Some area Presbyterian churches continue exodus from denomination
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Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church is among two local churches of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that voted to leave that denomination without going through Pittsburgh Presbytery's required negotiations, and the First Presbyterian Church of Bakerstown is slated to vote on the same matter Sunday.
Mt. Lebanon and Round Hill Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Township were accepted Friday into the more theologically conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
The Rev. Dan Muttart said that if his Bakerstown church votes for disaffiliation, it will also join the EPC.
Andrea Geraghty, an attorney for Mt. Lebanon and churches that she didn't name, said she didn't anticipate litigation. "It is our hope that we will be able to communicate with the presbytery and that, as a result, our clients and the presbytery will reach amicable agreement so that each party can go its own separate way to work on its mission," she said.
The Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister of Pittsburgh Presbytery, said that Mt. Lebanon and Round Hill refused to allow presbytery representatives to argue their case to the members, as the presbytery's "gracious separation" policy required.
"I am deeply saddened by the great distress evident on so many levels: congregational leaders believing that their bond with the PCUSA is so damaging to their churches and ministries ... members being asked to vote on matters about which they have only partial information, and people being forced to choose sides when they feel deep bonds to both. May God help us navigate this painful journey with integrity and commitment to remaining true to the gospel," he said.
The presbytery is appointing commissions to intervene at Mt. Lebanon and Round Hill, but Rev. Sorge did not expect them to try to stop the congregations from leaving.
"As much as we are saddened by their apparent felt need to leave us, it will not be a goal of the administrative commission to somehow wrestle them back into the PCUSA. What we will do is try to find a way to achieve an outcome that enables the presbytery to, in good conscience, dismiss them knowing that the constitutional requirements have been met," he said.
An elder from Mt. Lebanon has requested to file a complaint with the church court of Pittsburgh Presbytery, claiming that the 296-32 vote on Nov. 11 violated church law.
Hundreds of congregations in the 1.9 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) have left because they believed their denomination had become biblically lax on matters including gay ordination. Pittsburgh and other presbyteries in Western Pennsylvania remain conservative on such matters.
To date 19 congregations from Pittsburgh, Washington, Redstone, Beaver-Butler and Shenango presbyteries have joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland and Lebanon Presbyterian Church in West Mifflin are in Pittsburgh Presbytery's negotiation process.
Neither the Rev. Timothy Janiszewski of Mt. Lebanon nor the Rev. Lowell Meek of Round Hill was available Friday. The Rev. Dean Weaver, moderator-elect for the Presbytery of the Alleghenies of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, said he couldn't speak for why they eschewed the presbytery's policy. But he considers it more restrictive than those of neighboring presbyteries.
It requires a nine- to 18-month "discernment time" for the congregation to hear from both sides, two majority congregational votes and a financial settlement that takes into account the congregation's resources and allows both the congregation and the presbytery to continue their ministry. Both sides agree to stay out of civil court. The presbytery must approve the settlement.
Some presbyteries base the settlement on the congregation's annual denominational dues without considering assets.
Some don't require a majority to vote for departure. Pittsburgh Presbytery rejected those options, Rev. Sorge said.
First Published December 1, 2012 12:00 am