Major Presbyterian Church Votes To Discuss Affiliation With Denomination

images provided by First Presbyterian, Houston
First Presbyterian Houston church members voted over the weekend to enter into a discussion about what the church's affiliation will be with its denomination. The church is one of the largest—if not largest—Presbyterian congregations in the country to enter into this process.

Almost 900 church members, at the church in the museum district, voted on Sunday, and a clear majority elected to enter into what's technically termed, Procedure for Gracious Reconciliation and Dismissal.

The final vote?

"620 in favor of going into the discernment process, versus 271 against."

That's Jim Birchfield, the senior pastor at First Presbyterian. Before the vote, he stood before the congregation when members spoke in favor and against entering the discussion.

One member, who was in favor of the motion, said the chance to have a discussion was a 'spiritual gift.' Another member, a former elder, who was against the motion, said the fact that the word 'dismissal' is in the procedure's title, means it includes, in his words, the nuclear option.

In the end, the yeses prevailed.  Senior Pastor Birchfield says what's next is outlining a process where everyone can feel like they can be heard.

"We have to make sure that the 'no's' are represented, and that they feel at the end of the day that the process was fair, and the process was open.  I believe the only way that we can accomplish that if they're part of creating the process."

Back in1991, the church entered a somewhat similar discussion.  At the end of that, the church decided to stay with its denomination, Presbyterian Church USA, or PC USA. Officials from PC USA say it's rare to for a church to enter into this process — and not ultimately choose dismissal.  Gradye Parsons is with PC USA.

"Most do end up being dismissed. I have heard of some stories, where people start the conversation and decide that they don't want to be dismissed."

Last year in 2012, PC USA had more than triple the number of dismissals that they usually have. Ninety churches chose to be dismissed.  That's of the more than 10,000 churches in the denomination.  And three of those churches were in southeast Texas: Lake Jackson, Spring and San Augustine.

Mike Cole is with Presbytery of New Covenant, which has churches in southeast Texas. He'd have to go back decades — to the 70s and 80s — to think of the last time they had a dismissal before this past fall.  New Covenant will be involved in the discernment process, and Cole says it means a lot of talk.

"Our desire is to be full of grace as we deal with what can be some pretty contentious issues, and to advance the kingdom of god, as opposed to tearing it apart."

Members will have to figure out how their views or theology and polity stack up to their denomination's.  They'll have to weigh what other denomination option there are.  And they'll have to figure out issues on property.  All of this in preparation of their final decision, which will take at least 6 months to make.