An overwhelming majority of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church members voted Sunday to be dismissed from their denomination Presbyterian Churches USA and to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, despite having to pay a dismissal fee of $8.89 million. The vote was 2,024 in favor and 158 against.
Around 64 percent of members voted that morning at one of MPPC's campuses in Menlo Park, Mountain View, and San Mateo on March 2, 2014. After the vote result was announced, senior pastor John Ortberg wrote in a letter, "This is a major milestone, and not an ending but a beginning. There's a lot yet to come of what Dallas Willard called the unique life of spiritual adventure in living with God daily--entering fully into the good news that Jesus has brought, for ourselves, and for us as a church."
He then thanked the PCUSA's Presbyterian Engagement Team (PET), members of Presbytery of San Francisco, hundreds of MPPC volunteers who took part in planning, parking, registering, feeding, greeting, MPPC staffs and elders, congregation, and God.
While the vote united the majority's hearts in the church, a few individual criticized the outcome and labeled it as a "homosexual" issue, despite their church leader's repetitious rejection of this claim and clear explanations of four major factors - identity, mission, governance, and property - that influence their decision throughout the entire dismissal process.
Some say that MPPC is changing denomination because PCUSA had changed its constitutional statement to allow for same-sex ordination and marriage. The assumption may appear "valid" because of close timing between August 2010 when MPPC's elders first requested to be dismissed from PCUSA and when the 219th General Assembly of the PCUSA approved Amendment 10-A in July 2010.
However, MPPC pastors Ortberg and Scott Scruggs have refuted this claim that this denomination change has anything to do with this "contentious" issue, but rather that the existing situation presented "significant barriers to the church's vision of extending Jesus' love and Gospel to people around the Bay Area," according to the church's newsletter.
The newsletter titled "FAQ about MPPC & Denominational Affiliation" state, "While some churches are considering leaving their denomination for this reason, MPPC is not."
They've explained that it is about finding a denomination setting that can help them minimize maintenance and maximize ministry by having clear ownership of property, planting multisite campuses without resistance, making timely decisions, and teaching about Jesus through an orthodox interpretation that "God has expressed himself uniquely in his Son Jesus, who lived, taught, died, and rose again for our sakes."
MPPC also stated its view on same-sex relationships in the newsletter:
"We believe that Jesus wants to be in a relationship with every person in the Bay Area and we welcome all people of any age, gender, ethnicity, economic sphere, and sexual orientation to learn about and follow Jesus.
"While sexuality is important, it is only one fact of the human experience. Our primary identity comes from being God's intention for sexual intimacy is that it be expressed in a permanent covenant relationship between a husband and wife.
"While churches differ on this issue and people within the MPPC family differ on this issue, we believe that people who have different views can be in community together by honoring each other with respect and love, and staying centered on Jesus."
Addressing individuals who have hurled insults and labeled the reason for dismissal as issue of "homosexuality", some MPPC members have defended the vote and said that there are gay members of the church, who are welcomed and loved and wanted as part of the congregation.
"I know you've heard John talk about this, and I just want to reaffirm what he said. The answer to thequestion, 'Is that why we are making this change' is no. No!" Said pastor Scruggs in a sermon on Feb. 16. "We want to be a place, we are committed tobeing a place, where any person of any background can be loved and can learn about Jesus, regardless oftheir sexual orientation, regardless of their background, regardless of their belief system. If this is a placewhere someone wants to come and discover who Jesus is, you are welcome here."
Meanwhile, Pastor Ortberg have shared with the congregation in a sermon on Feb. 2 that it is their hope that MPPC can participate in a rapidly expanding movement in the San Francisco Bay Area to plant 1,001 churches. With this as the impetus, the church would like to join the movement and open five new multi-site campuses to bring the Good News to those without hope in Christ.
Prior to deciding on ECO, MPPC leaders have also considered other Presbyterian denominations, but felt that ECO most closely align with the church's vision and mission. ECO upholds clear "Essential Tenets" of Christian faith, including salvation through Christ alone and the sufficiency, truth and authority of Scripture, grants clear ownership to local congregations, and focus on the mission of local church, according to the newsletter.
The dismissal process will be completed once the Presbytery of San Francisco, the regional governing body of PCUSA, votes to affirm the result of the congregational vote in a meeting next week.
Tom Conrad, chair of PCUSA's engagement team, said they hadn't expected "such an overwhelming pro-dismissal vote," but are "just happy that it is over and that the congregation has spoken its collective will," according to Almanac News.
While he didn't expect the outcome to be reversed once the Presbytery of San Francisco meets next week, Conrad expressed to Almanc News that the issue might "prove more contentious than one might think."
In the March 3 Daily Prayer Devotional email, MPPC said, "In a continuing posture of humility and openness, pray for the next step in this process also to be fully in God's hands as we trust that God is in control."
On Sunday, Pastor Ortberg addressed those who voted a different way or felt the outcome of the vote is a disappointment in his closing remarks:
"We, the church, want you to know that we are so grateful for your participation and for your involvement.
"For everybody who served today and is a part of the PCUSA, our commitment is that we want to honor the body of Christ and love every member of the body of Christ and partner with everybody in a way that transcend denominational affiliation or any human organizational barrier, lift up the oneness of the beauty of Jesus' church.
God's is really leading us somewhere. We put our stake in our ground right now."