ORLANDO, Fla.

When talking about polity (church government), the Rev. David Dobler likes to quote Albert Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as possible, and no simpler.”

The Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) ― the new Reformed denomination launched last week by the Fellowship of Presbyterians ― seemed to follow that maxim when it unveiled the constitution for the new body of dissidents from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Describing the ECO polity as “decentralized, minimalist, smaller,” Dobler ― who is pastor to the Presbytery of Alaska and chair of ECO’s Polity Task Force ― said that “rather than a national enterprise that plays out locally, in ECO the congregation is central, relating horizontally to other congregations.”

That’s not to say that ECO is congregationalist, said the Rev. John Crosby, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., and president of the new denomination. “Connection is needed,” he said, “but we want the connections to strengthen congregations, to hold each other accountable and to train future leaders.”

The ECO three-tiered structure is familiar to most Presbyterians ― congregations, presbyteries and a synod, but no General Assembly. Dobler, a former PC(USA) General Assembly moderator, said synod ― which he defined as meaning “together on the road” ― is a “fine theological word that has gotten lost in bureaucratic clutter.”

“General Assembly is not biblical in any sense,” added Crosby. “This constitution seeks to restore long-needed flexibility with minimal structure.”

Depending on how many congregations opt to leave the PC(USA) for ECO, the group anticipates starting out with three presbyteries ― West, Central and East. Presbyteries, which will be geographic, will consist of between 10 and 20 congregations each.

Congregations will also have the option of joining non-geographic “affinity networks” based on the types of ministries in which they are engaged, rather than geographic presbyteries. The Rev. Marnie Crumpler of Atlanta’s Peachtree Presbyterian Church cited campus churches, rural churches and urban churches as “affinity network” possibilities.

ECO leaders acknowledged that this looser system will require high levels of trust. “We believe that if we agree on theological essentials, then high trust is possible, vision is clear and accountability is natural,” Dobler said.

Indeed, ECO’s “essential tenets” are the core of the denomination’s theology and polity. The four-page essentials ― part of ECO’s constitution ― are more a theological treatise than a simple list of principles. But they include:

  • The infallibility of the Bible
  • “Special guidance” by the 10 commandments
  • “Chastity in thought and deed, being faithful within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman as established by God at the creation or embracing a celibate life as established by Jesus in the new covenant”
  • Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation and “in choosing some, God passes over others”
  • God’s “covenant community … an instrument of His saving purpose”
  • “Pray and work for the union of the church throughout the world even where institutional unity does not seem possible…”
  • Observance of the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest
  • Eradication of “a spirit of anger, resentment, callousness, violence or bitterness…”
  • Pursuit of truth “even when such pursuit is costly, and defend truth when it is challenged.”

 One of ECO’s ordination vows requires church officers to “receive and adopt without hesitation the Essential Tenets of the ECO…”

 Ordaining bodies “must ensure that all officers adhere to the Essential Tenets of the ECO. Failure of officers to continue to adhere to these standards is grounds for a session or presbytery to remove an officer from service…”

 And to join ECO, congregations must “craft a covenant which reflects their desire to be bound to Christ and one another as a part of the body of Christ according to the Essential Tenets and government of the ECO.”

 “Our vision is to see God establish a fresh covenantal connection among those who want to take radical steps into the future,” said Crosby. “We don’t want people who think ECO is the best of bad options.”

 There are two categories of ECO membership: “Baptized members” who have been baptized but have not made a profession of faith; and “covenant partners” who have made such profession,  have been baptized and have been received into the membership of the church.

There is no provision for transfer of membership ― persons changing congregations do so by reaffirmation of faith.

There is no property trust clause in the ECO constitution ― congregations own their property.

Congregations are governed by sessions. Presbyteries oversee the lives and missions of their congregations and minister members. The synod “is the widest council of the ECO, giving support and guidance to the presbyteries and congregations. The synod shall assess and proclaim the missional vision and theology of the ECO.”

A central component of ECO’s polity is “peer review.” All ECO pastors will be required to participate in a peer review at least annually with other pastors. In the reviews, conducted within presbyteries or affinity networks, participants will:

  • “Explore the health of each other’s current ministry”
  • “Explore the future objectives for each other’s ministry”
  • “Address challenges and obstacles to meeting those objectives”
  • “Share best practices and insights”
  • “Explore each other’s physical, spiritual, relational and emotional health”

 “This is something new ― not just a safe harbor ― a bold future that I can be proud of, unlike my experience in ministry so far,” said the Rev. Joe Farrell, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, Colo.

 The Rev. Emily McColl, associate pastor of Laguna Niguel (Calif.) Presbyterian Church, agreed. Like a house filled with teenagers, she said, ECO “is messy but cool. It requires boundaries, trust, flexibility. Our base is our essentials ― we don’t compromise on that ― which gives us clarity and a base to grow deeper disciples and new disciples.”

ECO’s leaders have already dealt with a number of practical matters, such as incorporation, a contract to provide mandatory health insurance beginning April 1, a staff of two full-time and two part-time employees, and a “play book” for pastors and sessions who are exploring ECO membership.

ECO leadership is also addressing funding. Crosby said “a few of us have provided the funding for this effort to date, but now we need your help.” No fewer than four fund-raising pitches dotted the Jan. 18-20 gathering here. An offering was collected at the Jan. 19 evening worship service, and pledge cards for individuals and congregations were included in the registration packets.

Crosby said the per capita assessment for ECO member congregations will be 1 percent of their budget.

“We are committed,” Dobler said, “to discovering who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do.”