A new church that formed in the aftermath of a controversial vote at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus is now officially part of another denomination.
Anna Kent, director of Mission Affinity Groups for the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, said leaders of the denomination voted last week to accept Grace Presbyterian Church of Columbus as an official church plant.
Kent, who resides in Huntsville, Ala., came to Columbus a week ago to commission leaders of the new congregation to lead out in ministry until they elect a session, which is the traditional leadership structure within Presbyterian churches. Kent said ECO has been impressed with the progress Grace Presbyterian has made in just a few weeks.
"I think that the leadership team was very well organized, they moved very quickly and the Lord seemed to open lots of doors that made it possible," she said. "I think the church planting team felt they had enough of the proper steps in place to come on board to ECO and they were the right kind of fit with our essential tenants and the understanding of our polity and really, most importantly, being a part of what God is calling them to do as a new church."
Grace Presbyterian began holding worship services at a local synagogue on April 26, a week after members of First Presbyterian defeated a resolution to split from the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has become more liberal concerning same-sex marriage and other doctrinal issues. Those in favor of the dismissal had hoped to join ECO, a new denomination formed as a result of disagreements between some churches and PC (USA). But members of the 900-member First Presbyterian congregation, located at 1100 First Ave., voted 266 to 146 in favor of separating from PC (USA) at an April 19 meeting. The resolution fell eight votes short of the two-thirds required for dismissal.
A few weeks after the vote and an exodus of members, the church's pastor, the Rev. Charles Hasty, announced his resignation effective May 24.
Kent, a minister member for the East Central Presbytery of ECO, said the denomination was formed in 2012 and now has 204 churches.
"I think there was just continuing disagreements in Biblical interpretation and core foundational theology and those disagreements led some say, 'We need to go in a separate direction,'" she said. "I think also there was a sense of a desire amongst a number of different church leaders to be about the church in a different way. And what would it look like to be a missional movement of churches that are focused on the kingdom-building work of God and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
Members of Grace Presbyterian are now meeting at a Teen Challenge building at 5304 Hurst Drive. Members said they outgrew the space at Shearith Israel Synagogue in about two weeks, and they now have a nursery available.
Seventy-one people attended the first worship service and attendance has grown to 130 people, according Cathy Bickerstaff, one of the organizers of the new congregation. The church has been reaching out to the community through a website and Facebook page. It will have its first communion on Sunday at the 10 a.m. worship service.
"People have said you all are moving too fast," Bickerstaff said, "but God has just opened so many doors, that we felt we needed to go on and walk through them."
Terry Norris, a former elder at First Presbyterian and member for 40 years, is now co-chairing the stewardship and finance committee at Grace Presbyterian. He said the new congregation has received encouragement from many people.
"We've had folks from out of state who were previous members send in special gifts," he said. "We've had people here in the community that have never been members of First Presbyterian and who are not attending Grace who are also giving special gifts and prayers and encouragement. It's just been an outpouring of costiveness."
Kent said Grace Presbyterian is the denomination's first group in Columbus, but the possibility of another local church is now pending. She said Rock Presbyterian, a predominantly Korean church located at 1728 Floyd Road, has also submitted an application.
The Rev. Richard Gardiner, pastor of Rock Presbyterian's English-speaking membership, said the congregation voted 170 to 5 for dismissal from PC (USA) in March. But PC (USA) requires another vote six to nine months after passing the first resolution, and that vote is scheduled for late August. Until then, the church is in limbo.
Kent said ECO will continue working with the church as it moves forward.
"They will be in conversation with the church ministry team of our Presbytery," she said. "And the ministry team will walk alongside them to ensure they have proper leadership in place and all the necessary things they need to be a full-fledged chartered church of ECO."