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Exit strategies

"Exit strategies" Continued...

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

Still, Strunk is excited about the new denomination, even with its challenges: "We're sort of in the desert, but that's where people meet God."

Nearly 500 miles away, members of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church in Tennessee are settling into a new denomination themselves. For more than 20 years, the former PCUSA congregation had been involved in renewal groups seeking a reversal of the denomination's liberal trends.

Leaders of Signal Mountain reached a tipping point in 2006 when the PCUSA General Assembly commended a study paper on the Trinity that suggested new language could replace "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Among the report's suggestions: "Rainbow, Ark, and Dove," "Sun, Light, and Burning Ray," and "Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, and Life-Giving Womb."

That language-coupled with concerns such as the denomination's waffling on the infallibility of Scripture and its unwillingness to affirm formally the lordship of Jesus Christ-convinced Signal Mountain's elders to leave the denomination. The church leaders called back their pastor-who was on sabbatical at the time-to discuss an exit plan.

Bill Dudley had been pastor at Signal Mountain for nearly 20 years (and a PCUSA minister for nearly 40 years) and was nearing retirement age. Dudley said his options were limited: retire early, stay in the PCUSA and keep his full pension, or leave the denomination with the congregation. "I never thought I would be facing retirement in this scenario," said Dudley. In the end, the pastor said "loyalty to Christ" led him to leave with his congregation.

That means Dudley's pension is frozen at the level at which he left the denomination, but the pastor says finances weren't a decisive factor. "I never put the pencil to paper to see which way I had more dollars," he said. "If I do that, then I have insulted my call and my own sense of integrity before the Lord."

The members of Signal Mountain overwhelmingly voted to leave the PCUSA in 2007. The congregation joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)-a denomination enfolding many congregations leaving the PCUSA. (Dudley said the EPC's ordination of women played a significant role in the congregation's decision to join.)

Unlike many PCUSA churches that leave the denomination, the presbytery overseeing Signal Mountain allowed the congregation to keep its multimillion-dollar property with no financial strings attached. That's not typical: Nearly 20 former PCUSA congregations have made some form of payment to keep their own property. At least another dozen properties are in dispute. Late last year, Kirk of the Hills-a former PCUSA congregation in Oklahoma-paid $1.75 million to its former presbytery to buy back its own property.

Dudley-who insisted his congregation be willing to give up their property if necessary-is saddened by the disputes: "I grieve deeply for those who are in the PCUSA who are seeking to leave and are being held in bondage with a price tag of ransom for their property."

The PCUSA faces a vote this summer on whether to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals. An affirmative vote could lead more congregations to flee the denomination. Some church officials say the vote could be close.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) faces a similar decision this summer: whether to allow individual churches and synods to allow homosexual clergy to hold office in the church.

Churches leaving the denomination over such issues in recent years haven't faced the same property disputes as congregations in other church bodies, according to Bill Sullivan, coordinator for Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), an association of Lutheran churches that serves congregations that leave the ELCA. Sullivan says ELCA churches hold the titles for their own properties.

Sullivan, a former ELCA pastor, says churches leaving the denomination are concerned about a "creeping universalism" in the body, as well as questions over the authority of Scripture. He says many churches fear compromising unity by leaving the denomination. Sullivan reminds those congregations of Martin Luther's words: "Don't trouble me with questions about unity when the Word is compromised."

John Muether-historian for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando-says churches leaving mainline denominations should be especially careful about not compromising biblical truth, especially as they emerge from compromised bodies.

He also says congregations may need to learn from churches that have left mainline denominations in the past, forfeiting property and buildings when necessary: "That's what the gospel demands-sometimes you have to cling loosely to the things of this world. . . . That's seeking a better country."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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