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 to 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."
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