Holding firm to the mandate “… to know Jesus and make Him known,” Walla Walla Presbyterian Church (WWPC) – formerly known as First Presbyterian Church of Walla Walla – joined ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians following its dismissal from Central Washington Presbytery.
The 325-member congregation, located in the southeast corner of Washington just a short distance from the Oregon and Idaho borders, was dismissed from the PCUSA during an Oct. 19, 2013, presbytery meeting. The dismissal was effective Nov. 30, 2013.
“We weren’t itching to go,” said Walla Walla Pastor Albert Gillin, who has been at the church for 11 years. “I’ve been a ‘stay, fight, win’ person my whole life and wanted to try to keep the denomination (PCUSA) part of a renewal effort. But it came to a point where we had to make a decision for the future ministry of the congregation.”
Founded in 1873 as a Cumberland Presbyterian church, WWPC merged with another Presbyterian congregation in 1907 to form FPC-Walla Walla. It had been part of the Confessing Church Movement and the Witness for Biblical Morality, seeking to evoke renewal within the PCUSA.
“This congregation has been a clear and articulate church in regard to the authority of Scripture and the lordship of Jesus Christ,” Gillin explained. “But as the denomination continued to have a difficult time articulating the authority of Scripture, the uniqueness of Christ and its views on human sexuality, we seriously had to consider where we needed to be to serve the community and world we live in. We had to determine where we could best be the people God was calling us to be.”
The passage of Amendment 10A, which changed ordination standards, in May 2011 was somewhat of the tipping point for Walla Walla, not so much the decision to allow ordination of homosexuals as much as its rejection of God’s Holy Word.
“It was a straying from historical standards, which has been an issue for a number of years. It came to a head with recent actions of the GA (General Assembly), giving us both an opportunity and need to make a move,” Gillin said. “The sexuality issue was mentioned but rarely. That was more of a symptom of the rejection of Scripture, a lack of hope and trust in the transformative power of Jesus Christ. We don’t want to exclude that in any part of our lives. We believe God can and will do transformative work.”
Still, it wasn’t an easy move to make.
“Nobody really wanted to leave. We would have desired to see the PCUSA be a winsome Biblical witness of Jesus Christ, to take a strong position in favor of Biblical standards and the historical confessions of the church,” Gillin said. “But that choice was taken away from us by the GA and majority of presbyteries with a somber vote (on ordination standards).
“This is something I had hoped never would happen. On the one hand the decision was easy in terms of what needed to be done for the protection of the future ministry of this congregation, to be relevant and about the mission of the church. But there was a sense of sadness that it had to be done, and for me a sense of failure that we were unable to bring the renewal and preservation of the PCUSA as a Biblical and confessional denomination.”
Knowing the future ministry of the congregation would be served best in a different denomination, Walla Walla’s session voted in November 2012 to enter the discernment process with Central Washington Presbytery.
On June 2, 2013, the WWPC congregation voted by a 97 percent margin to leave the PCUSA. Ninety-nine percent voted to align with ECO.
“You live it long enough, and you’re ready to get it behind you,” Gillin said. “There was no alienation, no dissension and rancor in the life of the church about the decision. There was distraction but no rancor. And we lost no members through the process.”
An Administrative Commission (AC) from Central Washington negotiated terms for dismissal. In considering value of the church property, the AC determined the presbytery had no use for the facilities and there was no cadre seeking to start a new PCUSA congregation. The AC awarded the property to the Walla Walla congregation with the stipulation that the name be changed (it reverted to its founding name of Walla Walla Presbyterian Church), loans with the presbytery and Synod of Alaska-Northwest be modified and three years of per capita in the amount of approximately $36,000 be paid to the presbytery.
“We gladly paid that,” Gillin said. “We recognized that we have been part of this presbytery, and we still have great relationships with the presbytery and its congregations. We didn’t want our dismissal to injure the work of the presbytery in any way. This helps give time to adjust to a new financial situation.”
Gillin added that the process was an amicable one between congregation and presbytery.
Opting for ECO
Walla Walla chose ECO as its new denominational affiliation for several reasons.
Women’s ordination is a settled issue, and Gillin observed not only is it allowable but also is something to be celebrated. He noted a polity of high trust-low regulation rather than one of low trust-high regulation as seen in the PCUSA.
ECO has a clear theological distinctiveness and offers a high level of accountability for colleagues in ministry through its emphasis on affinity groups.
Gillin also said his congregation liked the fact that ECO allows flexibility in the practices of individual congregations.
“ECO came at the right time for us, and is the right fit for our congregation,” he said.
Making Jesus known
Looking ahead, Gillin noted that Walla Walla expects to see growth in the congregation as it seeks to meet the challenges of the ministry and mission it is called to undertake. But that’s a welcomed reprieve from dealing with denominational issues.
“We were spending a lot of time, effort and energy on these issues rather than the immediate ministry of the church. There are no more distractions,” he said. “Now we can focus our efforts on how to live missionally into what it is God would have us to be.”
Gillin said the Walla Walla congregation has embraced the change, its new identity and is excited about what lies ahead as members seek to fulfill the mission statement.
“It’s going to be a new day,” Gillin said, “… to know Jesus and make Him known.”