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Southern Presbyterians Lose Third of Members, But Amicably

(Updated) Mississippi and Tropical Florida presbyteries avoid acrimony often seen when conservative churches leave PC(USA) or other mainline denominations.

Update (April 10, 2013): A recent schism at Fremont Presbyterian Church in California isn't keeping the two congregations from sharing space. The Sacramento Bee reports that the congregation, which divided between 'traditionalists' and 'progressives' over the issue of gay clergy, "still [shares] sacred spaces at the church site near California State University, Sacramento."

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Two Presbyterian regional bodies recently lost one-third of their members with surprisingly little acrimony compared to many departures by conservative congregations from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other mainline denominations.

The Presbytery of Mississippi has approved the dismissal of five churches–representing 1,400 people, or about one-third of its members–to the more-conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The presbytery has maintained a hands-off policy toward the property and funds of departing churches since renouncing the denomination's property-trust clause in 2006, according to The Layman.

"It would cost everybody a lot less grief if more presbyteries would follow the example we have tried to set," Mississippi stated clerk Michael Herrin told The Layman.

Meanwhile, the Presbytery of Tropical Florida last week approved the dismissal of nine churches–also representing about one-third of its members (3,800 people)–but has required compensation of $500,000 (reflecting three years of per-capita payments to the denomination and parting offerings).

"It would be devastating to our presbytery's mission strategy to be a reproducing, not a reducing presbytery ... if we were to engage in a prolonged battle with congregations that have voted over 90 percent to request dismissal," stated presbytery officials, according to The Layman.

Many PC(USA) departures have been marked by hard feelings or lawsuits over property and finances, but both presbyteries are conservative ones that share many of the departing churches' views on denominational debates.

Conservative churches have been leaving the PC(USA) for a decade, but the pace has increased following a denominational vote to ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians in July 2011. Since July, 63 churches have voted to leave the PC(USA), according to The Layman.

The PC(USA) declined 3.42 percent in 2010 to 2.7 million members, a rate of decline second only to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America among the nation's 10 largest denominations, according to the 2012 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches.

Departing congregations are still a minority of the PC(USA)'s roughly 11,000 churches, but they often are the largest in their area, including 4,100-member First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, Colorado; 3,950-member First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Florida; 3,500-member First Presbyterian Church of Greenville, South Carolina; and 2,300-member Eastminster Presbyterian Church of Wichita, Kansas. The impending departure of the Colorado Springs church, the largest in Colorado's Pueblo presbytery, has prompted eight other churches representing half of the presbytery's members to consider following suit.

Conservative Presbyterians launched a new denomination in January, though most don't plan to leave their current one. Dissenting congregations can exclusively join the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO), but they can also affiliate with it while remaining in the PC(USA). A poll of the 2,100 representatives from 900 congregations who attended the ECO's founding conference in Florida indicated most churches would not leave the PC(USA). But the New Wineskins Association of Churches, which broke from the PC(UCA) in 2007, said it would "conclude its ministry" and merge with the ECO.

In an attempt to stem further defections, a PC(USA) commission has voted 15–5 to allow non-geographic presbyteries. The move, which would allow churches to choose their own groupings for "missional purposes," awaits approval at the general assembly this June. A group of PC(USA) leaders also signed a letter seeking reconciliation with breakaway groups.

Christianity Today has extensively covered church fights over property, including whether the balance of power has shifted from denominations to churches.

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Posted:May 24, 2012 at 4:50PM
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Southern Presbyterians Lose Third of Members, But Amicably