Questions and Answers about Discernment and Gracious Dismissal
Session has informed presbytery that we want to enter into a time of discernment to determine whether ATLPC should remain a part of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), or whether we should seek to be dismissed from PCUSA to join another reformed denomination.
1) Why does Session believe we should be dismissed to another reformed denomination?
We need to leave because remaining with PCUSA will not help our ministry in the short or long term. At the root of the problem is our disagreement with PCUSA over the interpretation of Scripture. There are many within the denomination who do not agree with us that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, or that He is the only way to salvation. Within the last six years, the denomination removed the requirement for “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” from the ordination standards for ministers, elders, and deacons. Most recently, PCUSA’s unprecedented move to redefine marriage so that it can be between two people of the same gender directly contradicts Scripture.
We do not think we can remain in PCUSA without spending more effort to contend against divergent Scriptural views; remaining would distract us from our vision and mission. In addition, future searches for pastoral leadership will find it increasingly difficult to call candidates who share our theology and values, yet are acceptable to and willing to align with the PCUSA.
2) Why don’t we just leave? Why is it taking so long?
ATLPC, San Gabriel Presbytery, and PCUSA have benefitted from a long, fruitful relationship that spans decades. It is appropriate and prudent that as we come to address our differences, we enter into a time where ATLPC and Presbytery can dialog, pray, and jointly come to a resolution that is agreeable to all concerned. PCUSA instructed all presbyteries to create a Gracious Dismissal Process to facilitate this resolution, and we are following the process developed by our presbytery.
Other churches that have gone through the discernment period and Gracious Dismissal Process have taken one to three years or longer before being dismissed. This process takes time because it allows the Session and all members of ATLPC to pray and discern God's leading for the future of our ministry.
3) What is the Gracious Dismissal Process?
The following is a simplified version of the Gracious Dismissal Process (the complete process is available from the presbytery website):
Representatives from the San Gabriel Presbytery will meet with ATLPC Session and with the congregation to discuss the reasons that the church wishes to be dismissed from the Presbytery and to determine if reconciliation is possible. After the discussions, the congregation’s members will vote whether to be reconciled or to ask Presbytery to dismiss us to another denomination.
If reconciliation is not possible, subsequent meetings between Session and the Presbytery will discuss the terms of dismissal with the goal of producing an agreement that both parties can accept. When the terms of dismissal are agreed upon, the congregation will vote whether to accept the terms.
Assuming a significant majority of the congregation vote to leave and agree to the terms of agreement, the Presbytery will vote on whether to grant our request to leave.
4) Which denomination would we be dismissed to?
Per the Gracious Dismissal Policy, Presbytery will only dismiss us to a denomination that shares our reformed theology. Most churches that have gone before us have been dismissed to either the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). Session, after a time of study and prayer has chosen ECO as the denomination with the best fit for ATLPC. We are very happy with the possibility of joining with our daughter churches in growing with ECO.
5) How much will it cost if we leave?
There will be a financial settlement as part of this process. Financial support for the various ministries and activities of Presbytery depends on contributions from member churches. In order to decrease the impact of the loss of a dismissed church’s funding, the terms of dismissal generally include some payment to Presbytery. Neither PCUSA nor San Gabriel Presbytery has set a fixed amount or formula for determining how much we should compensate our presbytery. Factors that are considered in determining the cost include membership numbers, outstanding debt to the presbytery or PCUSA, and how much the congregation has benefited from the denomination. If ATLPC seeks to withdraw and retain its property, the value of the property at stake will also be one of the factors. This includes real property, e.g. our building, and financial assets, all of which is considered “held in trust” for the use and benefit of PCUSA.
We are mindful that our church assets are entrusted to us by God. The cost of leaving PCUSA may affect our ability to keep the whole or part of our assets. But we will be at peace with whatever resolution is reached by the ATLPC and Presbytery at the end of the Gracious Dismissal process.
6) What will happen to our staff?
It is always our goal to keep a stable staff. But the cost of being dismissed from PCUSA may complicate this goal. However we will always trust in God and depend on Him to provide for all the financial resources necessary to sustain and expand our ministry with a stable and capable staff.
7) How will this affect my church membership?
The Session wants to keep the entire church together in ministry and theology and carry out the vision and mission God has given to ATLPC. We hope everyone agrees that we need to leave PCUSA together to become members of another denomination. Should the church be dismissed to another denomination, everyone will be asked individually regarding their membership status.
8) How did Session decide to enter into the discernment process?
Session voted unanimously for ATLPC to enter into the discernment process. We have met multiple times to discuss whether to stay or leave, and the issue was always before us in prayer. Our ability to act was limited during the time when we were searching for a pastor and allowing time for his integration into our fellowship. We believe now is the time God has called us to step forward in faith.