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‘God is calling us to dream’: ECO begins to take shape


The outlines of a new denomination — the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, or ECO for short — began to take shape as the Fellowship of Presbyterians held its Covenanting Conference in Orlando Jan. 18-20.

I’m not really sure we have really dreamed for a long time,” said John Ortberg, an author and pastor of Menlo Park Church in California, encouraging evangelicals to consider joining the ECO. “I think God is calling us to dream.”

On Aug. 23-24, the Fellowship and the ECO will hold a joint national gathering, at a location yet to be announced. It will be partly a time for mutual support and worship, partly a formal business meeting.

There, the Fellowship and ECO will name separate boards of directors and plan next steps. There is a distinction between the ECO (a new, separate denomination) and the Fellowship (an alliance to which congregations and individuals can belong whether they remain in the PC(USA) or move to the ECO).

Some pieces of the new denomination’s structure already are falling into place. At the Orlando meeting, the Fellowship’s board of directors approved revised theology and polity documents that form the ECO’s constitution. The new denomination will offer its own retirement and health insurance plans.

The Fellowship will have a budget of $500,000 in 2012 and a staff of two full-time and two part-time employees. Each congregation joining the ECO will be required to pay 1 percent of its salary annually in per capita. Joining the Fellowship will cost $250 a year for congregations and $125 for individuals.

Even with that infrastructure in place, most evangelicals don’t seem ready to leave the PC(USA) — at least not yet. Some aren’t ready to make the switch so quickly, and some don’t want to go at all (although that could change if the PC(USA) decides to allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages, an issue that’s slated to come up before the 2012 General Assembly). A relatively small group is pursuing the idea of achieving union status with both the ECO and the PC(USA).

In a straw poll taken of those registered for the conference, nearly 60 percent of the 2,100 attending said they were coming mostly to discern what to do next, said John Crosby, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., and one of the Fellowship’s leaders.

About 20 percent said they intend to leave the PC(USA) to join the Evangelical Covenant Order, Crosby said in an interview, and about 7 percent want some kind of union relationship with both the PC(USA) and the new denomination. And about 15 percent want to join the Fellowship while remaining in the PC(USA), Crosby said.

Evangelical congregations may have several reasons for staying in the PC(USA), said Jim Singleton, a Colorado pastor and the Fellowship’s president. Some may feel it’s too costly to go to the ECO; some may not want to risk rupturing a divided congregation; some feel they already do effective ministry and have solid relationships within PC(USA).

Some evangelicals staying in the PC(USA) also will join the Fellowship as a way of differentiating themselves — to align with other evangelicals in networks of mutual accountability, and to stand in opposition to the PC(USA)’s controversial decision last year to allow the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians.

The Fellowship has begun raising money, ending the Orlando gathering with a covenanting service at which it passed out pledge cards and asked people to sign a covenant of support with the Fellowship umbrella group, not specifically with the ECO.

When asked why evangelicals should choose the ECO rather than go to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Singleton said there’s one clear distinction: The EPC has an “ambivalent” position on the ordination of women, while the ECO celebrates the gifts of women in ministry.