The Hillsdale First Presbyterian Church cut ties with the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination Tuesday, ending a three-year discernment battle.
First Presbyterian left because of PCUSA’s growing liberal trend, evidenced by the denomination adopting changes in immigration policy, geopolitical standings, ordination requirements, and church government structure. The congregation felt isolated from the denomination for its more traditional beliefs.
First Presbyterian elected to leave the denomination to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church on Aug. 30 after the congregation voted 104 – 12, surpassing the Presbytery of Lake Michigan’s required threshold of 75 percent congregational approval for the church to leave the PCUSA.
The Presbytery of Lake Michigan approved First Presbyterian’s request to separate from the PCUSA on Tuesday, and the EPC accepted First Presbyterian as a transitional member on Wednesday.
“PCUSA, their most pressing concern is social justice,” Pastor Patti Beckman said. “Now, I’m not against social justice, and it should happen in the course of ministry, but for them, ministry might happen in the course of social justice. They are completely fixated on that. We are concerned here that the Bible is not held as the standard, the fact there are no moral standards for those who are ordained anymore.”
In 1967, PCUSA altered its confessional standard by adding other confessions to it, which, Professor of Theatre James Brandon said, “confused and even muddled some of the earlier ones.”
“I just don’t think those were things that settled well with our congregation,” said Brandon, church elder and Discernment Resolution Team member.
Professor of History Tom Conner, who also served on the discernment team and is First Presbyterian’s clerk of session, agreed.
“I think sooner or later this divergence was bound to happen between the liberal character of the denomination and our determination to stick to more traditional practices and understanding of things,” Conner said.
The church began a preliminary discernment step in 2011 by refusing to pay the per capita assessment, a voluntary tax on each church member to go toward the presbytery, according to Conner.
The church paid the $15,000 withheld for the past four years from this assessment following the congregation’s vote prior to the presbytery’s dismissal decision, Beckman said.
The Gracious Separation Policy for the Presbytery of Lake Michigan is a six-step process in which four representatives from First Presbyterian and three from the presbytery discussed the controversies surrounding the dismissal.
The largest concern during negotiations focused on property rights. The PCUSA holds the First Presbyterian Church building in trust, which means the denomination owns the building for the purpose of letting First Presbyterian use it. The PCUSA could seize the property since First Presbyterian is no longer a member of the denomination.
“There are people in the congregation who are ready to walk out of this building and start worshipping in a soup kitchen somewhere because it’s not about the building,” Brandon said. “The building itself, the stain glass, the organ is priceless to our congregation.”
The PCUSA and First Presbyterian agreed on an $80,000 price for the building following a complete real estate assessment, Conner said.
The EPC will examine First Presbyterian’s elders and pastor after they confirm the EPC’s essential beliefs.
“The last thing the EPC wants to do is admit a rebellious congregation,” Conner said.
The EPC will examine Beckman on its floor, which she said could be “rigorous.”
There are some churches in the EPC that do not allow for women to be ministers, which bothered some First Presbyterian members, even though the denomination does not prohibit the ordination of women ministers, Beckman said.
The EPC will also allow First Presbyterian to retain ownership of its church building, according to Conner.
By breaking ties with the denomination, First Presbyterian hopes people will be more inclined to visit.
“We’re also hopeful that to the degree that people who might have been interested in joining our church might be persuaded not to because of our denominational affiliation,” Conner said. “That issue will be taken care of.”
The church leadership sees a bright future ahead for Hillsdale First Presbyterian Church.
“It’s been a long road,” Beckman said. “There’s a new energy.”