Presbyterians seek unity—or amicable split—on gay clergy

February 3, 2014


In recent years, as Christian denominations voted to allow openly gay and lesbian clergy, hundreds of congregations have broken away to affiliate with more theologically conservative bodies. It is a painful process, fraught often with acrimony, recriminations and lawsuits over property.

But a Presbyterian congregation in Sheboygan County and the Presbytery of Milwaukee are trying to forge a new way.

In what appears to be a first for the Presbyterian Church USA, the denomination’s 45 local congregations have been invited to take part in a prayerful and collaborative process aimed at negotiating a reconciliation or amicable divorce.

The First Presbyterian Church of Oostburg is the first congregation in southeastern Wisconsin to petition to leave the Presbyterian Church USA following a 2010 vote approving the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy in July 2011.

On Feb. 1, Milwaukee’s Zeidler Center for Public Discussion will mediate a church-wide conversation over that request in a process that will focus not just on money and property, but mission and what it means to be part of a faith community.

“We don’t have an end game; that’s the whole idea,” said the Rev. Craig Howard, executive presbyter of the 11-county Presbytery of Milwaukee.

Oostburg’s pastor, the Rev. Brian Jacobson, said he feels a sense of hopefulness about the process.

“It feels like a genuine attempt—in Christian language—to make room for the spirit,” Jacobson said. “It feels to me like this could be a way forward that would honor both sides.”

First Presbyterian is seeking to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a theologically conservative denomination that formed after the 2011 vote.

Since then, about 260 congregations have left the 2.8 million-member Presbyterian Church USA, said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who serves as the stated clerk of the church’s general assembly in Louisville. Similar schisms have erupted in the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 

Locally, the conflict appears to have been brewing for some time, causing disappointment and distrust on all sides.

First Presbyterian of Oostburg is a thriving congregation in a conservative pocket of a primarily progressive presbytery. With 260 members, First Presbyterian draws about 200 on Sunday, far higher than the 50% attendance for most Presbyterian churches.

“The thing I really like about this church is their fervor about evangelizing,” Howard said. “This church is really about witnessing for Jesus Christ. I can see it with Brian’s leadership doing great things in the community.”

But Jacobson’s members no longer feel part of the Presbyterian USA. The ordination vote, he said, was just one symptom of the broader issues it has with the denomination over questions of theology and the authority of scripture.

“We believe that the PCUSA has kind of left the moorings of the historical orthodox Christian faith,” Jacobson said. “I would characterize what happened in July 2011 as the straw that broke the camel’s back for us.”

In return for permission to leave, the Oostburg congregation offered a $100,000 “gift” to the presbytery that would be used for ministry in keeping with the conscience of the congregation. In return, it would keep the church property, valued at about $750,000.

A church committee formed to study the Oostburg request has raised concerns about releasing the congregation to a denomination it considers not yet stable.

In the end, the Presbytery doesn’t want Oostburg to leave, Howard said, suggesting the inclusion of dissonant voices helps the broader church in its discernment.

“The challenge is how do we honor them as a church of Jesus Christ and at the same time honor the commitment to the PCUSA, which means there’s a financial piece there,” Howard said.

  1. One nice thing about being practically divorced from the day to day working of the PCUSA is that these issues haven't been on my mind. But last time I looked in both the Old and the New FOG there was already a gracious dismissal process. It's called resigning. I took a vow at my ordination, and I reaffirmed it at each installation that if I ever found myself out of accord with the PCUSA I would let the Church know and I would leave. And that is what I would do. And that is what each deacon, elder, and minister/teaching elder should do. Keeping one's vow would be the gracious thing to do. As for churches being dismissed with or without property, I don't recall any provisions in the FOG or better yet the Book of Confessions that would allow such a move. But then I'm a conservative who thinks our Constitution should be followed. If a church as a church is so upset, then let the members resigns and join another church or start their own. But the Church shouldn't be dismissed. It should be closed as if it had died a natural death. The assests revert to the PCUSA, per the Constitution. That is what I call gracious. As for the "all about money"..i wonder why the PCA great pullout began after a proposal for merger included a provision making it clear that property was held in trust for the denomination. And why so many who have left since always want to do so "graciously", that is, with the property.

    by james p. shuman

    May 6, 2014

  2. There are two different visions of Christian unity playing out in the PC(USA). One vision is that it doesn't matter what we believe as long as we stay together. The other vision is that authentic unity requires some minimal core of shared conviction without which the gospel message is so garbled and contradictory as to be incoherent. Proponents of the former view don't seem to grasp that the PC(USA) has been split for at least 20 years. Until 20 years ago it was common for a fairly evangelical pastor to succeed a fairly progressive pastor in a church and vice versa because the gap between the two was tolerably narrow. Today however that gap has become such a yawning chasm that no progressive church would call an evangelical pastor and vice versa. So while it's certainly admirable that the Oostburg church and the presbytery will be having polite conversation, that conversation won't have any effect on the reality that the PC(USA) is permanently and irretrievably split whether or not churches like Oostburg stay or leave.

    by Jim Caraher

    February 6, 2014

  3. The PCUSA and ECO need to explore ways that we can still remain in common mission and witness to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This will not be easy, but we need to make the attempt for the sake of the one Body of Christ!

    by Bryce Little

    February 4, 2014

  4. A most interesting approach for the Presbytery and congregation - I applaud their creative and positive focus. I am unsure I share the same definiton of schism as used in the article. Does First Presbyterian in seeking to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, automatically create schism? The article implies that all 260 or so congregations having left the PCUSA, have been schismatic. Many, if not most congregations I have observed moving from PCUSA to ECO have followed the path of "gracious dismissal" advocated by the General Assembly. Please publish the working definition of schism used by thr Presbyterian Mission Agency so I can assess the judgment of republishing a local commerical newspaper article which uses the word diffferently than is common to the presbyterian tradition in our country. The republishing creates the situation of misunderstanding as whether the PCUSA officially defines any inquiry into a dismissal by a congregation as schism. I pray blessings for the creative folks of Oostburg and the Presbytery of Milwaukee.

    by Thomas L. Fultz

    February 4, 2014

  5. I think that is good for the Presbyterian Church. To get back to the Spirit and Faith. Because the whole duty of man is to serve God and keep His Commandments.

    by Shelia

    February 4, 2014

  6. But in the mean time, the Presbytery of San Francisco is filching Menlo Park out of nearly 9 million dollars because they want to leave. It's all about money for the Presbyteries.

    by Carolyn George

    February 3, 2014