Six churches located along the panhandle of Alaska were dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) during a Presbytery of Alaska meeting that took place April 6, and their departure leaves the presbytery below the required minimum number of churches.
All six of them were dismissed to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The churches that have left the presbytery and PCUSA are Chapel by the Lake in Juneau, Haines Presbyterian, First Presbyterian in Skagway, Frances Johnson Memorial in Angoon, Kake Memorial and Hoonah Presbyterian.
The dismissal of the six churches leaves the Presbytery of Alaska with just nine congregations, one less than the minimum number of 10 for a presbytery as designated by the Book of Order.
As a result, the Seattle-based Synod of Alaska-Northwest has assumed jurisdiction and charged the presbytery with continuing to oversee day-to-day operations of the remaining churches and mission work for now.
According to G-3.0103 in the Book of Order (BOO), a presbytery is described as a council serving as a corporate expression of the church within a certain district and is composed of all the congregations and teaching elders within that district. The presbytery is responsible for the government of the church throughout its district, and for assisting and supporting the witness of congregations to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that all congregations become communities of faith, hope, love and witness.
Citing that passage from the BOO, PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons indicated the synod acts for congregations that remain in the presbytery.
“When a presbytery falls below that number it is the equivalent to falling below a quorum for a meeting,” Parsons wrote in an email to The Layman. “The synod must now act for the congregations until new boundaries can be drawn and approved. A presbytery should prepare for this transition at its last meeting when it still has the minimum required.”
The responsibility of the synod in regard to such issues is found in the Book of Order, G-3.0403 (c.), noting its function of “organizing new presbyteries, dividing, uniting, or otherwise combining presbyteries or portions of presbyteries previously existing,” among other duties to meet the mission needs of various congregations.
Dr. David Dobler, pastor to the Presbytery of Alaska, said the presbytery continues to function as is for the moment after the Synod of Alaska-Northwest – comprised of seven presbyteries, approximately 260 churches and 58,000 members in Alaska, Washington and northern Idaho – passed a resolution during an April 24 meeting that gave it jurisdiction over the presbytery.
“We had been in conversation with the synod leading up to this, and it does have jurisdiction for forming or combining presbyteries,” Dobler said. “The position is 10 sessions and 10 teaching elders but dipping below that does not necessarily extinguish the presbytery.”
After passing the resolution to assume jurisdiction, the synod directed the presbytery to serve as an Administrative Commission, taking care of the day-to-day operations of the presbytery.
Additionally, synod leaders instructed the general council to work with the Presbytery of North Puget Sound to compose a plan for continuing the ministry of Presbytery of Alaska. That plan is to be formulated by Oct. 31, 2013.
“It’s really quite a happy resolution. The synod is throwing a blanket over us and allowing the presbytery to keep operating,” Dobler said. “The synod asserted its authority and put the presbytery in charge. For that we are appreciative.”
Dobler noted that nothing in the Book of Order addresses what should happen when a presbytery’s membership falls below the required threshold.
“Going below the minimum number is troublesome and not to be ignored,” he said. “But the Book of Order does not prescribe any particular action. It only assumed growth. It is silent on what happens if you dip down.
“Something will have to be crafted in the synod to determine how our churches best go forward. We will do it in a way that is honoring of policy.”
Dobler feels that has been done with the synod’s decision at this time.
“We have good relationships with the synod,” he said. “This action allows the Alaskan people on the ground so have a say in the most effective way to handle things and allows us to focus our attention on something wider, that being the work of Christ that is right before us.”
He added that the mandate to have the Presbytery of Alaska work with the Presbytery of North Puget Sound does not necessarily mean that the two will be combined to form one larger governing body.
“I suppose it could happen, combining the two into one, but there is no presumption that is what will take place,” Dobler said. “We’ve had a constant relationship with them for a number of years, and they are a good partner for us to work with in this matter.”
The nine congregations remaining in the Presbytery of Alaska serve the southeast portion of the state bordering British Columbia and the Yukon Territory to the east and the Gulf of Alaska to the west of the Alexander Archipelago.
The remaining congregations in the presbytery are Craig-Klawock, Hydaburg, Juneau, Ketchickan, Metlakatkla, Petersburg, Sitka, Wrangell and Yakutat.
The churches that left the PCUSA did so with all their property.
Chapel by the Lake, located in the Alaskan capital city of Juneau, is the largest of the six departed churches with 491 members.
Haines has a membership of 63, and Skagway has 30 members. Frances Johnson Memorial has 21 members, while Kake and Hoonah have 14 and 13 members, respectively.
Dobler said the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruling regarding the presbytery’s fulfillment of its financial duty under the trust clause was considered, and it was determined there would be no payments regarding property for the departing churches.
Under dismissal requirements, the churches were required to pay per capita for 2013 and make contributions of $9 per member toward 2014 per capita for the synod and General Assembly.
“We tried to make (the dismissal process) as generous as possible, and we explored ways to remain in missional partnerships,” Dobler said, noting there were some robust discussions regarding dismissal. “There was some pain but a lot of good will.”
He said plans are in the works to develop an Association of Presbyterian Churches in Southeast Alaska to continue such relationships.
“It would be voluntary and provide a vehicle for churches to continue missional relationships,” Dobler explained. “In Alaska, your ecumenical partners are those who happen to be in town with you, and we want to find a way to work with each other. The association seems like a good way to make that work.”