reports that MPPC is seeking to add additional campuses to its current multisite collection, as many as five in coming years.
“Over the next five years we plan to open five new campuses in the Bay Area,” Laubscher confirmed, noting that studies have shown people tend to be more engaged and involved in church activities the closer they live to the church they are attending.
Remaining in the PCUSA would have meant property would be held in trust for use by the denomination rather than by the congregation. Such a measure created reluctance to invest in additional property for multisite campuses for the congregation, a fear alleviated by the move to ECO. MPPC leaders felt that ECO’s flexible, innovative denominational structure would best help the church achieve its mission.
Laubscher said MPPC has not determined the exact locations of the five anticipated new campuses.