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Presbyterian Church in Virginia

(Photo credit: Virginia Department of Housing Resources)

By James Miller

In January of 2012, a new Reformed denominational entity opened, known as ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, offering evangelical churches in the PC(USA) a vehicle for departure.  It had a governing board and a medical plan, but absolutely no member churches.

One year later things have changed.  ECO held its first national Synod on January 30 – February 1, 2013 in Orlando, Florida at the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel, and almost 1200 people attended.  ECO now has 28 member churches, all of which were dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA).  There are another 48 churches are in the process of transitioning to ECO, and over 75 more are discerning a possible dismissal to ECO.  A movement has launched.

The Synod took place in conjunction with a conference hosted by the Fellowship of Presbyterians, a coalition of evangelical churches within the PC(USA).  Over three days, the conference welcomed prominent Christian speakers, including Gary Haugen, President and CEO of the International Justice Mission, Jim Mellado, President of the Willow Creek Association, and Leighton Ford, President of Leighton Ford Ministries.  A band led energetic, modern worship sessions.  Dozens of breakout seminars aimed to equip leaders to do effective evangelism and church planting in an increasingly post-Christian culture.  MJ Romano, Moderator of ECO’s Presbytery of the West, said, “What struck me about ECO’s first Synod meeting was the genuine excitement and energy that filled every session.  From the chartering of new congregations, the formation of new leaders, church planting, and practices of mutual accountability, we are actually doing what we set out to do–growing and planting flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.”

The Fellowship/ECO conference focused on three themes in particular: leadership, church planting, and justice for the oppressed.  Breakout seminars included training on subjects like strategic church planning and adaptive leadership.  Pastor and church planter Len Tang coached the Synod on the value of starting new churches.  Plenary speakers described the plight of people in Syria and the need for Christian missionaries in dangerous places.  Haugen said that the primary source of bondage for the American Christian Church was “safety.”  Notably absent from the seminars and administrative business was any controversy surrounding human sexuality.  The conference was focused on equipping evangelicals to effectively lead churches, in keeping with ECO’s mission: “growing and planting flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.”

The lack of debate stands in stark contrast to the biennial national gathering of the PC(USA) known as the General Assembly.  One PC(USA) staff member who attended the ECO Synod, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that at the ECO Synod was different than General Assembly in that, “There’s no politicking.” The General Assembly of the PC(USA) is a target of advocacy groups who lobby commissioners on the issues of human sexuality, abortion, the State of Israel, and other controversial issues.  Anthony Prince, a seminar leader at the ECO conference, said, “I’ve never been in gatherings of church leaders who, in the midst of voting on polity and procedures, cheered and applauded as much as I witnessed in Orlando.”

The formation of ECO represents a growing challenge for the PC(USA).  Already churches have been departing from the PC(USA) for many years to denominations like the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), which has grown from 188 churches to 420 in the last five years, primarily through the acceptance of churches departing from the PC(USA).  The PC(USA) reports losing over 90 churches a year to either closing or dismissal, and over 60,000 members per year since 2008.  The membership loss trend has been going on annually and increasingly since the late 1960s.  Jan Armstrong, Executive Presbytery of the PC(USA) Presbytery of Santa Barbara, said that the most recent informal OGA (Office of the General Assembly) projections are for an anticipated loss of perhaps 500,000 members over the next 3-4 years, roughly 25% of the denomination’s membership.

The gathering of the national Synod means that ECO is a fully functional Reformed body.  The infrastructure is in place.  ECO has a statement of its core theology, a governing polity, a medical plan, a retirement plan, an ecclesiastical court system, geographical presbyteries that subdivide the national body, moderators, stated clerks, and all the markers of denominational life that make it necessary to prove its sustainability.  It has applied for membership in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches which will serve as a further confirmation of its status as a viable denomination.

Furthermore, unlike some other Presbyterian entities, ECO has a fully egalitarian view of women’s ordination.  Mellado spoke passionately of the need for ECO to represent an egalitarian theology among evangelical churches.  For the first time, evangelical churches within the PC(USA) that have embraced the ordination of women have an equivalent, fully egalitarian, viable Reformed alternative to which to request dismissal.  In fact, the first person who has been approved for ordination in ECO by unanimous vote of ECO’s Presbytery of the West is Jennifer Graffius, the Director of Chapel at Fuller Theological Seminary.  The Presbytery made this affirmation at a breakout meeting during the larger conference, where they gathered around Graffius in prayer.

Ordination is going to be a significant discussion point in ECO’s growth.  ECO’s Ordination Manual was first made available at the Synod gathering, and there are already over 65 people who have approached ECO to be considered for ordination.  In response to the growing likelihood that many Presbyterians will seek ordination in ECO, Fuller Theological Seminary was present at the conference distributing publicity materials.  Fuller has created a website specific to the new denomination, stating, “we work closely with different denominations, including ECO.” The site is here.

ECO’s next steps include the ongoing assimilation of churches that are applying for acceptance, the process of ordination for the dozens of applicants, and the further division of the two Presbyteries into smaller Presbyteries as more churches join.

Other seminars offered at the conference included a study of Calvin’s French Confession of Faith (1559), discussion of issues surrounding ministries in Korean churches, and exploration of cutting edge software resources for church leaders.

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