First Presbyterian Church in Edmond, Okla. — a congregation which has been led by two pastors who have been active in Presbyterian evangelical interest groups — has begun the process of trying to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Mateen Elass, the church’s head-of-staff pastor, is president of the board of directors of Presbyterians for Renewal. Steve Marsh, moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition’s board of directors, had served as the church’s executive pastor, although he recently accepted a call to be an interim pastor of another PC(USA) congregation.
What will happen to the Edmond congregation, its pastors and property will take time to sort out. Aaron Carland, general presbyter for Indian Nations Presbytery, said Edmond is one of two congregations in the presbytery that have raised the possibility of leaving the PC(USA), and an administrative commission is being appointed to work with both. The second church is Grace Presbyterian Church, a small congregation in Oklahoma City.
“Our real intent is to approach this in a gracious manner,” Carland said. “My hope is the way we deal with one another will be exemplary … We are going to look at each situation as it comes.”
In an open letter released March 21, Elass wrote that the Edmond congregation has begun the process of seeking to be dismissed from the PC(USA), although it has not yet decided which denomination the church will try to transfer to.
In an e-mail interview, Elass said it is most likely the Edmond church would move either to the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, a new denomination the Fellowship of Presbyterians created earlier this year (and which on April 9 switched its name to “ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians”), or to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. A congregational task force is working on a recommendation regarding affiliation.
Elass said the session of the congregation met on March 3 and approved a motion recommending that the congregation ask the presbytery to be graciously dismissed from the PC(USA). The Edmond congregation is part of Indian Nations Presbytery, which includes 53 congregations in central and southwestern Oklahoma.
In his open letter, Elass wrote that the PC(USA) has been drifting theologically for more than 40 years, and that “in recent years, this drift has accelerated exponentially, to the point where core doctrines of biblical faith and central practices of Christian lifestyle are no longer deemed essential or even true.”
He also wrote that “the PC(USA) has lost its passion for evangelism” and that “we can no longer in good conscience remain bound to a denomination we feel has jettisoned the core of why we were called into existence in the first place.”
The session is hoping that a presbytery vote on dismissal could come by October, Elass wrote in the mail.
Elass also told the Outlook that if the congregation leaves, he and Matt Jones, the associate pastor, likely would leave the PC(USA) as well. But his message said that “Steve Marsh is committed to remaining in the PC(USA) to be a faithful witness in the midst of the present denominational situation.”
According to Carland, Marsh has accepted a new call as interim executive pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City, beginning April 16. Carland also said the presbytery’s administrative commission will try to determine how many people from the Edmond congregation, which he said has about 1,700 members, want to leave the PC(USA) and how many wish to stay.
“I’ve heard from people in both churches (Edmond and Grace) who are adamantly opposed to the direction taken by the session,” Carland said. “How many people want to leave? How many want to stay? We have no predetermined percentage that the presbytery is going to require for a church to be graciously dismissed … No cookie-cutter approach.”
He added that “this presbytery is not harsh,” and “will look at what seems reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances.”