Washington Presbytery plan termed 'a way of doing church together'
Thursday, July 12, 2007By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Washington Presbytery has adopted a plan that could allow congregations that leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) for another Presbyterian denomination to keep their property, but it is unclear if that will affect a Peters church that is already in a more contentious process with the presbytery.
The vote was 56-18 Tuesday night at Chartiers Hill Presbyterian Church, North Strabane, to require at least four months of formal discussion between a "pastoral team" appointed by the presbytery and a congregation that proposes leaving. The congregation must also propose a mission plan for how it will continue serving its community and make pastoral provision for any members who choose to stay with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
At that juncture, if at least half of the church's active members attend a meeting at which 75 percent of them vote to leave, the pastoral team will recommend to the presbytery that they be allowed to do so and keep their property, which church law says would otherwise stay with the congregation. The final decision is up to the presbytery.
A lengthy debate Tuesday centered on whether the presbytery had a right to devise its own separation plan instead of appointing a powerful "administrative commission," the denomination's constitutional provision for dealing with such congregations. Most congregations fear administrative commissions because of their authority to replace the pastor and the lay governing board of the church.
The Rev. Linda Jaberg, chairman of the presbytery's council, said the plan was an effort to "flesh out a new way of doing church together, to be more pastoral and to listen to each other."
Unlike a similar plan in Pittsburgh Presbytery, Washington's does not require the departing congregation to leave some money with the presbytery, although the plan's sponsors said it doesn't prevent the presbytery from making that requirement.
Both plans have resulted from efforts of some conservative congregations in the denomination to leave for the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Two churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery have already voted to do so, although the presbytery has not yet taken final action on them.
Because no plan for Washington Presbytery was in place on May 6, when the lay governing board of Peters Creek Presbyterian Church called for a congregational vote on moving to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the presbytery appointed an administrative commission.
Peters Creek then obtained a temporary injunction from Washington County Common Pleas Court, forbidding the commission from seizing control of the church.
The congregation has not yet voted on whether to leave the denomination.
The Rev. Richard Noftzger, chairman of the group that wrote the separation plan and of the administrative commission for Peters Creek, said the commission has met with representatives of the church.
It was "an honest and sincere exchange" about how the congregation came to consider leaving, he said.
He said the new plan was "a separate issue" from Peters Creek because the church initiated its effort prior to the plan's adoption. The document may "provide some guidance and insight, but it is not binding" with regard to Peters Creek, he said.
Ray Peterson, a Peters Creek elder and designated spokesman for the congregation, would not comment on the presbytery's plan or how it might affect his congregation.
The Rev. Jeffrey Kisner, professor of biblical and ministry studies at Waynesburg College, was one of several opponents. He said the Presbyterian Church (USA) constitution intended administrative commissions to deal with such situations. His effort to amend the document to require an administrative commission for any negotiation was defeated, as was an effort to change the 75 percent congregational vote to a simple majority.
The Rev. David Bleivik, executive presbyter of Washington Presbytery, said the top expert on church law at Presbyterian Church (USA) headquarters had reviewed the plan and deemed it acceptable "as long as it's not a guarantee that someone can leave."
"What is required by the constitution is that the presbytery makes the final decision," he said.
(Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. )