Jeff Japinga, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Twin Cities, opened his workshop, “A Presbytery Response to Departing Congregations, with a prayer:
“I’m not sure any of us want to talk about this, O God,” he said. “We’d rather talk about ministry and mission.”
But how to deal with congregations that want to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is “a question we’re all wrestling with across the country,” Japinga said.
His workshop was part of the 2017 Moderators Conference, one of several gatherings for mid-council leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in St. Louis October 13–17.
Over the past three years, in the Presbytery of Twin Cities, “we have had five congregations that left our denomination following a process of gracious separation,” Japinga said. “These congregations contained about 9,000 members. We are in court with one other one that has chosen not to follow our process.”
Most of the workshop participants acknowledged that their presbyteries faced similar scenarios, including lengthy legal battles over church property, church historical documents “held hostage” by disgruntled congregations, and ugly departures as well as more gracious dismissals.
“I’m just saddened by the exodus,” confessed Melvin Meares, moderator of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina. “We don’t always have to agree on everything, but stay in the conversation.”
“How many of you, in your presbytery, have a formal, written, consistent policy on churches that want to leave?” Japinga asked. “Your presbytery needs a clear policy.”
A policy is important because “dismissal is the responsibility of the presbytery, not the national church,” Japinga explained. “There is no single national standard, because when we land in court we are dealing with state law, not national law. “
But he added, “This is not simply a legal question. You need to be theological—what are the values and theological underpinnings for what you’re doing?”
Having a policy on departing congregations helps presbyteries deal with the animosity that arises in these situations, Japinga said.
“Often animosity is so high that resolution of the conflict becomes impossible. Without a policy, the animosity can drive us to do things we might not ordinarily do.”
We need to grapple with the fact that “now we’ve got Christians, people who say we are followers of Jesus Christ, fighting each other,” Japinga said.
He offered to share the policy of the Presbytery of Twin Cities as a model for other presbyteries that are developing policies of their own. He also advised presbytery leaders to “make sure that in the policy there is a way to reconciliation.
“We are a people of hope, and there always ought to be a reconciliation option.”