Can a Church Split Truly Be Gracious?

The directions are easy. Drive north; turn left just before you hit Canada. In recent months, I became accustomed to the two and a half hour drive from Fargo, N.D. to Bathgate, N.D. The Presbyterian church in Bathgate had asked to be dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). As chair of the task force to engage with the congregation concerning its possible disaffiliation, I made that drive north often. Out my window I saw the wheat, beans, and sugar beets planted in the fields rich with Red River valley soil. Then harvest came. As our meetings dragged into winter, one night my car’s temperature gauge measured minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Disaffiliation in North Dakota is not for the faint of heart.

Denominational rifts are everywhere. In 2012, a group of Presbyterians founded the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, calling itself a new Reformed body. Their website reports they now number 127 congregations and 213 pastors. Most of these come from the PCUSA. Beyond my denomination, there is a growing rift and talk of a possible schism in the United Methodist Church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has lost approximately 600 congregations in the past few years. The Anglican Communion views the Episcopal Church of the United States with increasing suspicion.

Aware of this context, I approached the Bathgate church eager to convince them to stay in the fold. At first I thought a few frank conversations and my young adult energy would turn them around. They just needed to know the truth about the PCUSA, I figured. Even as I began every meeting with prayer about being open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst, asking for signs as to what new thing God might be up to in Bathgate, I was pretty sure in a matter of months they would choose to stay put. Change is hard, after all, and on the prairie it comes slowly.

I don’t remember the 1983 establishment of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I was there.I was only a few months old when my family traveled to Atlanta for what many called the “reunification” of the southern-based Presbyterian Church in the United States with the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

There’s a great family photo with my grandfather, great-uncle, father—all pastors—and me sleeping in my stroller in the foreground. Reunification brought my family’s pastors back into the same denomination. In the intervening years while I’ve flirted with Lutheranism and interned in the Church of Scotland, the PCUSA has always been my true home. It’s through the PCUSA that I received a seminary education and found my pastoral voice. It’s in the PCUSA that I learned the hymns of the church and fell in love with Reformed theology. It’s the elders and members of the PCUSA who taught me God’s grace in word and deed.

Because of this foundation, I was more than happy to champion the PCUSA in Bathgate. According to the 2010 census, the population of Bathgate is 43. No other churches line the town’s dirt roads, though one rather dilapidated bar still stands. It is the only business in town. Even so, Bathgate Presbyterian Church is a lively congregation. Its Sunday School is thriving. The large kitchen has all the modern conveniences. A few years back when the church building needed renovating, the members built a new one themselves. They did a great job. It’s a warm, inviting space for ministry.

In the past year, church leadership publication headlines have highlighted Menlo Park Presbyterian Church’s dismissal from the denomination and its $8.89 million payoff to the Presbytery of San Francisco. Such eye-popping settlements reflect the PCUSA trust clause concerning church property (and California property values). As our Book of Order puts it, all property is held in trust “for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)”—even a newly built building in Bathgate, population 43.

As if theological disagreements are not fraught enough, PCUSA congregations seeking to leave the denomination must negotiate financial terms with the presbytery before they can leave. For some members already fed up with the PCUSA, these requirements feel like the presbytery is a captor demanding ransom. I have come to sympathize with this perspective—practically speaking, what would the presbytery do with a church building in Bathgate? A realtor declined even to offer an appraisal explaining no similar buildings had sold in the county in the previous three years. In rural North Dakota, there’s simply no market for abandoned buildings. We have plenty already.

After one of our more heated meetings with the congregation, our task force decided our next meeting should return to the basics. Together, task force and congregation, we engaged in a Bible study on Ephesians 4:1-6. We discussed the calling to which we were called. We considered together—not always agreeing—what it means that there is “one body and one Spirit” that we should maintain, bound together in peace. Even now, I don’t fully understand. Their pastor and elders have made the same vows I did, “to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church.” But, according to the good Presbyterians of Bathgate, their faith in the one God was leading them out of the denomination I love. Yet love also required that I take them at their word.

It was as if the congregation was asking for a divorce. They blamed the separation on a wide range of factors and feelings, but ultimately the facts were clear: the congregation was no longer in love with the PCUSA. Whatever embers of mutual love once burned were now long extinguished. The congregation did not believe we could live together in a partnership that pleased God. While I had hoped my task force would serve as a sort marriage counselor, we eventually realized our function was more akin to attorney. It was over. Love is an odd thing; the congregation needed to leave in order to love us as sisters and brothers in Christ. As our policies put it, we sought “a gracious separation.”

Why? When I mentioned to friends that I was setting off for another meeting up north, this was always their question. “Why do they want to leave?” I never found a fully satisfactory answer. Such rifts rarely make sense. Yes, there was the fact that the PCUSA now allows for the ordination of pastors and elders regardless of their sexual orientation. There’s what the congregation perceived as the PCUSA’s alignment with a progressive political agenda. There were questions of whether all PCUSA pastors believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. One member even complained that the PCUSA’s new hymnal does not include the song “In Christ Alone” (I bit my tongue deciding not to mention that I served on the committee that made that decision).

Our last meeting in Bathgate proved the most poignant. After months of deliberation and financial negotiation, the congregation was finally prepared to take a vote on whether to leave and pay a negotiated settlement totaling over $20,000. The Session called a congregational meeting to be held after worship. To my surprise, they invited me to preach.

I have preached in various contexts over the years—at conferences with over 1,000 people present, at a church not far from Bathgate when four souls showed up, on the seashore in Scotland, and around a campfire in Florida—but never had I preached for a congregation on the day they would vote to leave my denomination.

As I wrestled with my feelings of confusion and inadequacy, the Spirit focused us on the gospel. The lectionary passage for the day was Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. Emboldened by a commentary from David Lose, I avoided the obvious theme of temptation, and considered identity instead. While in some very real ways, with an affirmative vote the members of the congregation would soon vote to change their denominational identity, I explained that they were powerless to change their ultimate identity. I preached to myself, as much for them:

Despite the weighty choice of the vote to come, a simple truth remains: there is no way to vote your way out of God’s love. No string of denominational acronyms can ever put you beyond the power of God’s grace. Jesus first voted for you and God’s partnership with you can never be undone.

A few minutes later, the vote was nearly unanimous to leave the PCUSA for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In a few weeks, the presbytery concurred and once the PCUSA seal is taken down from the front of the building and the checks clear, Bathgate Presbyterian Church is no longer a congregation of the PCUSA.

It’s unlikely I’ll have reason to make the drive from Fargo to Bathgate anytime soon. This fact pains me for I believe the denomination is better off with diverse congregations, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, small and large. It pains me because the relationship between Bathgate Presbyterians and the predecessor denominations that formed the PCUSA in 1983 go back many generations. It pains me because it’s hard to act like we are “one in Christ” when we split apart.

And yet, when I drove away from that congregational meeting (stomach full of casseroles and coffee) my heart was light. I cannot pretend to understand how, but after the vote, the congregation members felt free. They expressed an eagerness for ministry and a renewed joy in the gospel. As I shook their hands in parting, fully committed to my continued service in the PCUSA, I sensed the Spirit at work in Bathgate. Denominational acronyms be damned.