Fellowship of Presbyterians examines options for ‘differentiation’ from PC(USA)

August 29, 2011

Fellowship of Presbyterians leaders discuss the “tiers” or options they are proposing to disaffected Presbyterian congregations. —Photo by Jerry Van Marter


Whether to stay within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and, if so, under what conditions dominated the first gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP), which drew more than 1,900 disaffected Presbyterians here Aug. 25-26.

The seven large church pastors who form the FOP’s core leadership readily acknowledged that PC(USA) congregations dissatisfied with decisions and perceived trends in the denomination “are all over the map” about how to respond. Much of the gathering was spent exploring four “tiers” or options that are being developed ― from trying to reform the denomination from within to the creation of “a new Reformed body.”

One leader ― the Rev. Jim Singelton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, CO, repeatedly referred to the FOP’s next gathering Jan. 12-14 in Orlando, Fla., as a “constitutional convention” that will formally inaugurate both the FOP and the new Reformed body.”

But where the 852 congregations represented here wind up along the four-tier spectrum is anybody’s guess. “Repeat after me,” Singleton told the gathering: “It will be messy.”

The four tiers, in brief:

  1. Remaining in the PC(USA) and seeking to transform congregations and presbyteries to be more missional and theologically orthodox.
  2. Dividing existing presbyteries into theologically distinct presbyteries.
  3. Establishing as commissions (with power to act) two separate Committees on Ministry and Committees on Preparation for Ministry in presbyteries based on support for or opposition to gay and lesbian ordination and other “essential tenets.”
  4. Creation of a “new Reformed body” that may or may not be in full communion with the PC(USA).

The Rev. Mike McClenahan, pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in San Diego Presbytery, said his congregation is opting for Tier One. “Staying or leaving is a red herring because we can serve faithfully in San Diego Presbytery,” he said.

As his congregation strives to be more missional, McClenahan said, “our identity, our purpose and our context are the key elements for our missional community. God is doing a new thing and we must learn together what it is. Structure is important but context is essential.”

Opting for Tier Two is the Rev. Peter Barnes, pastor of Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. “We want to remain within the PC(USA) but differentiate ourselves from it to a certain extent,” he said.

Context is all important, Barnes said. “It’s okay to be an evangelical in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, but not in the Synod of the Northeast.”  His presbytery, Mission Presbytery, “is divided,” he said, “so we came up with the idea of an ‘overlay presbytery.’”

Tentatively titled the Presbytery of Central and South Texas, the new presbytery would share boundaries with Mission Presbytery and remain in the PC(USA). “We would join where we can but differentiate ourselves where we must,” Barnes said. Congregations would be allowed to self-select which presbytery to belong to.

“This idea was born out of mutual respect and a longing for peace,” Barnes said. “We need to differentiate but stay connected, focus on ministry that is missional. “Some [congregations] have a foot out the door, some want to stay no matter what, some are in between and want to find a way to stay,” he said, “but only in a way that ensures faithfulness and rights of conscience.”

Singleton spoke on behalf of Tier Three, calling it an “intra-presbytery” option. “You are going to stay in your same presbytery, but are creating two different elements or ‘orders’ within the presbytery … based on your support or opposition to 10-A (the recently adopted constitutional amendment that replaces the requirement that church officers practice “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” with the requirement to “submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”

For everything else, Singleton said, “the presbytery functions normally. As that internal division evolves, Fellowship of Presbyterians churches can continue their evolution. This option is for those who want the least disruption in the congregation and might be the easiest to pull off.”

Tier Four is the option being pursued by the Rev. David Swanson and First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Fla. That congregation has already begun the formal “discernment” process with the Presbytery of Central Florida for disaffiliation from the PC(USA).

“We are grateful for the engagement and mutual respect we have with the presbytery,” Swanson noted. “We’ve looked at all these options, from differentiation to separation. We want to be clear about theological essentials, which are non-negotiable … and which are a central core that will define us as a new Reformed body.”

FOP leaders consistently expressed the desire to remain connected with the PC(USA) in some way, no matter which “tier” they personally support. “We value some connections with the PC(USA), even if it might be time for separation,” Swanson said.

The Rev. John Crosby, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., said he views the new Reformed body and the PC(USA) as overlapping circles and hopes that polity solutions will enable some congregations “to join the new Reformed body and either stay in or get out of the PC(USA) … some form of affiliate status.”

In any event, Crosby added, “We’ll emphasize the Fellowship, not the PC(USA).”

To those who asked why congregations should remain connected to the PC(USA) at all, Singleton responded, “Context will drive that, but there are so many valuable people and programs in the PC(USA) that I’d hate to have to recreate it. There is a lot there that doesn’t need to be discarded.”

Crosby praised General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, who attended the gathering. “He’s trying to keep this thing together long enough to help us all discern what we will be,” Crosby said.

McClenahan said that no matter which tier of FOP involvement congregations choose, “we can and should all commit to missional transformation. If we start new presbyteries with the same questions, we’ll find ourselves in the same lifeless situation,” he insisted. “We must ask new, missional questions. If you change the questions, you change the outcomes.”

And the Rev. David Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, urged patience. “Christian faith moves at the pace of friendship,” he said.  “Stay connected, maintain the friendships, let the spirit move.” 

  1. Scott and Roderick, I am sorry you feel that you have the truth and those that disagree with you are shaming the church of "Knox and Calvin." The PCUSA has taken the historical beliefs of Knox and Calvin and turned them on their ear. Do either of you have a doubt of what Knox and Calvin would believe about the recent developments? Have you read Knox and Calvin? I am unwilling to say that either side is effectively listening to the Holy Spirit. Did the Holy Spirit talk the first three or four times this issue came up? If so, why was it brought up again? Did God change His mind? There are strongly and sincerely held beliefs on both sides. One has the advantage of history and the historical interpretation of Scripture and one has a goal of being inclusive and believes that is the overriding issue. I am inclined to believe the historical beliefs (such as those of Knox and Calvin) but can understand how others believe differently. I just wish they would allow for the same and not accuse people that disagree with them of being bigoted.

    by Michael Spires

    September 15, 2011

  2. Thanks, Bob, for 'naming the powers' in a direct, eloquent and yet gentle way. May the conversation continue thus!

    by Jim Walther

    September 7, 2011

  3. In this rush to establish like-minded enclaves of soul-mates who can agree and protect each other against the rest of us who are so mistaken, do I see either an ignorance of or an abandonment of the one who alone is our uniting presence--our Lord Jesus Christ. If we remain united in our committment to, love for, and worship of Christ alone, why can we not continue to struggle together as his body which has always been ruptured to some extent or other by contrary interpretations of Holy Scripture and its application to cultures' evolving ethical dimensions and practices. Christ's love for his church has never depended upon homogeneous conformity among his disciples. Rigorous dialogue and debate concerning delicate ethical dilemmas should promise growth in the Spirit, not fractures therein. My question is this: As culture are we not obsessed with human sexuality, both positively, in indulgence, and negatively, in denial--parts of the heights and depths of cultural obsession? Thus we isolate and single-out gender issues, and sexual orientation in particular, to become a litmus test for whom our God can or will call to ordination. If we believe with St. Paul, St. Augustine, John Calvin, and Karl Barth that our soverign God alone initiates call to ordination, then we dare not instruct God or require that God not call persons whose sexually active relationship may or may not conform to this culture's obsession. God must call those of us who are guilty of a variety of sins, because there are no other candidates available. Our cultural obsession dictates to us that certain expressions or practices of sexual behavior qualify as more heinous than others, and thus we diminish the Lordship of Christ, who should rank above this cultural obsession. Soli Deo Gloria!

    by Bob Newman

    September 7, 2011

  4. Such a pity that folks are so caught up in keeping score and passing judgment. I agree with Scott up to a point - this is both a crisis of polity and of faith. Some of us can't wrap our brains or our hearts around the idea that we are still seeing only the dim image in a mirror. We are so certain of our personal beliefs and have such confidence in the coherence of our theologies that we no longer have the ability to entertain the notion that we could be wrong. We risk crossing from mere arrogance and bullying into idolatry and tyranny. How can we so cheerfully pass judgment on one another and still claim to walk humbly with our God? The genius and the burden of our system seems to me to be that it requires us to be willing to submit to a series of authorities greater than we ourselves, as individuals, Sessions, congregations and Presbyteries. I have passionately disagreed with countless actions, decisions and proclamations throughout the nearly 30 years of my ministry. And I confess that I have more than once considered leaving. But leaving would make a lie of the very core of Reformed Faith: God is the ultimate authority, not me. I must at least allow for the possibility that - in spite of my years of study and prayer - I could be wrong! And the reverse must then also be true - the people with whom I disagree could be right. May God have mercy on us all if we squander more precious time and energy setting up parallel structures to preserve our illusions of power and control. Do we really need more conferences or "gatherings" to shore up our own beliefs? Should we not rather humbly listen to one another, acknowledge each other's pain and turn together to God, seeking forgiveness, healing and wholeness? It's hard to continue in civil conversation when we disagree with such passion, especially about an issue that is both personal and intimate, yet lived out in community. It is decidedly easier to circle the wagons and rally the troops against the infidels. But are we not called to immitate Christ - to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses and follow Jesus? So please, no more news releases; no more strategy sessions; no more high-profile Keynote Speakers! Let there be instead much private prayer and many quiet conversations. Maybe then, if we allow enough time for the Spirit to work in our hearts, we can all bow together in awe and wonder before the throne of Grace, profoundly grateful that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. All of us.

    by Jim Walther

    September 6, 2011

  5. Should the name be "Limited Fellowship of Presbyterians"

    by James A. Mohrman

    September 6, 2011

  6. Does this mean that the outcome of the vote is not the work of the Holy Spirit as I have been taught? I have always been told that votes are to be guided by the Holy Spirit - if that is true, aren't those congregations opposed to this, working against the Holy Spirit? When I am asked why I no longer consider myself a Presbyterian, it will be easy to answer - the church is no longer guided by the Holy Spirit. Pastors leading this movement should be ashamed of themselves and probably should resign their positions as it is clear they only feel the actions taken by this vote are only the work of the Holy Spirit when the vote goes their way. What heretics!

    by Scott

    September 6, 2011

  7. "Tiery" seems quite appropriate, given the apparent desire to create a hierarchy of purity. Aren't we all sinners, but saved by grace?

    by Phyllis Zoon

    September 3, 2011

  8. For Aaron: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged." (Matthew 7:1)

    by John

    September 2, 2011

  9. Interestingly, our local presbytery in a meeting with the stated clerk, myself and my pastor in attendance, had been considering what is best described as Tier 3; i.e. 2 COM's. This would have the least disruption and likely would only come into play when a pastor vacancy or new candidate for Min of the W&S comes to the presbytery. Interestingly, our local presbytery vote on 10A was a virtual tie, so the amendment was defeated. All this shows is a nearly even split amongst those commissioners attending and voting.

    by Dana Gilmour

    September 1, 2011

  10. Reading Aaron and Jim's responses, just makes me so tired of the whole thing. Who does more mission? Really. Generalizations and personal attacks like that don't help. If everyone's nose were truly buried in mission (including mine) there wouldn't be time for this.

    by Remi van Compernolle

    September 1, 2011

  11. prayers for our dear PC/USA!

    by Ricky Haven

    September 1, 2011

  12. I am dumbfounded and badly saddened by this news, the focus of which is dis-establishment and disintegration with rationales for various ways of accomplishing levels of separation. And this is our beloved Reformed church of Calvin and Knox? There is no point in my commenting on elements of the news or responses of others, as I have nothing to contribute. What I can write is that I fear the potential for the breakup of congregations into small units that may very well be unsustainable----and therefore pointless in the Universal Church. Unless, of course, we revert to the individual as Christ's emissary, or to hermitism, or to small cells of the 115% like-minded. Which also would be quite pointless and would only reinforce the LACK of force and meaning of the church in the world. Do you see the tear in Jesus' eye?

    by Roderick Ironside

    August 31, 2011

  13. "tiery-eyed," really? Clever but certainly less than helpful

    by ken

    August 31, 2011

  14. If Aaron's bilious and careless response to this conference is widely echoed among people who oppose the Fellowship of Presbyterians, it is hard to imagine peaceful times ahead, whether or not we choose to stay together or not.

    by John

    August 30, 2011

  15. Wow, Aaron, what an unchristian-like reply to people who are just trying to abide by scripture.

    by Rebecca

    August 30, 2011

  16. Two quick comments: First, for writer Jerry Van Marter: You cannot truthfully claim that there is a REQUIREMENT to “submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life” in the new Form of Government. Those joyful-submission words are used, but they are merely mentioned, and in no way is joyful submission required. Careless reading might give one the impression that it is required, but careful reading shows that it is not so. Please quit claiming that joyful submission is a new requirement. It truthfully isn't. Second, for commenter Aaron: Your disdain for evangelical Christians is a little difficult to bear. You assume that evangelicals are not feeding the poor, building nursery schools for single moms, and buying Bibles for kids. Wrong. I would submit that evangelicals far surpass theological liberals in such good works, because evangelicals roll up their sleeves and DO such things, while liberals seem to major in making proclamations, as if demonstrations and proclamations actually accomplish anything. Further, evangelical churches are demonstrably more vital as a whole, and simply have more interest, income, resources, and drive to make a difference in such charitable enterprises--plus, they have the faith to WANT to do it, while maintaining standards of behavior. Further, are not theological liberals also going to conferences that cost money, too, such as the More Light Presbyterians meeting in Rochester, NY, this weekend? Should they not spend money on meetings, travel, meals, and hotel rooms either? And finally, if you're going to crow about how "evil" those are who believe differently, you might want to get their initials correct: FOP, not FOB.

    by Jim Berkley

    August 30, 2011

  17. Even if this FOB decides to break away and start their own....in about 10 years they will want to be back in the PC(USA). we had the merger of the north and south already happen and im sure this will be one too. Once they have no members left in this makeshift FOB and financially cant survivie they will be crying to be part of our body once again. God will let them have their makeshift fun for now, running around the country, playing rock music, spending all this money on big concerts and hotels and such, meanwhile their congregations are suffering financially, they should be using this money to feed the poor, to fund a nursery for single moms, buying bibles for kids....instead, these guys are living the high life , wasting all this money on themselves. Boy will they be punished, and the joke will be on them......Evil lives, where evil breeds folks........

    by Aaron

    August 30, 2011