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Parting ways: What happens when Presbyterian congregations can't agree with their denominations

Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 21, 2016

CINCINNATI -- Presbyterians love the Bible verse in I Corinthians 14:40: “Let all things be done decently and in order.”

That rule applies even when Presbyterian congregations want to leave the largest U.S. Presbyterian denomination, the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA).

College Hill Presbyterian Church learned that in October 2013, when the congregation voted to leave and become part of a new denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

The previous year, upon the advice of the PCUSA, the Presbytery of Cincinnati, the governing body of 74 local congregations, had created a process by which churches could leave the PCUSA, said the presbytery’s stated clerk Janis Adams.

The Franklin, Tennesee-based Layman Online, a publication of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a group of theologically conservative Presbyterians, reported last year that in the three years from 2012-14, the denomination’s membership declined by more than 15 percent, to 1.6 million.

The Layman also reported the PCUSA’s loss was a gain for ECO, which saw 77 churches join in 2014, and for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which saw 46 join.

At its peak in 1965, the PCUSA had 4.25 million members.

The PCUSA has become more liberal than many of its congregations, both theologically and politically. In College Hill’s case, the church felt the denomination had questioned some basic doctrines such as Jesus being God in the flesh and the authority of the Bible, pastor Drew Smith said.

The process involved creating a “discernment team” of presbytery staff and congregation members, which had to meet at least five times before making a recommendation to the congregation. The team then could recommend staying or leaving, with the congregation having the final say.

Springfield Township resident Mark Klusmeier, a member of College Hill since 1971 and member of the discernment team, said he felt the process was “God-honoring,” and has ultimately been good for the church, which doesn’t expend its energy butting heads with the denomination anymore.

As part of the split, College Hill agreed to pay the presbytery $40,000 over five years. As part of the deal, the presbytery gave the congregation full ownership rights to the church building, Smith said.

The church considered joining the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a denomination started in 1981 that now has more than 575 churches.

But the congregation preferred ECO because it recognizes that the mainline church has, over the past 40-50 years, slowly declined and failed to fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples, Smith said.

ECO emphasizes empowering members to “take Jesus out into the world” into their workplaces, he said, instead of just opening the church doors and say, “You all come.”

Whereas the PCUSA had become a corporate, top-down organization, Klusmeier said, ECO is a bottom-up organization that encourages innovation and best practices for each of its 295 congregations.

Pews at the College Hill Presbyterian Church, which left the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination in 2013, are full during a recent worship service. Photo provided

Now, College Hill is about to begin a capital campaign, mainly to raise money to upgrade its facilities, Smith said. But 5 percent of the funds will go toward a fund to help start new churches.

“We wouldn’t have had that thought without ECO saying, ‘You have to take risky steps,’” he said.

For most of the past 30 years, he said, membership had declined every year. But since the move to ECO, membership has stabilized in the low 300s, he said.

Another local Presbyterian church, Covenant-First Presbyterian at Eighth Street and Garfield Place downtown, had some of the same issues with the PCUSA as College Hill, and went through the discernment process about the same time.

But the resolution to leave fell short by just a few votes, Pastor Russell Smith said, and the church remained with the PCUSA.

The congregation paid a price for that decision, he said, with about 100 members leaving the church. Some of them formed River Valley Presbyterian Church, the area’s only other ECO congregation, which worships at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Covington.

Founded in 1790, Covenant-First is one of Cincinnati’s oldest congregations. About 100-150 attend the lone Sunday worship service, Russell Smith said, a traditional service that features the church’s “majestic, awesome” organ.

“Part of our growth has been people whose home churches have abandoned traditional worship,” Russell Smith said. “We try to be warmhearted, and traditional and faithful to Scripture.”

Two other local churches left the PCUSA before the Presbytery of Cincinnati created its discernment process, Adams said: Holtsinger Memorial Presbyterian Church in Gano and the former Sharonville Presbyterian Church, now Church by the Woods.

Holtsinger, which left the PCUSA in 2011, is now part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, pastor William Lewis said.

“We didn’t want their brand of religion anymore,” he said of the PCUSA. “They were getting too liberal and doing some weird things.”

But Father Time, not its denominational ties, seems to be hurting his church the most. It’s a small church off the beaten path, he said, with a congregation that’s mostly seniors.

“All the old-timers are dying off,” he said. “We’re hanging on by our toenails.”