Presbytery gives nod to 3 departing churches, welcomes new one

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The Pittsburgh Presbytery on Saturday acquiesced to the departure of three area Allegheny County congregations to a more conservative denomination after reaching settlements in which the churches will keep their properties and make parting financial payments to the presbytery.

But the presbytery also added a member Saturday, formally recognizing a start-up congregation that has been growing in Squirrel Hill since its 2008 launch.

The three departing congregations took varied procedural routes to the exit doors, but all three are leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The latter, and other conservative Presbyterian bodies, have drawn scores of congregations in recent years, several of them in southwestern Pennsylvania, amid liberal trends in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), such as a 2011 constitutional change allowing non-celibate gays and lesbians to be ordained.

Pittsburgh Presbytery elders, meeting at Parkwood United Presbyterian Church, gave approval in voice votes to the departures after relatively brief discussions at the meeting -- but also after months of talks between the congregations and three presbytery commissions set up to negotiate with them. The presbytery has about 150 congregations in Allegheny County.

The departing congregations include Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church, with more than 700 members; Lebanon Presbyterian Church in West Mifflin, with more than 300 members; and Round Hill Presbyterian Church, with more than 160 members.

The presbytery last year had established a protocol for congregations seeking a "gracious separation" from the denomination, including a period of discernment and talks with the presbytery, but only Lebanon Presbytery Church chose to follow it.

The Rev. Robert Downs, a presbytery representative to the Lebanon church negotiations, said that even though the separation was difficult, the two sides joined in prayers and discussions that he described as being so positive, they were "something of what the coming Kingdom of God is going to be like."

The Mt. Lebanon and Round Hill churches voted to leave the denomination without following the presbytery's protocol, but they and the presbytery negotiated settlements that left them with unclouded claims to their properties.

"It's our desire to bless them in their future ministry, even though their departures were in a different form than we desired," said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister to the Pittsburgh Presbytery.

Financial donations to be made included $215,000 from Mt. Lebanon; $35,000 from Lebanon, plus another $15,000 to cover past obligations; and $8,200 from Round Hill. The donations will go to causes described as the "Great Ends of the Church," such as missions and church planting.

Also at the presbytery meeting, a dozen young adults came forward to represent the Upper Room Church in Squirrel Hill for a ceremony in which they became fully chartered as a Presbyterian congregation. The church, which began as a living-room Bible study and moved to a former movie theater, was launched to provide urban ministry and to reach students and researchers at nearby universities.

The Rev. B.J. Woodworth, pastor of another new congregation, Open Door, described the Upper Room congregation as a "small and mighty" congregation. "They are a community of people committed to praying," he said.

Peter Smith:, 412-263-1416, or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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