Update (Mar. 2, 2014): The motion to dismiss MPPC from PC(USA) to ECO was approved by 93% of MPPC members who voted today. There were 2,024 ballots in favor of the motion, and 158 ballots opposing the motion. Click here for senior pastor John Ortberg's letter issued after the vote.
A 140-year-old church in San Francisco Bay Area that is one of the most influential and wealthiest in Presbyterian Churches of (U.S.A.) is voting Sunday to change denominations to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. If the vote passes, the church will pay a settlement fee of $8.89 million to PCUSA, according to the dismissal terms.
After an extended, mediated negotiation, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, which has over 3,300 members, including former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Stanford University academia, and those in the Silicon Valley, will decide on March 2, 2014 at 9:30 a.m. whether it will move forward with the recommendation by their elders and pastors.
In a sermon delivered on Feb. 2, MPPC's senior pastor John Ortberg explained how the $8.89 million was arrived and explained why the elders still voted unanimously against the option of simply staying in PCUSA.
"As you all know, we have a vision. We have a mission. We want to reach thousands of people for Jesus Christ around this Bay Area that needs him so much," he said. "We want to launch new sites to help us do that."
Founded 140 years ago, MPPC have ties with many prominent figures, beginning with Jane and Leland Stanford, the couple who founded Stanford University. While the members are entrenched in the Silicon Valley culture of human ingenuity, for this reason, Ortberg titled the sermon "Beyond the Measurable."
"What Silicon Valley can do with all its brilliance can be measured. What governments and think tanks and educational systems and economic policy can do in human terms can be measured," said Ortberg. "Not God. What if God wants to do something immeasurable in you?
"We don't want to be known as the rich church or the poor church or the liberal church or the conservative church or the smart church or the gifted church or the strict church or the lenient church or, God forbid, the successful church," he said. "We want to be the church that believes our God can do immeasurably more."
If 75 percent of half of all voting members vote yes to change denomination, MPPC will join the exodus of more than 100 churches that have already left PCUSA since 2012 and the 60 that have joined ECO, which was formed in 2012.
According to PCUSA, its membership started at 4.2 million in 1965 when the denomination was first formed, but it continued to decline down the slide, dropping to 3.2 million in 1983 and 1.8 million in 2012.
In Aug. 2010, the elders voted to be dismissed from PCUSA, only to find out that San Francisco Presbytery would suspend its Gracious Dismissal Policy. In June 2012, the Presbytery approved a new policy. Seeing this window of opportunity, MPPC's elders voted again to engage the Presbytery with the dismissal process. In Nov. 2012, the Presbytery appointed a Presbyterian Engagement Team (PET) to meet the church.
In June, MPPC's governing board or Session, comprised of 24 elders and pastors, unanimously voted to change to ECO. In October, an initial agreement on terms of dismissal was reached and vote was scheduled for November 2013; these were cancelled by the PET prior to any vote.
The PET and MPPC representatives renewed their discussions with a mediator and agreed on January 16, 2014, upon terms of MPPC's dismissal. The new terms that have been affirmed by both parties is that MPPC will pay $8.89 million to the presbytery and will be dismissed with its property, subject to the approval by the members of the church and the Presbytery of San Francisco.
Despite having to pay the heavy sum, the Session, led by Ortberg, have not looked back and believe that the "growing and thriving" ECO provides the best denominational setting to fulfill their calling as a church. The four key factors are identity, mission, governance, and property.
In newsletter titled "A Rationale," MPPC said that its understanding of the Scripture's authority are "increasingly out of alignment" with the PCUSA. While agreeing with the denomination's constitutional statements about the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Scripture and in the questions asked at ordination they are concerned about how they are interpreted and lived out.
PCUSA's 2011 nationwide survey reveals a wide range of interpretation. It asked PCUSA pastors how they feel about the statement, "Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved." 40% of pastors said they "agreed" or "strongly agreed," while 45% said they "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed.
Moreover, MPPC states that PCUSA's judiciary body has supported and reinforced this lack of clarity by declaring statements summarizing "essentials of Reformed faith and polity" are "confusing and unnecessary; and are themselves an obstruction to constitutional governance." PCUSA has also ruled that a church cannot examine pastoral candidates in light of a church's statement of 'essential tenets.'
The second factor is mission. Since starting multisite campuses, the church has faced resistance from Presbytery members about opening campuses in proximity to existing PCUSA churches. In addition, the church finds it hard to recruit visionary young leaders. In 2011, only 16 percent of PCUSA pastors were under the age of 40, and the media age was 54.
Ortberg said that the church have to be able to attract "effective leaders who want to be part of a bold, creative, non-bureaucratic, risk-taking, lean, Jesus-centered, gospel-focused church ministry."
Although PCUSA have announced an initiative of planting 1,001 new churches, MPPC finds a lack of shared mission focus. In an example, in the last two years, the Presbytery has called for the boycott of Silicon Valley employers Hewlett Packard and Motorola because of their business with Israeli government, but MPPC considers this a distraction from their focus on the core mission - proclamation and spread of the Gospel.
The third factor is governance - decision-making process. As a complex church, MPPC leaders have identified many of the process and deliberations in the PCUSA as a hindrance, that are "not connected to" or "supportive," to their mission.
Ortberg explained that PCUSA's lack of clear, objective guidelines in arriving at the $8.89 million dismissal fee is "too cumbersome, too slow, and too contentious" for MPPC to be able to pursue its mission well. Furthermore, the rules for the vote were designed for single-campus, smaller churches, and create significant and costly logistical challenge.
Lastly, MPPC want to have clear ownership of its properties. Because a local congregation's property is held "in trust" for the denomination, PCUSA can assert claims over MPPC's properties and over any new properties they lease or acquire.
Under this policy, if PCUSA found MPPC to be out of compliance with Presbytery rules, they could declare a schism, remove the church's elders and ordained pastors and put in their place an administrative Commission to take over the governance, leadership, and assets of the church - a scenario that has happened to other churches in the PCUSA.
Last October, Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas that has around 4,000 members voted to leave PCUSA Grace Presbytery for ECO. Although they've filed a lawsuit against the Presbytery, they are locked in a court battle with the Presbytery to hold on to its $30 million property.
While litigation is an option, MPPC's Session has ruled out taking this matter to court. They felt that it would be a bad witness for MPPC and the Church.
Where to get $8.89 million?
To cover for the $8.89 million, MPPC has $2.5 million from the member's tithe and offerings while still maintaining adequate reserves. In addition, John and Nancy Ortberg have notified the church-affiliated foundation Church of the Pioneers Foundation, which owns the home in which they lived for the last 10 years, to use the assets of the house toward the total sum.
Ortberg said, "It has actually been the source of great joy for both of us, and we've talked to our kids about this, about just letting it go for something greater."
With these two sources, the church will have more than half of $8.89 million. COPF has voluntarily committed to cover the remaining portion of the agreed-upon payments.
Be a cheerful giver
The senior pastor said this opportunity to be generous has been "tremendously energizing" for him. "In giving, we're not ultimately trusting in any human confidence, not us, not our brilliance, not our plans, not somebody else's. Ultimately, when we give, we're trusting God. We're letting go," he said.
Ortberg asked the congregation to pray through this process. If the vote goes forward, he said this is how they should pray, "God, use this money in amazing ways to extend your kingdom, to bless this presbytery, to bless the world beyond it, in ways that delight and surprise us and honor Jesus that none of us even imagines right now.
"If we give this money, when we give it, we're going to give it with joy," he said.
Then, Ortberg read through Ephesians 3:14-17, 20-21, "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to this power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."
"When we allow Christ to take up residence inside us, he'll convict me of sin, and he'll provide me with wisdom, and he'll bring thoughts to my mind. He'll prompt ideas that in my flesh I would never think about myself. He will bring courage to our hearts. He'll bring peace to our souls. He'll bring love to our relationships. Jesus will do this. This is real," he said.
Eternal issues at stake
Ortberg asked the church to make this a spiritual journey, and every member to come prepared to vote on March 2 at 9:30 a.m.
"We're not a club. We're not a human-powered organization," he said. "This matters. There are eternal issues at stake."
"I think about people who are at the end of their rope that have substance addiction or sexual addiction, or they were going through divorce," said Ortberg. "They were headed for hell, and they found a healing community here. I think of people whose eternal destinies have been changed, and I'm so glad that there is a church there."
On Sunday, March 2, 9:30 a.m. at all campuses, MPPC's members will cast their vote on whether to follow through with the recommendation of their leaders to change denominations from PCUSA to ECO.
More information can be found at http://www.mppc.org/denomination.