They worshipped for years in a big way: Big congregation (more than 3,900), big sanctuary in a big downtown church. Then First Presbyterian of Orlando, Fla., voted in January 2012 to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
A few dozen chose to stay with the PC(USA) and to align themselves with what remained of the congregation — with what’s called the “continuation church” or the “remnant church.” This new entity is named Orlando Presbyterian Church — and for some of those 41 people it presents a whole new way of being church.
With the help of a $900,000 payment from First Presbyterian — made to the Presbytery of Central Florida, as part of a negotiated settlement that allowed First Presbyterian to depart with its property — Orlando Presbyterian has called an interim minister, Linda Jaberg. The congregants worship in space rented from Park Lake Presbyterian Church. They are in the thick of a discernment process — trying to determine how God is calling this new congregation to work in ministry.
Surprisingly, the 41 people who became part of Orlando Presbyterian did not necessarily know one another, or were at most acquaintances. This was not a group which banded together in organized protest of First Presbyterian’s determination to go, but more a collection of individuals who, for a variety of reasons, did not want to leave the PC(USA).
“I have to say that this journey — and it has been a journey — has deepened my faith and deepened my commitment,” said Ruling Elder Guy Neff.
“The thing that has amazed me is the power that emanates from a group of committed people. It’s a power of relationship and of friendship. It’s the power of worship. It’s the power of a committed group of individuals banding together and forming what is in essence a new congregation. We’re technically the continuing church within the PC(USA), but we were left with absolutely no structure and no staff leadership of any kind.”
Jaberg said the congregation describes itself as “founded in 1876 and renewed in 2012,” and is moving from a consumer culture to one of discipleship. Last fall, the 41 members pledged $100,000 in a stewardship campaign.
There is both anxiety and optimism. “We have an opportunity to decide what kind of church we want to be,” said Mike Woods, a lawyer and ruling elder.
Orlando Presbyterian worships on Sunday evenings, because they couldn’t find space to use on Sunday mornings. Some are discovering they really like the change.
Neff and his wife Dawn, who were members of First Presbyterian for about 25 years, get up at 4:30 a.m. on Sundays to cook and serve breakfast to homeless people — part of a ministry at their old church with which they are still involved.
“The thing that has become apparent to me is that if you worship at 11 o’clock you’re in competition with virtually every other church in the community,” Neff said. At night, “you’re providing an alternative.”
Woods has a house at the beach, and loves hunting and fishing. He likes having the weekend free and then returning in time for church on Sunday night.
Woods said his experience with Orlando Presbyterian “has forced me to rethink my definition of a successful church … I no longer think you have to have lots of new members or a mesmerizing preacher — although our minister is wonderful — or the biggest choir in the county. None of that really means too much to me anymore.”
He used to attend a Sunday school class with 350 people, but now is part of a congregation in which people pray personally for one.
“It’s convinced me that I don’t want to be part of a big church anymore,” Woods said. “In a small church, everyone’s got to be involved in some way. It’s a much more personal experience. You get the sense that this is what church really should be.”