Westminster (Fernwood) Presbyterian Church of Spartanburg in South Carolina will pay $350,000 over the next five years as part of settlement reached with the Foothills Presbytery to be dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The financial terms were reached between the Westminster session and a gracious dismissal task force appointed by the presbytery and then presented to the Committee on Ministry (COM) for approval prior to a vote by the presbytery.
During that April 28 meeting, Foothills Presbytery dismissed Westminster, with its property, to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
According to documents from the presbytery web site, the church will make 20 equal payments to the presbytery totaling $350,000. Those payments of $17,500 each will begin June 30, 2013, and continue quarterly through March 31, 2018.
The Rev. Paul Petersen, senior pastor of Westminster for the last 11 years, said the funds will be used to continue the mission and work of the presbytery, noting that there was never any intent by the congregation to cause financial hardship for Foothills Presbytery.
“We said from the beginning when we started this process we did not want to leave the presbytery in a financial lurch,” he said. “Westminster has been a strong financial supporter of this presbytery, and we didn’t want to hurt its mission and ministry by just walking away.”
Westminster, a church of 675 members founded in 1959, informed Foothills Presbytery in December 2012 – after 18 months of discernment – that its session had voted unanimously to seek dismissal from the PCUSA. During a Feb. 10, 2013, congregational meeting, 501 members turned out to vote, and 420 (86 percent) of them were in favor of leaving the PCUSA and joining ECO.
“It was a fairly smooth process,” said Petersen. “The presbytery adopted a gracious dismissal policy in February (2012), so that helped lay a foundation for us to work together with the task force assigned by the Committee on Ministry. That task force did a good job working with us, understanding our issues and working with those who wanted to stay (with the PCUSA).”
Petersen said the direction the PCUSA has taken was a deciding factor in the session’s decision to recommend dismissal to ECO.
“The trajectory of the national denomination was the big reason,” he said. “Having read other Layman articles about churches seeking dismissal, we saw a lot of the same issues. We’re not unique from other churches.”
An authentic interpretation of Scripture and the loss of ordination standards – issues raised by other churches in articles written by The Layman – were among the reasons Westminster cited in choosing to follow a path different than that of the PCUSA.
“The direction the PCUSA was going was not one we could follow,” Petersen said. “It was time for us to go some place where we were not fighting those battles, to be Christ’s witness by being a welcoming church of grace and truth.”
He added, “For a number of years we have been concerned about challenges to the more traditional orthodox understanding of our Presbyterian Reformed theology, which is the bedrock of our mission (Love God, Love Others, Serve Others) at Westminster. We find ourselves less and less in tune with the national denomination’s evolving understanding of our Scriptures.”
Theology, polity and missional focus were keys to Westminster’s selection of ECO as its new denominational home.
“We like that there is less bureaucracy, a flatter denominational structure and smaller presbyteries,” Petersen said of ECO. “There is mutual accountability required of churches (affinity groups) and pastors (peer groups). We just agree with the theological tenets. The PCUSA has them and tells us to adhere to them, but we’re not told what they are other than pointing to the Book of Confessions.”
Petersen added, in an email to The Layman, that the move from the PCUSA to ECO was one needed to allow Westminster to be the Christ-centered church it wants to be.
“Intended to be nimble and entrepreneurial, ECO is much closer in its core values to the church Westminster is and wants to be,” he said. “For most members in our pews and our many mission teams the shift in our denominational affiliation will mean very little change in the short term. However, in the long term, we believe this move is essential in remaining a Christ-centered, Bible-based church seeking to glorify God in all that we do so that we may enjoy His presence now and forever.”
Petersen noted that the dismissal was bittersweet in one sense but totally refreshing in another.
“We were not unhappy with our local presbytery and grieved at that separation. It’s kind of bittersweet because we don’t want to lose those relationships with other churches in the presbytery,” Petersen said. “But there is a sigh of relief now. Certainly and surely we are looking forward to what Christ has next for us. We’ve invested so much time, effort, prayer and Biblical understanding in the PCUSA that we look at this as the end of one era and the beginning of another. We’ve looked at this, studied it, prayed it and debated it. Now that all that is done, let’s move on and do the Lord’s work.”