The congregation of Westminster Presbyterian Church from Fruit Heights, Utah, has been dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Westminster (WPC), which changed its name to Mountain Road Church, became the first church to be dismissed by the Presbytery of Utah during a Dec. 14, 2013, meeting. The presbytery voted by 94 percent to approve WPC’s departure, wrapping up an 18-month dismissal process.
Westminster, founded in 1986 about 20 miles north of Salt Lake City as a new church development by former Pastor Russ Durler, will be making the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) its new denominational affiliation.
Stemming the tide of dwindling membership
The Rev. Neal Humphrey, who has been the pastor at Westminster for 15 years, said membership at the Davis County church has been dwindling for the past five years. Approximately 200 people have been dismissed from the church roll since 2008, dropping the membership total to 115. He said denominational affiliation played a role in the decreased membership.
“We’ve had a real bumpy ride because of our denominational affiliation. Being in the PCUSA was a key aspect of that,” he said. “Most of our presbytery is made up of progressives who were not sympathetic to us leaving. If this process had failed, the church would have lost a number of key members, and there no longer would have been a viable congregation left. There had been conversations of dissolving the church.”
Instead, WPC came to terms on an agreement with the Presbytery of Utah to allow the congregation to leave the PCUSA and continue providing a Presbyterian influence, albeit in the EPC, in a region dominated by Mormons.
The Fruit Heights congregation has been vocal in its opposition to changes in ordination standards. The elimination of the fidelity/chastity requirement for ordination – approved through the passage of Amendment 10A in 2011 – as well as the narrow defeat of the redefinition of marriage at the 2012 General Assembly (GA) led to action by Westminster.
“We realized we had lost the battle on ordination standards and may eventually lose on what we saw as the Biblical standard for marriage,” Humphrey said. “We knew it was time to take action.”
While issues of sexuality were influential in the decision to seek departure from the PCUSA, Humphrey said it would be unfair to cite only same-sex marriage and gay ordination as factors that led to departure. He noted that interpretations of Christology, Jesus as the only way to salvation and Biblical authority also weighed heavily in deciding to leave the PCUSA.
WPC voted Oct. 28, 2012, to leave the denomination by a 51-21 margin. Another vote to leave the denomination and join the EPC on Aug. 28, 2012, yielded a 73-4 margin in favor of the action, leading to property negotiations between Westminster’s session and the Administrative Commission (AC).
“Our congregation has been nervous and anxious through this whole process,” Humphrey said. “The key thing our Administrative Commission did was have us hold a congregational vote for a new denominational home.”
According to a presbytery document, the AC determined that $173,500 – the amount invested by the presbytery and several other churches to form Westminster as a new church development 27 years earlier – was a reasonable amount for WPC to pay to retain its property. That came after an initial offer of $500,000 was made by the AC, Humphrey said.
Westminster countered with an offer of $130,000, and the two sides agreed to split the difference, leaving WPC a cost of $151,750 to pay for the property. The congregation will make a down payment of 10 percent, with the presbytery carrying the note on the property, agreeing to finance at the lowest interest rate possible.
“We knew we were going to have to buy the property,” Humphrey said. “We are a relatively young congregation, and we developed property owned outright by the Presbytery of Utah. We didn’t need a trust clause to tell us who owned it, and we knew neither side could afford going to court. Neither Westminster nor the presbytery had the resources for that kind of dogfight.”
There is a reversionary clause in place that gives the property back to the presbytery if Westminster fails to meet its financial obligation within the first five years. If the congregation fails and/or sells the property over the next five-year period, there will be a split of the money from such a sale.
“We’re fine with that,” Humphrey said, noting that Westminster had to surrender its name and form a new corporation, leading to the name of Mountain Road Church for the Fruit Heights congregation.
Maintaining a Reformed presence
Humphrey explained that the Presbytery of Utah does not have a dismissal policy in place, addressing each situation on a case-by-cases basis, which leads to delicate dealings. However, the process was a relatively smooth one for the congregation.
“It wasn’t easy. We were clearly in conflict with a relatively progressive presbytery,” he explained. “But we were very well-served by the Presbytery of Utah. The commission and our session agreed that what was wanted was a viable Reformed church in this county, and the best answer to that was dismissal. There were some who were not pleased with that, but they agreed it was the best thing to do.”
By working to meet that end, the two sides avoided any bitter disputes, legal entanglements and hard feelings that have plagued other dismissal processes across the country.
“We had a gracious dismissal process, which is not normal,” Humphrey said. “The presbytery has a belief that there is no one size that fits all and prefers to negotiate. There’s no dismissal policy in place, but it worked out for us.”
Officials with the Presbytery of Utah declined to comment when contacted via email by The Layman.
Humphrey plans to retire as a PCUSA pastor. Knowing that Westminster would be going through a transition as it moves from one Presbyterian denomination to another, he had arranged with the Presbytery of Utah to continue on as stated supply pastor at the church. He also has petitioned the EPC to continue serving WPC on an interim basis until a full-time replacement can be called. A search team already has been organized and charged with that task.
In the meantime, the congregation looks to recover from the loss of members and heal broken relationships as it moves forward with its new denominational affiliation.
“The sense varies from relief to jubilation,” Humphrey said. “It’s been painful with the loss of some good people, but you have to be prepared for that moving forward. We have not had any factional infighting, which is a good thing. There is a clear sense of mission and vision. Our mission is to make the lives better for people in our community, to reach out in a myriad of ways to provide assistance to those in need. There was a feeling that God’s vision for this church could not be accomplished in the PCUSA. We’ve got a lot of work in front of us, but we’re ready for it.”