After a Virginia presbytery took over operations of a Mechanicsville church, those who felt led by God to depart the Presbyterian Church (USA) started anew as an Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) mission congregation just a short distance away from their former church facility.
The Church in Restoration had its inaugural service Sunday, Feb. 24 at Oak Knoll Middle School. What was expected to be a crowd of about 400 charter members swelled to more than 600 in attendance. The overflow crowd was so large that additional chairs had to be brought in to provide ample seating.
The start for the new congregation came as a result of action taken by Presbytery of the James.
An Administrative Commission (AC) of the Richmond-based Presbytery of the James (POJ) dissolved the session of New Hanover Presbyterian Church (NHPC) during a Feb. 10 meeting and has assumed original jurisdiction of the church.
During that meeting, the session of NHPC expressed its unanimous intent to leave the denomination and graciously indicated its desire to help the AC provide for the transition of members wanting to leave the church and pray for those who choose to remain. Because of the session’s unwillingness to stay and serve what the AC deemed to be a viable PCUSA congregation, the Commission took action and assumed original jurisdiction.
The action by the AC came about 15 months after the session of New Hanover unanimously voted (November 2011) to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
“I think we felt like this would be the result,” said Associate Pastor Billy Craig, who has shared moderator duties for NHPC along with fellow Associate Pastor Jeff Lee in the absence of a full-time head pastor. “There were some vocal members of the congregation early on who wanted to stay (in the PCUSA). Our impression was they would do all they could to retain the property and to ensure the location stayed a PCUSA congregation.”
While not exactly the way they had planned to leave the PCUSA, those no longer affiliated with NHPC are excited about what the future holds, even if they do not have property or buildings. That future is now coming into view with the formation of a new EPC congregation.
“We’re relieved that it is finally over; it’s been a pretty rough process,” said Kevin Smith, a former elder at NHPC. “We’re excited about starting a new church, even if it is somewhere else. We were prepared for this possibility. We’re just excited to be moving forward.”
He said the two main issues in seeking dismissal were the Bible being the true Word of God, and Jesus being the only way to salvation.
H. Carson Rhyne Jr., stated clerk and general presbyter for Presbytery of the James, did not respond to phone calls or emails from The Layman. In a statement printed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Rhyne indicated the presbytery was “deeply saddened by the irreconcilable differences that have occurred at the New Hanover Presbyterian Church.”
“May those who depart from the (Presbyterian Church USA) go with God’s grace and blessings as they seek to serve Jesus Christ,” he added.
A viable remnant
Rather than granting dismissal, the AC determined there was a viable remnant of the congregation to continue operating the church under its PCUSA affiliation, thus dissolving the session and asserting its control. That means the POJ has the property, and the viable remnant it deemed wanted to remain with the PCUSA, regardless of size, will continue to function at the Chamberlayne Road location as the “true church.”
The move to block NHPC from seeking dismissal was reminiscent of action suggested in the “Louisville Papers,” an internal PCUSA communication from lawyers that suggested measures that could be taken to thwart congregations from leaving the denomination.
The document, posted on The Layman web site, indicates that “if there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (USA), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church.” Furthermore, the document shows that the presbytery can “dissolve the congregation and use assets for ‘starting a new immigrant fellowship;’ enter a ‘long-term lease agreement with the schismatic group;’ or sell the property to the ‘splinter group.’”
New Hanover, for more than a decade, has expressed concerns about the PCUSA’s drift from Biblical standards. It was one of six churches in the Presbytery of the James currently seeking dismissal from the PCUSA.
NHPC has a vacancy in its head pastor’s position, and moderator duties have been shared by Craig and Lee. During a presbytery meeting on Feb. 16, those pastoral relationships between Craig, Lee and the church were dissolved, and the credentials of both pastors were transferred to the EPC.
Enter the Administrative Commission
The Administrative Commission formed by Presbytery of the James – comprised of Edna Banes, Larry Diebold, Alex Evans, Allen Fisher, Don Osborne and Martha Sindahlesen – penned a letter that was sent to members of NHPC. The letter makes note that the Commission has worked with the church since December 2012, meeting with the session, individual ministers and members who want to remain with the PCUSA.
In the letter, the AC acknowledges that many members of the church of about 800, have shown a strong desire to seek dismissal. It goes on to show that the AC has determined that a viable PCUSA congregation remains at NHPC.
“We are confident that these devoted members who are willing and interested to continue as New Hanover Presbyterian Church, with the support of the presbytery, and the power of God’s spirit, can continue to be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the PCUSA in this location for the foreseeable future,” it reads.
The letter sent to NHPC’s membership indicated the Feb. 10 meeting was a result of the session’s and associate pastors’ intention to depart from the PCUSA.
Craig said the AC was formed for the purpose of determining if there was a viable congregation left at NHPC. He added that church leaders and individuals sought, but were not provided, a definition from the presbytery to explain exactly what determines a viable congregation.
Staying or leaving
The AC plans to appoint a Steering Committee to lead the church in day-to-day operations until new leadership is in place. The presbytery will provide supply pastors until a new session is formed and takes care of hiring staff members.
The letter also addresses those members choosing to depart and those staying in the PCUSA.
“During this period of transition, members wishing to be dismissed can let the Steering Committee know that is their desire, and the Steering Committee will remove those members from the church rolls. We hope to make a quick orderly transition of members wishing to leave.
“We understand that this time is a traumatic and frustrating time for all involved, and the AC hopes that those who wish to leave NHPC for a new denomination find joy, comfort and peace in their decision. We know that the leadership of those who are leaving is capable and truly concerned for your spirit. We know that they are faithful to your spiritual growth and building a church separate from the PCUSA. We will continue to pray for them as they make the transition.
“For the members who will be staying with NHPC, the POJ is committed to helping you to grow the church and be part of a connected church that is part of the PCUSA … .”
Is anyone listening?
A straw poll to leave the denomination was forthcoming for NHPC, but the presbytery blocked that action by forming a Listening Team that sent a letter warning against having any meetings or discussions regarding dismissal or a possible new denominational home, effectively cutting off communication from church leadership for 10 months. A portion of the letter read, “… the Listening Team has the authority to recommend to the Committee on Ministry that the NHPC Session be dissolved and that it be replaced with an Administrative Commission appointed by the Presbytery of the James.”
According to information obtained by The Layman, the Listening Team’s 2012 report indicated that presbytery members held at least one meeting with a group of congregants at another location. Soon after, members of the group formed a web site and Facebook page, and began circulating letters that expressed disagreement with the leadership of the church.
The Listening Team recommended the Administrative Commission be formed to determine the viability of a PCUSA congregation at NHPC, thus leading to the eventual fracture of the congregation.
An unofficial online survey, conducted by members of the congregation independent of the NHPC session and the Administrative Commission, was taken. The question asked was “Shall New Hanover Presbyterian Church (NHPC) request that Presbytery of the James dismiss NHPC from the PCUSA to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)?” The results were 220 in favor of dismissal and just six opposed.
Craig said the entire brutal process has been draining and very hurtful for all parties involved.
“I think it’s hurt everybody, no matter which side you are on,” he said. “I think our members care for each other, but the way this process has unfolded has driven wedges between our members along the way.
“It’s not been a very Christ-honoring process.”
Smith and Craig indicated that those leaving New Hanover will become part of the EPC now that all ties with the POJ and PCUSA are severed. The EPC’s Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic has welcomed the Church in Restoration as a mission church of the EPC.
The packed facility on the school campus, dotted with cars parked in the lot and on the lawn areas, was a stark contrast to the sparse attendance at New Hanover on Sunday.
The school entered the picture as a temporary home for the church and will house the congregation’s meetings for the time being. The church offers a youth program each year called Disciple Now, and the registration numbers were so great this year that an alternate site was needed to accommodate the turnout. With that in mind, officials reserved space at Oak Knoll. Now, they will use the facility for worship services as well.
“God’s timing is amazing,” Smith said. “We’re excited about what God has in store for us. We can put the politics of Presbyterianism behind us and focus on ministry from here on out.
“Even though this has been a hard process, painful in many ways, God has produced fruit through it.”
Craig added that God’s faithfulness has allowed those left without their church and property to persevere and carry on in His service.
“From the get-go we have been trusting in God’s faithfulness and promise,” Craig said. “He’s never let us down. We’re trusting Him to lead and guide, and I have no doubt He will continue to be with us in this process. We continue to see His faithfulness, and we’re encouraged by that. We’re still praising Him – in the good times and the bad.”