My Thoughts on The Fellowship and The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians

[Photo from Fellowship Facebook Photos]

UPDATE – At the bottom on this post, you’ll see that I have been adding links to other post on the ECO.

In the scheme of the world’s problems, the goings on of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – no matter how much we would like it not to be true – create few ripples in the cultural seas and religious landscape of the United States or the world.  This is not to say that we aren’t doing good work in some places, that communities have stopped being faithful or that we should no longer  bother trying, only that the energy that we put towards our own internal struggles must be kept in perspective.  No doubt, these are important times in our life as a denomination, but if we get too fixated on our own navels, we will further slide into the abyss of irrelevance with little hope for a healthy future.

So on that cheery note, let me muse a bit on the recent developments concerning The Fellowship of Presbyterians and the newly announced Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).

As some have noted, I have been hesitant to comment on The Fellowship or other organized movements of change within our denomination. I did offer some ideas about the future in The Big Sort of the Presbyterian Church and I Want My Presbyterian Church Back, so other than these posts, I have tried to stay out of the fray. But after seeing some of the conversations during and after the recent Florida gathering where the The ECO was launched, I have decided to break my blogging hiatus and jump into the conversation.

I know this is going to sound a little silly coming from a former General Assembly Moderator, but I see myself as an outsider to much of what is currently taking place in the denomination. After serving as moderator, other than attending General Assembly Mission Council meetings and Peacemaking Program Gatherings, I have had very little in-depth interaction with the movers and shakers of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I am not looking to be more involved, but I simply have not been part of any discussions concerning The Fellowship, NEXT Church or any other denominationally affiliated organizations. I have spoken at a few Presbytery gatherings, but since I am no longer serving a congregation and find myself speaking with more and more non-Presbyterian groups, the dog that I have in this hunt is blissfully picking daisies at the back of the pack. Again, please do not hear that I yearn to be more engaged in these recent developments, only that the realities of my current perspective are a little different that some might think.

I share all of this in the hopes that my thoughts and questions will be received as coming from the perspective of someone who was NOT at the Florida gathering, one who is not interested in a long, drawn-out adversarial denominational future and one who hopes that all who are genuinely seeking to follow God’s call on his or her life – even if it is out of the Presbyterian Church (USA) - will be given the freedom and encouragement to do so.

Like most folks in the church, most of my information about all of this comes from reporting and reflections by The Presbyterian News Service, The Presbyterian Layman, The Presbyterian Outlook and the  #fellowshippres twitter trend. I suspect that this is a little more than the average Presbyterian will explore, so it with this base knowledge, that I offer some thoughts.

My affirmations . . . since the beginning of The Fellowship I have affirmed the questions that they have raised about the future of denominations in general and the Presbyterian Church (USA) specifically. Aside from the obvious disagreement about the ordination of called LGBTQ folks, the questions raised about structure, vision, relationally, etc. are not much different from the ones that I have posed myself from time to time. In fact, aside from a few words and phrases, at face value I can totally buy into both the Fellowship Covenant that folks are being asked to sign as well as the nine values of the ECO as presented by John Crosby and reported by Presbyterian News Service.

  • Jesus-shaped Identity - “the key is making disciples rather than orthodox believers.”
  • Biblical Integrity - “A faith that is not just taught but shapes the life of your community.”
  • Thoughtful Theology - “not papers for intellectuals but rearing followers who are able to reflect and apply their faith to their lives.”
  • Accountable Community - “caring environments that allows integral faith to emerge.”
  • Egalitarian  Ministry – women and minorities in leadership.
  • Missional Centrality - “the whole of the gospel to the whole of the world; what would you lose if your church went away?”
  • Center-focused Spirituality – “calling people to the core of Christianity, not fixating on the boundaries ― we are NOT truth cops.”
  • Leadership Velocity - “growing and developing leaders who are culture-changing, risk-taking innovators.”
  • Kingdom Vitality – “congregational life is not about size, but trajectory.”

Now I still have at least 10 reasons to stay in the PC(USA) so, at this point, I do not plan on hitching my wagon to another group be it an association, denomination or order. That said, I truly appreciate the questions being asked by those driving The Fellowship movement, their commitment to take some concrete actions and, from what I have experienced, who are responding to a genuine yearning to follow God’s calling on their lives.

My questions . . . I do not have any need to see a group fail or go through some painful gauntlet in order to follow where God may be leading. That said, I do have some questions,  that if addressed, would help me better understand what the ECO is thinking. I suspect this would also be helpful for those who are exploring a connection with the new reformed body as well as those who are simply interested in knowing some of what lies behind the initial offering. There are many questions rolling around my head, but I’ll just offer three:

  • What will prevent ECO from becoming just another Presbyterian denomination burdened by structure and organization? The answer to this is probably coming later as structures are fleshed out, but what will prevent this body from becoming just another denomination mired in structure, organization and legalism?
  • Where does relationality end and regulation begin when it comes to polity and standards? This is the rubber/road question for me. There seems to be a good deal of rhetoric around not being “truth cops” and a yearning to move from being regulatory to being relational. I applaud this, but as many of us have been talking about this shift in other parts of the church, from across the theological spectrum, the question always arises, “But what if someone decides to do [insert something the other does not want to happen]?”  For instance, if a congregation finds itself in alignment with much of what is being preached in this new body AND it believes that the ordination of LGBTQ folks is what they are called to do, is there room for them? I suspect the answer is no, but some clarity about the bounds of affiliation would be helpful
  • Why the use of the word “minority” to describe what I assume are people of color in the US and Globally? For some this is a term that has very much gone out of usage as the reality of who are “minorities” in the US and globally has changed. On one hand, this can be an acknowledgement of the racially homogenous nature of the Presbyterian family or it could a lack of awareness of current sociological realities . . . or it might also be something entirely different.

My hopes . . . 

  • As churches decide to move away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and towards a new denominational reality, my hope is that all involved will be gracious during conversation around pension, property and other logistics. For those leaving, I hope you will acknowledge that your community’s relationship goes beyond your current manifestation and that relationship needs to be honored in some way. And for those staying, may we allow our brothers and sisters in Christ to follow God’s calling into whatever new life they feel called to be part of and rejoice in the hope they see.
  • As we interact with one another, it’s my hope that we will move away from a punitive and adversarial relationship and move towards one built on the belief that we are each faithfully discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that we lose passion or perseverance, but the in the fight to be “right” or even in response to others unhealthiness, we must not lower our view of the other to enemy, villain or manifestation of evil.
  • As we each move through the next few years, I hope that we not lose sight of the realities of our church life in the world, namely, that if we direct too much of our energy toward internal strife, organizational rebuilding and self-preservation, we will all lose our ability to impact and influence in the world and each person who is part of it.

I think that is it for now. Not sure if I will comment much more, but feel free to comment and interact with one another. Also, be sure to connect with The Fellowship of Presbyterians online: website, twitter and facebook and yep . . . the ECO is already on Wikipedia..

In addition to the normal Presbyterian news outlets, if you want to read a little more, here are a few more articles and posts that I found as I wandered the web a bit.

More posts on The Fellowship and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians

And lastly to poke a little fun . . . While I get the meaning of the individual words: Evangelical, Covenant, Order and Presbyterians, when run together, as well as the acronyms that have been used, have yielded some creativity. Not sure this can changed at this point, so my best advice would be to find ways to laugh a little at yourself. Without naming names, I have seen people use the “E-COPS,” “Evangelical COPS” and “The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, the latest church plant at Hogwarts.” Oh . . . and if you have not yet seen the, Stuff Presbyterian Seminarians Say video that Jack Jenkins just did, it will surely give you a chuckle.

 

30 comments

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  • Smalis  

    Bruce, 
    As a member of First Presbyterian of Colorado Springs, I was truly saddened by the exit of this congregation from PC USA.  I agree that the language used by the session and by the minister is cloaked in language that is designed to be inoffensive to parents of gay children or to gays themselves, but is also somewhat very cowardly in my opinion.  

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Thanks for commenting. If you are comfortable, can you flesh out why you are saddened? For the stance about homosexuality? The decision to leave? All of the above? I didn’t see the statement, but am curious to hear more from someone who did not agree. For obvious reason, not the voice that gets shared all that much.

  • Geila  

    Bruce, I appreciate your words. I should follow that by saying that I am not a Presbyterian. I am, however, a pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (www.covchurch.org) and am curious as to your thoughts about the new name for the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the impact that has on other, like named (but not necessarily like minded) denominations?

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Yeah, if you look at the Fellowship Site they mention that, but not sure there is a clear answer. I am not putting a huge amount of energy tracking, but from what I have seen, there is sill a good deal of conversation/debate about this new group.

  • Dana Allin  

    Bruce, thank you so much for your comments and questions.  You are the first person, that I have seen, who desires to “bless” those that are leaving and see the kingdom expand rather than denominational fighting.  I think your questions are good and certainly the first about structure is an important one.  Thanks for being kind and carrying and not saying “good riddance” as some have, or others minimize the thoughts of those who may go ECO!

  • Jim Welch  

    I think your jokes at the end are bordering on bad taste.
    It would be a little more believable about the “graciousness of PCUSA leadership”, if they were to drop the property clause altogether and stop using extreme (ab)use of ACs against those churches trying to leave. Fear and slavery are not gracious.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Jim . . . I suspect that the level of abuse, manipulation or graciousness is all relative. I have heard, seen and read pretty nasty comments from all “sides” of this. And let me be very clear, Moderators, current or former . . . would be foolish to think that he/she is a significant part of denominational leadership when it comes to things like this. Sure we can share opinions, but as is the intention, our actual influence is greatly exaggerated.

  • MJ Romano  

    Thanks for your words.  I too may share them with our elders.  Also, a point of clarification–the statement of values of ECO reads, “Egalitarian Ministry:  We believe in unleashing the ministry gifts of women, men, and every ethnic group.”  It was PNS who substituted the word “minority.” Blessings!

  • MJ Romano  

    Thanks for your words.  I too may share them with our elders.  Also, a point of clarification–the statement of values of ECO reads, “Egalitarian Ministry:  We believe in unleashing the ministry gifts of women, men, and every ethnic group.”  It was PNS who substituted the word “minority.” Blessings!

  • Belovedspear  

    The coyness about the impetus for their creation is odd, but not unexpected.  The PCA did not justify its existence by saying, gosh, we just don’t think women have any business being pastors.   Instead, noble principles were cited…defending tradition, standing by the integrity of scripture, and the like.  Saying “step into this fight with us” will draw no-one to a church.  I concur with much of your assessment about the ECO principles…they are, of themselves, nothing to be rejected.   And no matter what, we’re to be gracious in response.  That’s utterly vital.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      Yes, I await some concrete position statements. I think that will help folks on all “sides” of many issues to decide next steps.

  • Morgan Murray  

    I was an active participant at the Orlando Gathering and I am not at all surprised that Bruce and lots of other Presbyterians can resonate with the expressed values and hopes for this group. Thanks Bruce for contributing to more honoring conversations that assume the Holy Spirit is at work and not a spirit of division.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      You are very welcome. I have appreciated the same from you as well.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      You are very welcome. I have appreciated the same from you as well.

  • Edward Dunn  

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  Ruth Hicks and I have shared our concern for what the PCUSA will lose when our siblings in faith leave us.  Our presbytery has gone through the painful process of dismissing a congregation.  The departing congregation and pastor have said that even though we are separating we can still be friends.  The ECO folks have used the same line…we’ll not be with you, but we’ll still be with you.  While the words expressed that sentiment, the posture and response of many participants said something else.
    The values proposed by the Fellowship/ECO are worthwhile but do not appear to say anything contrary to what the PCUSA has sought for generations, maybe even the 300 years that Presbyterians have lived in the U.S.  
    Finally, I heard much blame being leveled at the denominational leadership when issues of church growth, evangelism and leader development are the responsibility at the local church level.  The Stated Clerk, General Assembly or Annual Statistical Report should not be blamed for failure to do ministry in the local congregation. 

  • Chip Stapleton  

    Bruce,
    I just wanted to say thanks for this contribution to the discussion.  As a PC(USA) pastor who probably identifies pretty closely with the ECO folks, theologically – but isn’t going anywhere – it is really great to be able to read an honest, fair and not condescending response from someone that  has a different view on some of these issues.  
    One of the parts that has consistently troubled me the most about all of this is the way people ‘on both sides’ can’t seem to find any Christian love or charity for each other.  
    I really appreciated your ability to be ‘everybody’s moderator’ when you served.  I still very much appreciate your ability to clearly state your differences/concerns while not being hyperbolic, dismissive or rude.  
    So glad for your voice.   

  • John Shore  

    Thanks very much, Bruce, for referring to my own two-cents on this matter in this piece of yours, which is worth a good deal more than that.

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      You’re welcome and thanks for adding your voice as well!

  • Michael W. Kruse  

    Very well said, Bruce. I see the ECO folks trying to live out their convictions in ways that do not sow dissension. They don’t have it all thought out. That’s okay. Adaptive change is often a process of feeling our way along. It is not about executing a comprehensive master plan. We try stuff and see what happens. It’s messy. The real test is how much patience and bearing together can we exhibit toward each other as we stumble along. ECO or not, we better start learning how to go through messy change because bigger changes are coming to the PCUSA … bigger than any issues ECO raises for the PCUSA.

  • Kate SW  

    My own thing is that while I see value in many of the main points (the nine values of the ECO), I am still perplexed by how any of this is served or carried out while simultaneously creating a built-in exclusion of the LGBTQ community – most specifically the points about “Egalitarian Ministry,” which specifies that this equality extends only to women and minorities (whatever that is supposed to mean), “Jesus-shaped Identity,” is about “making disciples rather than orthodox believers” (except for gay disciples, I guess) and “Center-focused Spirituality” which they explain as “calling people to the core of Christianity, not fixating on the boundaries” (again, I guess except for the gays who are apparently outside of the boundary as set by the ECO/Fellowship, which seems to be frighteningly similar to how the boundary was set for PCA church to not ordain women.)  I find it hard to reconcile how PCUSA folks think the PCA’s stance is discriminatory and not biblical, but the ECO apparently thinks it can use the same flimsy kind of “evidence” to be discriminatory to another group (one I suspect is largely unknown to them because of the long-standing tradition of gays keeping it a secret or leaving because they know they’re unwelcome in most any church).  I really just have a VERY hard time believing that true, Christ-oriented reform (assuming that’s what they’re after) can come when exclusion and discrimination are involved. 

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      @63b1385df2716a69f1b032c731c3aeef:disqus Yes, I think this is going to be something that they will have to “say out loud” and see where folks end up. I suspect that there will be much support for taking that stand as there were in the PCA.

  • Dan  

    Bruce – I haven’t been part of any of the ECO meetings or discussion. I just read the news reports on this weekend. But it has been a fascinating and often sad experience learning about PCUSA, going to Presbytery meetings and trying (and giving up basically) to go through the ordination process. I understand theologically why the ECO is doing what they are doing and have experienced the dramatic theological and methodological differences that go beyond only the sexuality issue. But your question of how will the ECO not burden itself with the polity, structure and develop all the very de-motivational systems (I know that some is for sure needed, but feels like 2/3 could easily be cut out) of the current PCUSA is the question. 

    I think perhaps from looking at the churches who are leading the way in the ECO they are generally the ones growing and thriving. So that brings me comfort to that question, as they must then know what systems and polities are beneficial for missional growth and changes needed in today’s world. So my hope and assumption is they will not repeat some of the very things they know which are burdensome to mission and healthy growth of new disciples of Jesus being made. Also I assume they are out there, but I have never experienced a system (like I have with PCUSA) which does more to discourage, stifle and limit entrepreneurial thinking. If the PCUSA desires to see young entrepreneurial leaders be drawn in, it seem there has to be very significant change to occur. 

    In a positive note about PCUSA, I was a speaker at the General Assembly PCUSA Evangelism Conference last year. I was very pleasantly surprised at the whole mood, the passion, the theological focus on evangelism as a primary mission for the church. So I left there hoping this would become more of the mode and discussion for PCUSA. When other people coming to know Jesus as Savior and their lives changing is the focus, then seems some of the other things we get bogged down in seem both silly and wasteful of energy. 

    Anyway, appreciated reading your perspective. Thank you!

    • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

      @d71f66ea2aed13a0c490e3a98f7658c5:disqus Thanks for the response. I think that there are some in the NEXT conference who are trying to do exactly what you are saying. There ARE growing churches in the PC(USA) and more diverse types of churches. I think that no matter the growth, when theology comes into play, growth is secondary. This is not bad, IMHO.That said, I very much agree with you that the ordination process should/can be streamlined, especially if we take away the assumption that there are jobs out there for everyone.

  • Duane Sweep  

    Thanks, Bruce, for a thoughtful, clear response to the Florida meeting.

  • Mark Baker-Wright  

    E-COPS… I should’ve seen that one coming…. ;)

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Corey Nelson  

    Bruce, this is a very helpful reflection.  With your permission, I may pass this on to church officers and/or a larger report for the congregation wondering what happened last week in Orlando.

    FYI…on the page from the Religion News Service article was an advertisement for “Personalized Urns made and blessed by Trappist Monks.”  I’m pretty sure there is a hilarious joke in that somewhere, I just can’t quite work it out.

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