Acting on Biblical and theological differences, Trinity chose to leave the national denomination and start anew in the still-developing ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
The process that was initiated by the Trinity session sending a letter to the Santa Barbara Presbytery (SBP) on Nov. 29, 2012, wrapped up Sept. 28, 2013, when the congregation was dismissed to join ECO, ending its affiliation with the PCUSA.
“We began to look at the issues before us and how to address them, determining where the denomination was headed, if we could continue on that path and what our options were,” said the Rev. Jerry Cooper, who has been at the 286-member Camarillo, Calif., church in Ventura County for 11 years. “We could stay in and work for renewal, close our eyes and pretend nothing was happening around us or seek a new denominational affiliation.”
Pursuit of a new denominational home in ECO ultimately proved to be the decision reached by Trinity.
Trinity’s session formed a denominational issues task force in June 2011 over concerns related to the passage of the new Form of Government (nFOG) that indicated a lack of solid theology and a devaluing of God’s Word seen in official and unofficial actions of the PCUSA.
“Fundamentally, it came down to no longer having a solid orthodox constitution,” Cooper explained. “We didn’t want to leave the presbytery, but it became obvious that staying in was not an option. God was calling us into something else.”
At a Nov. 27, 2012, meeting, the Trinity session voted 14-0 to seek dismissal. Over the next couple of months SBP approved its dismissal policy (February 2013) and put together a response team that began meeting with the church in April.
At a congregational meeting June 9 there were presentations and discussions regarding remaining with the PCUSA or continuing down the dismissal path. A vote of the 178 members in attendance resulted in a 156-21 margin (one abstention) to continue with the dismissal process.
Once the two sides worked out terms of dismissal, a second congregational vote on Sept. 15 yielded a 153-14 margin (four abstentions) in favor of accepting the negotiated settlement and departing the PCUSA for ECO.
Reaching a financial agreement
The Presbytery Response Team (PRT) and Trinity session agreed to a maximum monetary settlement of $110,000, with $55,000 for ministry share allocations and $55,000 for all other property considerations to be paid in five equal installments of $22,000.
However, Trinity had the option of making a one-time lump sum payment of $100,000 on the date of dismissal, which it did at the Sept. 28 meeting.
“We had a brief but effective campaign to raise those funds so we did not have to take away from the mission and ministry of the church,” Cooper said.
Trinity also accepted a reverter clause of 10 years that would give the property to the presbytery if the congregation failed to meet its financial obligation, seeks to become independent or ceases to operate as a church in the Reformed tradition. If those actions occur before the 10 years pass, it triggers a formula that requires the church to pay the presbytery monetary amounts to maintain ownership of the property.
“That did not bother us,” Cooper said. “We have no intention of becoming independent or leaving the Reformed family.”
An emotional departure
Cooper noted that the date of dismissal was one of mixed emotions, primarily from leaving the presbytery after a lengthy affiliation.
“It was a day of mixed emotions for me and many of our congregants,” he said. “For many of us, the PCUSA was the church we grew up in and lived in; it has been the church of our lives. To leave that brings definite sadness. We’re saying goodbye to what has been a wonderful presbytery.”
“Trinity’s dismissal was the first we have done here for over 30 years, so everything was a first time for the presbytery,” Dr. Jan Armstrong, Santa Barbara Executive Presbyter, wrote in an email to The Layman. “The elders of Trinity were well-informed, well-trained elders who have been active in the life of the presbytery, so their thoughtfulness, kindness and collaborative spirit were important for the dismissal to go as well as it did.”
Trinity will continue to host a PCUSA Taiwanese church on its property, and Cooper said the church has definite plans to continue working with the presbytery in some way in the future.
“As EP I am sad to see them leave the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, but it is understandable given their core political and theological supermajority,” Armstrong wrote. “I think ECO will be a good fit for them. They were dismissed with a very reasonable settlement because they have committed to stay in relationship and community with the presbytery and support the ongoing mission work we do together. …”
Heeding the call
Even while going through discernment and dismissal proceedings, Trinity’s congregation remained cohesive. Cooper said that was a result of keeping members informed on how the process – a healthy and unified effort led by the congregation – was moving along. He said politics spilled over very little into worship services.
“Denominational politics do not need to be part of worship services, and I’m very grateful that our church had a very smooth process without any major divisive issues,” Cooper said. “Our main purpose is to follow the mission Jesus has called us to. We believe that a new denominational affiliation helps us move forward in that mission. That’s the reason we’re here: to worship Him and follow as He calls.”
Cooper added that Trinity’s congregants remain open to God’s call and are excited about what lies ahead as they venture down a new path in a new denomination.
“We won’t change significantly as a church. The Trinity we were on Sept. 22 looks a lot like the Trinity that we were on Sept. 29 after joining ECO,” Cooper said. “We’re just part of a group that looks a lot more like us in terms of a strong sense of mission and Biblical integrity. No matter where we are, the message remains the same: We worship God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are saved by Jesus Christ, and our lives are lived in holiness.”
The presbytery’s future
As for the presbytery, Armstrong indicated that 12 requests for response teams had been received, though two were withdrawn. He said many of the congregations don’t know exactly why they want to be dismissed, instead responding out of “an uninformed fear of losing their property or wanting to be with their friends.”
“So some elders and congregations are not ready for the process even though they have initiated it,” he said. “We have a decent process. The big thing is the presbytery people in leadership and involved on the response teams are good, Christian compassionate elders, who have been chosen because they are not on the political or theological poles of the PCUSA. All the requests have teams working on them, however, we are at the maximum of what we can internally handle as a presbytery.”
Armstrong observed that an overwhelming vote to become a union presbytery in May 2012 was overturned by the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii Permanent Judicial Commission, noting that it was a matter of Presbyterians trying to vote their way to a solution.
As he sees it, the challenge is relating to one another in a way that will build and further Christ’s claim and call to make disciples, without a formal polity solution, in some form of ecumenical partnership.
“We will need to live into this, and many in the SB Presbytery and in Trinity believe this can happen in the future, so I am hopeful in the Lord, and expectant for collaborative work,” Armstrong wrote. “The question is will the congregations and elders refrain from vilifying their colleagues in the process of departure? Will they honor one another’s freedom of conscience, as outlined in the Westminster Confession? … We need to get back in the game and do the work of helping those who are lost encounter Jesus the savior, and actually rediscover making disciples.”