Sharon Presbyterian Church, located in Hartwell, Ga., about 45 miles northeast of Athens near the South Carolina border, was dismissed by the Presbytery of Northeast Georgia Feb. 23 to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
The 30-member congregation of the 102-year-old church had an informational meeting in March 2011. In October 2011, the members voted on a recommendation of the session to seek dismissal from the PCUSA, and in December 2011 the session notified the presbytery of its intent to leave by way of letter.
The Rev. Jim Lugo, who has been in the ministry for 45 years, said there was minimal objection to seek dismissal. Those who raised questions seemed to be more concerned about the denominational affiliation that Sharon would align itself with moving forward.
“There really wasn’t anyone against leaving the PCUSA; they just wanted to know where we were going,” he said.
Lugo said the session studied about 10 different denominations, including ECO, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC). Ultimately, the decision came down to ECO and the EPC.
Sharon places an emphasis on women in leadership roles, and Lugo said ECO allowed for that type of service. Lugo added that the denomination’s egalitarian nature was an attraction.
“We value our women; we have many in leadership roles as ruling elders and ministers,” he said, noting the value of women in leadership roles throughout the Bible. “ECO allows for that service. We feel like we benefit from women serving and felt it was Biblical for them to do so. They provide input and insight we may not have otherwise, and that makes a difference.”
Lugo said the church is interested in evangelism and mission work, seeking to fulfill the Great Commission.
“We believe this is the Lord’s will for us,” he said. “We’re a very mission-minded church, and that resonates with ECO.”
A departure from Scriptural authority led the session and membership of Sharon Presbyterian Church to seek dismissal.
“That’s the overarching issue. We’re bothered there are so many departures from Scripture. It’s not Biblical,” Lugo said. “But we had problems with lowering the standards of ordination in ministry as well. The creeping universalism that there might be or could be some other way to salvation other than through Jesus Christ was too much, Jesus made it clear in John 14: There is no other way.”
Lugo added that the “new Form of Government” (nFOG) also gave presbyteries more power over churches, which Sharon’s congregation also opposed. All that led to a decision to depart the PCUSA.
“We did not want to foster any hostility,” he said. “We took our stand, but we bore the name of Christ in doing so. That’s the way it should be. We weren’t mad. All that was happening around us just confirmed that we didn’t share those same views.”
Before the church could be dismissed, the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry team met with Lugo and the session about the church’s reasons for leaving the PCUSA.
In settling any property and financial issues, two appraisals of property value were obtained. Because there was a wide disparity in the values, the church and presbytery agreed to use the Hart County Tax Assessor’s property value to negotiate settlement terms. Presbytery meeting documents showed that the church agreed to pay $3,500 to the presbytery in consideration of the trust clause in the dismissal policy.
Lugo said there was no opposition to the dismissal recommendation once an agreement was reached.
“What we agreed on was acceptable to us,” he said. “This has been a grueling process because we have been in limbo. The uncertainty can be torturous. It was tough at times, but we carried on.”
Now, all that uncertainty is behind the Sharon congregation as it begins a new chapter in the life of the church.
“We’ve been biding our time to get to this point,” Lugo said. “This is exciting for us. There is great anticipation right now about what lies ahead for our church. ”