Uploaded: Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 8:46 am
Changes ahead for Menlo Park Presbyterian Church
Church leadership wants to add five campuses, change denominations
One hundred and forty years ago, the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church first took shape in a small building on Santa Cruz Avenue. Now, MPPC is looking for a new home -- both spiritually and physically. Make that homes, plural.
You probably either know someone or someone who knows someone who attends MPPC: The church, a cornerstone of the city's community, has about 3,400 members and a couple thousand more people who attend weekly services at a campus in Menlo Park, Mountain View or San Mateo.
Now the church wants to add five more Bay Area campuses, an expansion that involves changing parent organizations, or denominations. Some members are questioning whether it's not just a question of property rights, but also theological conflicts over gay clergy and same-sex marriage that are influencing the switch.
On March 2 the entire congregation will vote on whether to leave the denomination the church has belonged to since 1987 -- Presbyterian Church (USA) -- for ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a much smaller, newer organization launched in 2012.
According to the church's leadership, it comes down to four factors: identity, in terms of adherence to Scripture; and mission as well as governance, which relate to the process of growth in local communities. The fourth factor, property, involves who owns church real estate. Currently, that belongs to PCUSA. But in ECO, the churches hold the titles.
MPPC Communications Director Nicole Laubscher said ECO's 110 churches are organized into nine presbyteries by both geography and similarity, such as size, as opposed to geography alone as done by the Presbyterian Church (USA).
"For us it's about the pace of change," she said. ECO offers more flexibility, whereas PCUSA is designed for small churches in a single location. "It creates tremendous barriers."
When MPPC first sought to expand outside Menlo Park, she said, "It was really hard. At the time, we didn't know if we would just get a no. Instead of being supported, encouraged and helped, it was another barrier to hurdle. ... it's just not the right framework to support a larger, multi-site church."
In PCUSA, the presbytery, or regional governing body, is responsible for planning and placing new churches. Tom Conrad, chair of the PCUSA team selected to deal with the proposed departure of the Menlo Park church, agreed the concept of opening multiple sites doesn't fit well with that organization's system; as a result, there are "precious few" multi-site churches.
But there are also practical reasons for MPPC to stay, he said. Leaving would disrupt connections with other PCUSA churches. The denomination also serves as a resource for finding pastors, promotes world-wide disaster relief and missionary programs, and provides pensions as well as church insurance.
Freedom comes at a price: $8.89 million, according to MPPC, a figure arrived at after negotiations with PCUSA.
Member churches hold property in trust for PCUSA, meaning the parent organization actually owns the real estate at 950 Santa Cruz Ave., for instance. This creates reluctance on the part of congregations to invest in additional property, according to MPPC, and also results in high exit fees to transfer ownership of the real estate upon leaving the denomination.
The split is playing out across the nation. According to PCUSA's statistics, it lost more than 102,000 members and 196 congregations left or were dissolved in 2012, compared with only 21 congregations the year before. That was the denomination's largest loss in almost 50 years.
In what may not be a coincidence, in 2011 the majority of presbyteries in PCUSA voted to allow the ordination of openly gay clergy, overturning a 33-year-old ban, and left it up to churches to decide whether to implement the change. Recognizing or performing same-sex marriages is also up for debate, although the denomination currently defines marriage as between a man and a woman, as does ECO.
ECO's stance on gay clergy is harder to parse out. The organization did not respond to the Almanac's questions. Its website presents the following statement as one of its essential tenets: "maintain chastity in thought and deed, being faithful within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman as established by God at the creation or embracing a celibate life as established by Jesus in the new covenant." Reading between the lines suggests members are expected to be celibate unless they are married heterosexual couples.
Some former and current members of MPPC said they think the theological differences are influencing the church's desire to change organizations.
Debra Holvick, who stopped attending several years ago, got re-involved to be able to participate in the upcoming vote.
"This was the church I was baptized in, I went to Sunday school there, I was married there, my father's memorial was held there, my mother remarried there and my children were raised there," she told the Almanac. "That church has been a huge part of my life, so I felt responsible for it and I don't want them to take it in an unchristian-like direction and say this is part of who I am."
Ms. Holvick said taking a stance against gay clergy and same-sex marriage may not be a major motivation for changing denominations, but it does come with the package.
"My goal is just to make people aware of what they stand for and to try and tell people it is important," she said. "I don't think it should be swept under the rug. If someone really believes gays are unnatural and shouldn't be allowed to be married and shouldn't be allowed to preach the word of God or be an elder, then take responsibility for that vote."
MPPC estimates that people under the age of 35 make up about 40 percent of its weekly attendance, which is a number it wants to increase. The issue of how to attract a younger demographic runs up against the move to retain a conservative approach towards gay congregants, according to another member who has attended MPPC for 21 years and asked to remain anonymous.
While she agreed PCUSA could be more streamlined, the move to change denominations picked up momentum following the 2011 policy change towards gay clergy, according to her observations.
She questioned whether MPPC truly welcomes gay and lesbian members while simultaneously limiting how they can be involved.
Although the local church says the move is not about the ordination of gay clergy and instead is about their desire to expand, she said, "it sends a terrible message" to youth in the community about the church's openness to gay and lesbian people.
She suggested that $9 million would be better spent funding scholarships and buying food for those in need in the local community, than on changing denominations.
Ms. Laubscher, the church's communications director, said the theological conflicts are nothing new.
"Disagreements within PCUSA and within MPPC on this will exist either way and we want to be the kind of place where people who disagree can be in community together."
That is one reason why the argument over gay clergy would not be driving a change of organization, she said.
"Human sexuality is a vitally important facet of life, and conversations about it will and should continue long after the vote, but it is not related to the issue of MPPC's denominational affiliation," Ms. Laubscher said, noting that as a church, the congregation holds a wide range of views on many issues and that diversity is valued.
"We can only stay on mission by focusing on what holds us together, which is our faith in God. And we can only make the right decision for our church's affiliation by staying focused on our core reason for change, which is to best fulfill our mission. We hope that the decision before our congregation doesn't become a vehicle for, or referendum on, political or cultural issues."
That mission, she said, is to reach the Bay Area for Jesus. "We have the ways God has blessed us on the one hand. And then we have the great need of our community, and we feel this great desire to close the gap."
Posted by Fashion,
a resident of another community
on Feb 26, 2014 at 11:36 pm
It saddens me greatly to see MPPC in the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons. I first joined this church when it was under the extraordinary ministry of Walt Gerber, and was a haven of hope, humility and grace for anyone, and for everyone seeking a deeper relationship with God. It was a church utterly focused on outreach; on supporting, caring for, and ministering to the needs of not only the immediate community, but people in many areas of the world. Gerber is a man of extraordinary empathy, a man of wisdom, and a man with a deep and abiding sense of reverence for all people. His leadership established MPPC as a cornerstone of Christianity in the most elementary definition of the word, to be followers of Jesus, advocates of the teachings of Christ.
John Ortberg is a very talented speaker, an exceptionally bright guy, and a man who clearly has a highly ambitious agenda for the future of MPPC. I do not doubt his desire to take the best course forward, nor do I doubt his sincerity in his faith, in his ministry, and in his message. I do, however, believe that the Menlo church is caught up at a critical juncture, and that to a large extent, we have lost our way. There is clearly a deep divide in the opinions and feelings of the membership, and I find myself squarely in the camp which believes that leaving PCUSA is a mistake, a mistake not only for MPPC, but for the body politic of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. I have obviously not been privy to the discussions between MPPC leadership and PCUSA, but I firmly believe that compromise was not truly the end goal; not then, not now, not in the future. It is strikingly apparent that the groundswell of activity and direction has been resoundingly directed to breaking off, and joining the fledgling ECO, no doubt as the largest fish in a juvenile pond.
There was another event some years back, a proposal which involved a major overhaul of the existing building on Santa Cruz, spending substantial money to create a feel which was more "auditorium", considerably more flashy than the staid interior in place for years. The church, led by Ortberg, allowed an open comments section, in which members could post their thoughts, pro and con. It was shocking to see the out powering of discontent, but I really applauded the transparency of the process. There has been no such effort in place this time around, but rather, members are directed to contact deacons if they wished more information, or to express their feelings. I personally did just exactly that, and suffice it to say that the experience only served to deepen my concerns over the process, and the proposed split. It was a particular disappointment to me that very direct, very civil questions which were presented in writing were never answered in like kind, with my assigned deacon freely admitting that no written response would be forthcoming.
I will be voting on Sunday, and I will continue to be a member of this church regardless of outcome, and I strongly suspect the outcome will be dismissal from PCUSA. I would be the first to tell anyone that God walks, talks and lives in this church, and that every person would, I believe, find a warm reception at the front door. It will be tragic if people observing MPPC through the prism of this event see it as justification for turning away from a church home, or further evidence that organized "religion" is both damaged and damaging. Many thousands of people brought their hearts. spirits and backs to MPPC over the past 140 years, and many lives have been immeasurably touched and lifted up by this church community. I have no doubt that the same spirit of compassion, and of inclusion, will continue to burn brightly for the next one hundred years, regardless of the stumbles along the way.
It is worth remembering, however, that the message of Christ is utterly simple, and the non-negotiable commandment is to love one another. We are not called to judge. We are called to serve.
Posted by Fashion,
a resident of another community
on Feb 27, 2014 at 1:56 pm
I agree,Peter, that is a wonderful piece, and very impressive for such a young person to have written.
I also agree completely, that the issue of same sex union, while perhaps not paramount, is certainly a factor in this decision. I have had multiple conversations with individuals who are senior within the church, and they have often cited same sex unions as one of the driving forces behind this movement. It may be, may not be, but the fact remains that the church has taken a stand against both same sex marriage, and gay ordination. The ECO is clearly a far more conservative body than is PCUSA, and it is reasonable to assume that this position will be a rallying point for the churches joining the organization.
It is very odd to me that MPPC would take this position, as well as the position on celibacy outside of marriage, given our demographics, and the level of education and cultural exposure which characterizes our congregation. The church is saying, in essence, that while gays are welcome to participate in the life of the church, they are not welcome to be married there, to be a part of any married couples activity, or to enjoy the privileges reserved for heterosexual married couples. We have overwhelming evidence that a person's sexuality is not a lifestyle choice, but is determined by genetics. I cannot imagine that people find it appropriate, nor just, to deny that most fundamental of human relationships to an individual who is simply trying to live his or her life in peace, and with a loving partner. Regardless, it should be readily apparent that taking this position will be a major hurdle for the church in the Peninsula Bay Area, and again, particularly with a younger congregation. This situation will become more complex when full civil rights are accorded to the gay community on a federal basis, just as protection was given based upon race. I respect and understand the conflicts surrounding this issue, and have likely heard every possible argument, pro and con. What emerges for me, however, is as I said earlier, we are not called to judge, but rather, are called to serve. There is not one circumstance in the life and times of Jesus which saw him forsaking the wounded, or marginalizing those whom society chose to castigate. He came to bind up wounds, to care for the disenfranchised, to love and to protect those for whom these gifts had long been denied. I cannot imagine that Christ would stand in judgment of gay couples who chose to honor their union by the sanctity of a marriage ceremony in the holy spaces of their church. I cannot imagine that He would turn aside a minister gifted to preach the message of Christianity because that individual had been born gay. Who are we to sit in judgment, to deny these liberties to any one of our colleagues, our families, our friends? Supposing the prevailing attitude had been opposition to inter racial marriage? Opposition to marriages for people of different faiths? Opposition of marriage for people who had a prior divorce? There is no reason to think these examples are far fetched, as the broad interpretation of religious freedom allows churches to hold exemptions from civil rights protections which are state and federally based.
There is a strong backlash against organized religion in the United States, and the results have been devastating for nearly every major denomination. A good part of that backlash has been spearheaded by the grotesque emergence of far right wing "evangelicals", a term which has become a synonym for bigotry in many circles. MPPC is my church, as it is the church of thousands of other people. I am sorry that we have reached this point of division, sorry that the leadership is anxious to exit a governing body which so desperately needs unity and direction. I am sorry because I believe that the financial overtones will dictate the tenor of the conversation, and perhaps influence the eventual vote. I am sorry that $9M will be spent in this costly divorce at a time when so many are in such need. Regardless of outcome, I hope very much that we can collectively find our way home again.
One of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible is found in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. It is the chapter describing the sacred importance of love, and specifically the love which Christians are called to hold; both for one another and for mankind. It should be the mantra of any church, anywhere, who strives to be more Christlike in their outreach.
"And now abide faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love".
Posted by Fashion,
a resident of another community
on Mar 1, 2014 at 9:17 am
I understand the general feeling of distaste which comes from publicly airing what is typically a private concern. That said, this decision is too critical to be brushed aside, or to proceed without interested parties having the opportunity to air their concerns, or state their position. Had MPPC provided a forum in which members and attendees could air their thoughts openly with one another as a general body, this discussion would likely not be taking place. It is enormously regrettable that the church did not provide an internet home for commentary, avoiding any public conversation.
I am not in favor of the church leaving PCUSA, nor frankly, am I in favor of the church focusing time, money and effort in a "five year/five campus" expansion program. I am not in favor, in any sense of the word, of spending a staggering $9M to facilitate this congressional divorce. The human heart should hurt at the thought of how much good could come from money of this sort being spent for those in need.
The membership level of MPPC under the leadership of Walt Gerber appears to have been approximately the same level, if not higher, than what we see today, many years, many divisions, many "satellite campus" programs later. There are a number of things which have changed, some positive, some negative, It is my opinion that principal among them is the feeling of unity, the sense of purpose, the common drive for humility and compassion which were hallmarks of the MPPC congregation of ten years ago. What has changed is the stability of the leadership team, the cherished traditions of the service, the unshakable bond of joy which went hand in hand with walking through the doors of one of the most life giving, life sustaining churches in the Bay Area, and arguably in the country.
I respect the talents of John Ortberg, and there is no denying his capability in many important areas. He is an intelligent, creative guy, an excellent speaker, and a prolific author. He is also a man who clearly sees himself as the leader of a movement far beyond the scope of the treasured church he now pastors, and a man whose ambition, both personal and professional, is beyond dispute. I do not begrudge him his goals in any sense of the word. I do, however, firmly resist his desire to remake MPPC into a church which suits his agenda, and one which I do not believe reflects the basic tenets which have governed us so successfully, and so lovingly, for decades.
There are obviously several driving forces behind the desire to leave PCUSA, and it is clear that PCUSA is in glaring need of reformation, revamping, and quite likely an overhaul of leadership. I understand the concerns which have been raised by Ortberg and his leadership team as justification for the departure, but I flatly disagree that departure is the solution. MPPC is one of the brightest stars in the PCUSA firmament, and at a time when Presbyterian churches are fleeing the organization, this church could fill a critical gap in capability. John Ortberg could direct his multiple talents to fixing what is broken, repairing what no longer works, bringing a new face to an organization badly in need of assistance.
It is apparent to the most casual observer that mainstream denominations in America are on a dramatic, and perhaps irreversible decline. We have seen leading denominations, including the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Catholic church, and the Presbyterian church all racked by strife, torn apart by fundamental disagreement on any number of subjects. The "go to" solution for most of these organizations has not been to work with passion for reconciliation and progress, but rather, to essentially take their toys and go away. There are no winners in this type of divisive, tragic behavior. People for whom the church is, as it should be, a lifeline, are left broken hearted at the relationships severed, the bonds torn apart. Denominations lose the collective, prodigious power of unity, while small, disparate, splinter groups pop up here and there, all touting their particular version of the "right path". People who are outside of the church either shake their heads in disgust, or feel, often justifiably, that their perception of organized religion as both damaged and damaging is perfectly correct.
It is time, in my opinion, to stop this hemorrhaging tide of damage. It is time to remember that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. It is time to stop focusing our efforts on aggrandizement, and remember instead that those who lead by example are, as they should be, the true beacons of light in the world.
MPPC is not called to be on the front page of the papers for suspected discrimination against any group of people. It is not called to be a point of concern for neighboring churches due to expansion efforts. It is not called to be a platform for this pastor, or for any pastor, to overlay personal goals on a church whose charter was written by larger hands.
Rather, we are called to justice. We are called to, and for, social outreach and compassion. We are called to take the astonishing blessings of our location, our wealth, and our talents as what they are; gifts to be used to and for the benefit of the communities we serve. We are called to protect those most vulnerable, to shelter those in need, to care for the sick, to provide for the homeless. We are called to bring the word of Christ in living, breathing, vibrant display to those not familiar with His message. We are called to welcome, to embrace, and to celebrate every person equally, leaving the duties of judgment to the God we serve. We are called to stand as a unified body, joyful in our faith, faithful in our joy.
We are losing our way. This needs to be the last time in which our church plays out unaccustomed discord in such a painful, bleeding fashion. I don't know what tomorrow's vote will bring, and we can only hope that every single person voting does so with thoughtful analysis, great courage, humility, and a sincere desire to return MPPC to the loving, united body it was for so many years. If the vote goes to join ECO, then I hope we will bind up our wounds, and move forward to make the organization a source of joy and comfort in a world so desperately in need. If ECO proves contrary to our fundamental beliefs, then I hope we stand with courage in opposing any charter, any instruction, any direction which erodes our foundation. If the vote goes to remain in PCUSA, then I hope that Reverend Ortberg either accepts the challenge to embrace the decision wholeheartedly, or makes the decision to find a platform more in keeping with his personal goals and philosophy.
The one thing I do know is that the power of God permeates this church, and has from the first day of existence. Menlo Park Presbyterian has changed lives for generations, provided a spiritual home for thousands of people, and become a cornerstone of outreach and leadership in the Peninsula Bay Area. It is a wonderful church, made up of decent, good, caring people. It has been a living, vibrant symbol of all that is good, all that is responsible, all that is caring, all that is beneficial in a denominational gathering. It will remain as such, simply because so many people believe now, as they have believed for years, that the God we serve is, and must always be, the defining force of all that brings us together.
The working definition of being a Christian is to be a follower of Christ. Nothing more, nothing less. To follow this man is to understand that we are called to serve, called to stand, called to love, called to shelter.
Nothing can shake that foundation. This church belongs to God, and He, thank goodness, remains as He was, as He is, as He will always be; perfect in His love, steadfast in his fidelity.
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