Stay ’n Pray, Depart, or Discerning?
It’s a typical Sunday morning in my small-town Presbyterian congregation and I’m doing what I usually do. I’m preaching the Gospel. My messages are based on a verse-by-verse journey through entire books or letters from the Bible. Each week, we take 1-2 verses. We’re currently half way through Colossians, which we started in May. Once we’re done, on to another one. It’s my way of honouring the entire content and message of scripture. I don’t disregard or reinterpret difficult passages to satisfy what some itching ears, including mine, want to hear.
The Good News is there in every message. But it’s always prefaced by some uncomfortable truths: we are sinners, no amount of social justice will atone for it, everything we have (our planet and our bodies) are to be used for God’s glory not our pleasure. It’s a very traditional and orthodox reading. Sometimes, when called by The Holy Spirit, I point to how The Presbyterian Church in Canada and some other denominations, has lost its anchor and is drifting theologically.
Before you assume that my entire congregation is in complete agreement with my narrow (and I believe, correct) understanding of scripture, allow me to state that it is not. I look out at souls who represent a wide spectrum of thinking. While many are aligned with my thinking, quite a few have no issue with redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. With that in mind, I take great care to speak the truth in love.
That wasn’t always the case. During a small-group discussion several years ago on the issue of sexuality, someone pointed out that the traditional position was being pushed. Point made. Other than that, no one has said a word. And to my knowledge, no one has departed over my adherence to traditional Gospel truth.
As long as no one’s pressuring or attempting to force me to adopt a different theology, I will continue to do what I’m doing. I will continue to shine the light, not only in my congregation but in my presbytery, where I am the only called minister who is not in support of the PCC’s parallel definitions of marriage. My witness to the entire denomination, via The Renewal Fellowship, continues to be a logical extension.
There are others similar to me. No matter what the flavour of our congregation, we are the Stay ‘n Pray group.
Or, as Rev. Meridyth Robertson of First Presbyterian in Trail B.C. puts it: “Staying, and praying, praying, praying.”
But we are only part of the family. Among those who adhere to Reformed orthodoxy are those who are Planning to Depart. A few have a plan in place while most are still figuring out a way. Some who have already found New Pasture. And a final group, Discerning, isn’t completely sure where they will be in five years.
No matter where they are or will find themselves down the road, they have two things in common – their passion for biblical orthodoxy over cultural accommodation and their desire to remain friends. Hence this essay – an attempt to provide a view of the landscape so we don’t lose sight of one another.
First, a glimpse at those who have already departed.
Living Stones – A Movement of Reformed Churches in Canada, is the official legal name of an association of those called to leave the PCC: https://livingstoneschurches.ca/
Rev. Shannon Bell speaks for them.
Q – Let’s put some numbers on this. What can you say about the number of ministers or congregations represented?
A – It is difficult to actually put numbers on Living Stones in many ways. People are interested in what we are doing and becoming but it doesn’t mean that everyone involved is definitely on a path to departure. We have a monthly town hall meeting on Zoom to pray, share and reflect together. I can say that at the beginning of June 2022 we had about 100 people on our mailing list. After the GA, by the beginning of July that jumped to over 150 and it continues to grow.
We currently have seven pastors as officially received into Living Stones, one congregation (the Cariboo) and one non-congregational ministry. There are others who are exploring legal possibilities to deal with assets who will be joining us in the coming months. We know of a number of congregations who are at various stages of this process. There are also many other congregations who are still discerning God’s call in the current situation.
Q – Your website says much about what you believe. What about history?
A – After the GA 2019, a few people saw the likelihood that if the PCC continued on its trajectory there would be people and congregations who would feel the need to leave. These folks formed Ancient Hope to try to create a landing place so that those who left wouldn’t be scattered to the wind but could form the basis of a new movement of ministry. It would hold the very best of being Presbyterian along with a faithfulness to scripture and a commitment to mission and living out the kingdom of God. Ancient Hope first looked at existing denominations to see if there would be a good fit. They studied and interviewed a number but in each case found significant areas of concern, whether theological (such as the ordination of women) or practical (such as cross-border CRA issues). In the end it was felt that the best fit would be to align in some way with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians in the U.S. Ancient Hope developed a relationship with the leadership in ECO and benefited from the experience of their move from the PCUSA to where they are now. ECO offered training and courses for PCC folks in visioning and other areas.
After the GA 2021, ECO contacted Ancient Hope and suggested that it was the right time to develop a Steering Council to start the new movement officially. The leadership of Ancient Hope approached several people including myself to be on the Steering Council. Some of the council were on the Ancient Hope core team and others were new. I was asked to be the chair of the council. We began to meet in the summer of 2021 and developed five sub teams to work on various aspects of setting up a new entity. I chair the Vision Team and we also have a Doctrine Team, Polity Team, Pension & Benefits Team and Legal & Finance Team. Not everyone on these teams is in a position to depart the PCC, but they are supportive and willing to offer their gifts. The teams have been working hard for the past year and more and the Steering Council works on the big picture.
ECO has walked alongside us through the development of Living Stones. We are not officially connected in any legal way, but we will be sister denominations, sharing the journey. We are grateful for their wisdom and help and will maintain our relationship.
We see a church that is joy-filled, kingdom-focused and emphasizes the work of local expressions of the church. We believe we are taking the best of Presbyterianism and shedding the things that have bound us while standing firmly on the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ, knowing that God is on the throne and the Spirit empowers and sustains us. We are excited for where God is leading us together and have a vision for planting new expressions of the church. It is a slow process – sometimes frustratingly so – as we lay the groundwork. My heart is to be able to gather all the orphans (those who have left churches with nowhere to go) and form new bodies right away. However, we are still a small group and spread thin with the work that needs to be done. We are in the process of incorporating and seeking charitable status. We are holding monthly town hall meetings to answer questions, discuss issues and most importantly to pray together.
We continue to pray for the PCC. We are not recruiting for Living Stones, but realize that God calls each of us differently. We hope that every congregation will be able to set aside concerns and attachments to the material things of bank accounts and buildings in order to really hear God’s call. Those things are tools in God’s hands, but not the centre of ministry and mission. God will call some to stay and pray. God will call others to leave and we would welcome any congregation or individual to explore a relationship with Living Stones. But those decisions must be made in a way that allows us each to step out in faith, risking losses in order to see how God might provide in new and different ways – beyond our imagining!
So here we are in the Fall of 2022, looking into an unknown future, but excited for where God will lead us.
Q – You have one congregation and another ministry in your association. Any more in the wings?
A – There are a number along the road, but cannot be named so that it doesn’t jeopardize their processes.
Q – Other thoughts?
We are encouraging people to be creative in their thinking, finding ways with sympathetic presbyteries to try the unconventional as ours did, or without their presbyteries to find ways to follow their call to depart I think that the greatest challenge for congregations with buildings is to let go of the idea that ministry depends on buildings and finances. They are important, but our faithfulness in following the truth in Christ is much more important. God takes care of us and we need to trust him to do just that. We follow a God who can do much more than we can possibly ask or imagine.
Q – Cariboo Presbyterian Church was the congregation you and your husband, along with Mark Carter, pastored in Presbytery of Kamloops. What is the new status of your congregation? Same name?
A – We are now Cariboo House Churches, incorporated in September 2021 and with full charitable status with the CRA since March 2022. We are the first congregation to be welcoming into Living Stones: A Movement of Reformed Churches in Canada. Jon, Mark and I as well as the congregation have all shifted from the PCC to LS. We hope that Mark will be ordained in the future. Jon and I have received letters of standing which have been transferred to LS.
Q – How did you get to this point – ie. a brief description of the process you went through to get presbytery’s approval.
A – The Presbytery of Kamloops has been supportive of the Cariboo all along. They have been sad to see us depart from among them, but they understand that we feel this is God’s leading and have tried to do all they could to help make the process as fair and smooth as possible.
The session has been monitoring the developments in the PCC for the past several years and spent months and years praying and discerning the future direction of the ministry while waiting and praying for the decisions at each subsequent GA. We had informal conversations with others in the Presbytery about responses to the changing direction of the PCC, but not about specific plans for the Cariboo. In the Spring of 2022, after the remits were finalized in 2021 and the reports of the AC and gracious dismissal came out, it was clear that there would not be a fair and just process for leaving the PCC. The session made a request of the Presbytery to consider a process that would allow us to keep our building but at that time the executive was not comfortable bringing it to the whole court. The Presbytery struck a special committee tasked with finding ways to make the departure process more feasible for not only the Cariboo but other congregations who might consider departure in the future. Over the summer the session met and prayed and came up with a proposal that we brought to the Presbytery at a special meeting in August called for that purpose. The Presbytery was uncomfortable with the proposal but instead offered a solution that was much better for everyone. We truly felt that God was leading and guiding that meeting. The groundwork for the process was done with the advice of a lawyer and brought back in October.
At the next regular meeting of the Presbytery in October, the Presbytery passed four motions:
- that the Presbytery approve a five-year renewable lease agreement between the Cariboo Presbyterian Church and the Cariboo House Churches for the building in Lac La Hache beginning October 15, 2022 for $1/year. The ministry will pay all costs related to the building: utilities, insurance, maintenance etc. The lease is binding on any future owners of the property.
- that the Presbytery approve a similar lease for the two ministry vehicles.
- that the Presbytery release the Cariboo ministry into the care of Living Stones as of October 31, 2022.
- that the Presbytery provide letters of standing for Jon and I as of October 31, 2022.
We finished the meeting with those motions and went directly to the Lord’s Supper together. I offered a blessing over the Presbytery, its congregations and leaders. Lots of expressions of support, hugs and shared sadness were shared. We really like our fellow presbyters and will deeply miss that gathering.
Q – Reaction if any from General Assembly Office or Assembly Council?
A – No negative responses. No official responses yet. We contacted Canadian Ministries and the National Indigenous Ministries Council personally to let them know from us rather than the grapevine. We have greatly appreciated all the support and fellowship we have received from both entities over the years. The responses were sadness expressed graciously.
Q – Reaction in general from supporters and others in orthodoxy?
A – Nothing but positive support and expressions of prayer.
Q – Do you have a vision for your congregation – where are you headed?
A – COVID has hit us as with so many other congregations. We developed a new vision statement through last spring which focuses on the development of ministry and leadership in our small remote communities. Mark has taken a 1/4 time job that gives him the opportunity to get out into the far reaches of the region meeting with ranchers. We see this as an awesome opportunity for him to make new contacts with a view of starting new house churches. Thus he has dropped back to 3/4 time with the Cariboo. Jon and I continue to witness to the love of Jesus in the Indigenous communities in our area and are excited about a newer house church that started just before the pandemic and is very alive and growing. Other house churches were lost to disagreements that arose about the pandemic and we will need to restart some ministries in some areas. The basic vision to reach out in remote areas is the same, but our vision is more focused and revitalized. We have a new website and logo and a fresh look. We hope to ordain new elders in the new year as two of our lay missionaries have retired though they remain active in ministry. We are on a new adventure with God and Living Stones and are excited to see where God will take us.
Q – How will this new entity be financially supported?
A – We are now in a new place of complete trust in God to provide for all our needs. Over the past three decades we have relied heavily on grants from the PCC and the support of individuals and congregations across the country. The grants of course stopped on Nov 1. They amounted to $90-100,000 per year and provided all of Jon’s and my stipends and expenses for our part of the ministry as well as some of Mark’s stipend. As well, we have received a substantial amount of our budget from those outside the Cariboo. We realize that some of those folks may no longer wish to support us because of our theological stand and our decision to leave the PCC. So we have a huge uncertainty in the financial area. However, our God is greater than a budget bottom line and we trust and pray that God will provide for us in ways we haven’t yet imagined. Jon and I have some savings set aside for a trip to the Holy Land in 2023, but have committed to staying in Nazko and the Cariboo and living off of those savings if necessary. After 31 years of being under a mission appointment, we’ve learned to live frugally!
We are hoping that we will continue to have good relationships with congregations in the PCC who will see that this work of God in the Cariboo isn’t changing and still needs support and will continue to partner with us.
FaithWorks Ministries is Living Stones’ non-congregational mission. We spoke with founder Rev. Glynis Faith.
Q – Tell me a bit about your journey out of the PCC.
A – Since my youth, driving between Prince Edward Island and Ontario has been a consistent part of my life. When I was young I enjoyed seeing certain landmarks year after year. My favourite was the big potato in Fredericton. In my teens I acted rather bored with it all, but there was something comforting about the familiar journey with its familiar landmarks. As an adult, with terrible navigation skills, I worried about getting lost, but soon found the route was etched in my memory.
It is a long journey with lots of hills and bends in the road, and something I have learned is that it takes more than one highway to get me to my destination.
In the past few years I have questioned the path God has placed before me. Recently, I was reminded that it is sometimes necessary to take an off ramp to continue to your destination.
In my final year at seminary there was a strong indication that the PCC was bending to the social pressures regarding gender identity. This did not sit well in my soul, and I found myself asking, “Lord, is this where I am meant to serve You?”
I believe God loves and welcomes all people. I believe in a welcoming church. I believe God’s Word is our authority and the truth in how we are to worship Him, live in truth, and serve as we are called. Despite the various attempts by some to wordsmith Scripture into an affirming text, we cannot ignore texts we are not comfortable with and redefine others to align with current social agendas. God’s Word is meant to transform us, we are not meant to transform God’s Word!
What I believe was not matching up with the direction the PCC was going, so I continued to pray for guidance. Why would God call me on a path that was stepping in a direction I could not support with His Word?
Struggling for clarity, I sought the guidance of a trusted mentor and friend who advised me to consider the needs of the flock. If the shepherds leave, who will pray with and for the flock? Who will continue to preach God’s Word in truth and love? Clearly people are divided on issues of Christian marriage for same-sex couples, as well as the ordination and leadership roles, within the church, of those professing to be part of the LGBTQI2 community. Prayer is needed. Pastoral care is needed.
So, I decided I would stay and pray. Clearly there is a need for prayer and a listening ear. Many things have happened since my decision to stay and pray. It is clear there is great division and people are being asked to take sides. Many find themselves being pushed out of their church. Liberty of conscience seems to be fading quickly.
What I have seen and heard leads me to believe that it will be impossible for the PCC to function effectively with polar-opposite views on doctrine.
Members of a small Presbyterian congregation were recently forced to vote on the choice of being affirming or non-affirming. Prior to the vote, the congregation was given the interim moderator’s views on what God’s Word says (or does not say) regarding marriage, sexuality, and leadership. Some members wanted to get together and discuss what they had read on the subject, and they were forbidden by the interim moderator. Some members made a formal written request to the Session to have someone come in and speak to the traditional views. They were flatly denied by the interim moderator. No debate or liberty of conscience was granted to this congregation. The vote was taken, and the congregation divided. Prayer is desperately needed!
Two weeks ago, I received an email from this interim moderator saying, “Due to changes in circumstances in the ministry direction at ___________, I am withdrawing my invitation for you to preach at ___________ effective immediately.” I had been scheduled to lead the congregation through Advent. It appears that only those who share the interim moderator’s views are now welcome at this small church!
There is a need for ministers to stay and pray, to support the interests of those who hold to the Truth of God’s Word. There is great need for prayer that includes all people, whether we agree or not. Prayer should be focused on repentance, healing, transformation and seeking God’s good will in our individual and collective lives, not on furthering agendas.
Just as the road signs are clear that I cannot stay on the 401 once I come to the Quebec border, the spiritual signs were telling me that I could no longer stay in the PCC if I wanted to go where God was calling me.
Writing the request for my letter of standing was a painful task, but once written and sent, I felt the weight of many things lift off my shoulders and I knew for certain I had taken the correct off ramp for the journey I was called to.
Q – What are you doing and what’s the vision for your ministry?
A – Today, FaithWorks Ministries is addressing the spiritual needs of older seniors by bringing consistent weekly worship into a local retirement residence. We also bring weekly Bible study into another retirement residence. The goal is to bring the church in amongst people who are less mobile. This ministry opens doors to conversations with individuals who may be questioning their faith in the midst of aging and declining health. It also opens doors for building relationships with others who may not have opened the door to Jesus in their lives – people who may be asking, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).
The FaithWorks discipleship groups have also begun, meeting in various locations. This model follows the pattern of Jesus using various locations and situations to teach His disciples what it means to take up your cross and follow Him, and to train them to call and lead the next generation of followers. The discipleship model is based on individual small groups gathering weekly and coming together as one group for worship monthly.
FaithWorks is now part of Living Stones: A Movement of Reformed Churches in Canada. It is no surprise to me that God has gifted me for small group leadership, prayer and ministering to seniors over the years, and now calls me to use these gifts in this new ministry. I believe small groups will play an important role in rebuilding the church, as people sit and study God’s Word together, seeking to be informed and transformed in Truth and Love.
God brought me into the Presbyterian Church in Canada for part of my faith journey and I pray for God’s blessings upon its congregations, ministers, courts, and its future. My prayers remain with you!
And then there are the Presbyterians who know what’s right, theologically, but they’re not sure exactly how they should respond. They are Discerning.
Don Bartlett, a ruling elder and a member of the Renewal Fellowship board, has been in touch with many such souls. They have been in discussion with one another for support and discernment about where to go from here. Bartlett says traditional Presbyterians find themselves in congregations with a mix of people:
- Some are strongly PCC, often lifelong and second or third generation and will never leave, regardless of PCC’s theological beliefs.
- Some, unwilling to wait for the outcome of any withdrawal process, have weakened the congregation by leaving already.
- Some are unwilling to remain in or move into a leadership position because the congregation is part of PCC.
- Some are willing to engage in a multi-year, secular legal fight for ownership of their congregation’s assets.
- Some don’t want a secular legal fight, but are willing to depart using the PCC’s multi-year official process, in which a congregation re-establishes itself as a new entity and either buys its building at 50 per cent of its value or walks away with 50 per cent of the net proceeds from the sale of the building.
- Some have no interest in any delay: they want to walk away from their property and found a new church. If the congregation is not moving in this direction, they will leave the congregation.
- Most are ignoring the issue of PCC’s theological beliefs. Their allegiance lies with the local congregation as it currently functions: will they stay if there is prolonged uncertainty or if the congregation cannot continue in its current building?
Each congregation has varying proportions of each group. In Bartlett’s words: “It’s a crazy mix of people.” That’s not meant as a pejorative. Rather, it’s testament to the diversity of their thoughts and emotions.
“How do you know the mix within your congregation until you raise the issue?” Bartlett asks. “When you raise the issue to the congregation, you will create greater unrest, and people on both sides of the issue will be leaving until the issue is resolved. But a resolution can’t begin until the issue has been raised to the congregation.”
All of this is in reaction to what many see as a church that stepped into apostasy after formally approving a definition of marriage that’s at odds with scripture and gender complementarity. To agree with this new doctrine, one must ignore some parts of scripture. (It’s more than just a matter of interpretation.) The issue is actually much greater than sexuality. If scripture can be ignored on one matter, then it can be disregarded for another. It’s part of the larger debate between orthodoxy and progressivism which has been raging for decades.
So while this is nothing really new, the marriage issue brought it home in a very political and divisive way. Congregations are divided. As a result, Bartlett says discerning when to raise the issue within the congregation is a “terrific strain on a congregation’s leadership. It’s an extraordinarily tricky situation. Congregational unity is sure to be challenged.”
Derreck Conrad is an active elder. He calls himself a “relatively newer Presbyterian who has no lifelong attachment to the denomination but loves the local body where he worships.”
Here’s a glimpse into his thinking:
“It appears that, in essence, the denomination is already beginning to crumble for the following reasons. There can be no argument that a denomination must, at a minimum, consist of two things: a common theology and an agreed upon form of governance. The passage of the remits [which changed the definition of marriage and allowed the ordination of those in same-sex marriage] has exposed and exacerbated deep differences in our understanding and practice of the first and fundamental institution created for man, which is ordained by God in His word, and by which the relationship of the believer to the Lamb is often defined; that being marriage between a man and a woman – and not further defined. We no longer believe the same thing on this critical question because there are those who desire a worldly definition. . . .
“As leaders in our churches, we have many responsibilities but our primary responsibility is to obey Christ’s Great Commission which includes the great imperative in it, which says, ‘….teaching them to observe all that I commanded you’ – with all that implies. At this time, I am uncertain that we can continue to do that within the PCC. For Christians who have been well taught for many years, that won’t be a problem. But for younger or less well taught believers who are in need of maturing, it will become increasingly difficult going forward.
“My grasp of theology is tenuous but I am certain of one thing, if we no longer agree on the inerrancy and authority of the complete revelation then we are already a house divided and unless there is repentance for hardness of hearts, we are in danger of acting after the manner of Rehoboam.”
Back to Stay ‘n Pray. It’s also a crazy mix. Some haven’t even seriously thought about leaving. Some have, but decided against it because they’re too close to retirement, they’re not feeling the spiritual nudge or they’re just not seeing a financially viable way of departing. That last issue is huge. While some in the PCC see the offer to purchase their buildings at 50 per cent of their value as gracious (given the fact that this process didn’t exist before) others see great insult in taking out a huge mortgage for something they’ve already paid for and maintained. Walking away and taking 50 per cent of the net proceeds from the sale of their building might be attractive to those who have no attachment to their building, but not many people appear to be of that mindset.
Walking away and taking 50 per cent of the net proceeds from the sale of their building might be attractive to those who have no attachment to their building, but not many people appear to be of that mindset. The requirement that 80 per cent congregational support is required in two separate votes for departure is a non starter for many, including the session at St. Paul’s in Leaskdale, Ontario. They’re stay ’n pray, says their lead pastor, Rev. Andrew Allison. What that will look like remains to be seen.
“We are working at trying to determine what assignment and alignment we have with the denomination and also what presence we intend to have in our staying. Will we try to influence directly or basically function as Congregationalists?”
They’ll have plenty of company with a congregationalist approach. There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of congregations which give little or nothing to the support of the denominations via Presbyterians Sharing. In 2021, 29 congregations with $100,000+ budgets gave nothing; several had $1 million+budgets.
Valleyview Community Church in the Presbytery of Calgary will remain because they see no viable option. Grant Gunnink is their minister.
“I and our leadership at Valleyview are of the stance that if there was a gracious way to exit from the PCC we would likely take advantage of it. However there is no easy way out for us, even the current voluntary withdrawal would require us to raise money in order to buy ourselves out according to the financial formula. We are not willing to leave and surrender our assets and our property (which we see as a beach-head in our surrounding community). We won’t surrender these things for the benefit of a denomination that will use them to implement the unbiblical revisionist agenda. Our relationship with our Presbytery is decent however, and we anticipate being able to continue to minister as a Biblical orthodox congregation at a comfortable arm’s length respectful relationship with them.”
There’s a mutual respect within orthodoxy I find encouraging. It was evident at the PCC Pastor’s Retreat in November, which was widely representative of the diversity of opinion. Within that collection of pastors were ministers who are firmly entrenched and committed to the PCC who were worshipping and dining elbow to elbow with those who are actively departing or have already left the building.
This mutual respect can be summed up by Andrew Allison: “I realize this is a tough decision for everyone and people who love Jesus just as much or even more than I do will come to a different conclusion than I will.”
He adds: “There has always been a place in the history of the people of God for a faithful remnant. When Ahab and Jezebel were leading the people of God astray Elijah whined and complained but he didn’t set out to start a new Israel. Instead he hunkered down and called people back to right living with God, even when no one was listening. There’s at least a place for considering this as a viable option.”
That’s the ethos expressed, to a large degree, by Cruxifusion, the network of evangelical ministers within the United Church of Canada. Three decades after the UCC became affirming, they exist as a vibrant witness in a denomination which does not require its ministers to hold any creed or doctrine and harbours at least one atheist minister.
Scores of believers departed the UCC in a wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s over the same-sex marriage and ordination issue. Former adherents settled in other congregations or started their own. Many severed all ties with those they left behind, even those who remained stay ‘n pray.
Bell, who is on the front lines of departure, does not want that to happen within PCC orthodoxy. She has gone out of her way to reach out to those who have no thought of leaving.
“We love our brothers and sisters in the PCC. We don’t want this move to disrupt relationships. We hope that we can be of encouragement to others whether they are on a path to departure or to staying in the PCC. We are on an adventure with God! Join us whether in prayer, partnership or just keeping in touch!”
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