by Zachary Groff | February 24, 2022
At each year’s meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Stated Clerk gives an annual report at the beginning of business. In his report, the Clerk takes an opportunity to reflect on significant developments in the life of the Church. His words stir up excitement among the brethren as the Lord continues to build His church around the world, and especially as the PCA continues to grow.
However, the Clerk’s report routinely includes lamentable news of church closures and transfers out of the PCA. As part of his first Clerk’s address before the Assembly, TE Bryan Chapell addressed news of several recent departures from the denomination. Since the 41st General Assembly in 2013, the Clerk’s printed statistical report has included details about the addition of individual ministers to the Church as well as the loss of ministers from the denomination.
Recent blog posts by TE David P. Cassidy (here and here), TE Travis Scott, TE Jon D. Payne (here and here), TE Ryan Biese (in a multi-part series found here) and others have publicly suggested (from a variety of perspectives) that perhaps now is the time for churches and ministers who are out of step with either the culture or the published doctrine of the PCA to leave the denomination. If now is indeed the time for some brothers to leave, then I suspect that we would see individual ministers and congregations doing just that.
As we review the Minutes of the 48th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, what information can we glean about recent losses from the denomination? As the title of this blog post suggests, we can research the Minutes for information about recent departures by asking, “where are they now?”
The various lists of congregations added, transferred, or dissolved is found on pages 134-136 of the Minutes as part of the statistical portion of the Stated Clerk’s report. Similar lists of individual ministers added to the PCA, dismissed to other denominations, or otherwise removed from office are found on pages 136-142.
After comparing the statistical reports on pages 134-136 with other information I could find online (and with a few quick phone calls to several church offices), here are my summary findings (by no means infallible) for the changes in the roster of PCA congregations through 2019 and 2020:
Congregations Added in 2019-2020
Congregations Lost in 2019-2020
Ministers Added in 2019-2020
Ministers Dismissed to Other Denominations in 2019-2020
Dismissed in 2019: 33
Dismissed in 2020: 17
The departing congregations in 2019 and 2020 have found new denominational homes in Independency (3), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (3), the recently formed Vanguard Presbytery (3), the Bible Presbyterian Church – General Synod (2), the Evangel Presbytery Association (1), and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (1). As remarked upon by Stated Clerk Chapell at the 48th General Assembly, the largest of these departing congregations moved into Independency.
The destinations of dismissed ministers are markedly different. Between 2019 and 2020, the PCA dismissed ministers into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (8), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (8), Vanguard Presbytery (6), a variety of International denominations as men received calls overseas (5), Independency (4), the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (3), several Korean-language denominations (3), other North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) bodies (3), the Reformed Church in America (2), the Bible Presbyterian Church (2), the aforementioned Evangel Presbytery Association(2), the Anglican Church (1), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (1), the Evangelical Free Church of America (1), and other unknown or uncertain destinations (1).
The most notable difference between the destinations of departing congregations and those of departing ministers is the prevalence of ministerial transfers from the PCA to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). These two denominations, together with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), differ from the PCA “on paper” in that their respective constitutional documents allow for the ordination of women into the diaconate, eldership, and pastoral ministry. While the EPC differs from presbytery to presbytery (and congregation to congregation) regarding this practice, it is fair to say that these three denominations differ from the PCA in similar ways. Each of these denominations legitimately claims a history of Reformed ministry while adopting a more broad, “big tent,” or latitudinarian posture toward the Reformed tradition. None of these denominations are member Churches in NAPARC.
When I took a cursory glance through the records going back to the Minutes of the 41st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, what I found took me by surprise. Far more than any other denomination, the EPC was the destination of choice for PCA ministers simultaneously transferring out of the PCA and confessionally like-minded NAPARC. This is evidently (and indisputably) a viable and respectable change of affiliation and/or call that many brothers have made over the last decade. Perhaps I should not be so surprised. One of the common expressions of lament on blogs addressing the increasing polarization of networks in the PCA is that brothers are tired of infighting. On this score, the EPC fosters a culture of theological hospitality with their (purportedly Augustinian) motto, “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity” (visit their denominational website here). My own personal experience with the EPC confirms this to be the case: it is a much more relaxed theological and ministerial environment than the more confessionally strict PCA.
Having explored the question, “Where are they now?” we should not be surprised to see more men and congregations leave the PCA for the EPC, ECO, RCA, and other American Presbyterian and/or Reformed denominations out of NAPARC. The pipeline in the direction of churches that are philosophically committed to more peaceful “bigger tent” expressions of Reformed faith and practice is certainly fuller than the pipeline leading to more theologically narrow NAPARC-affiliated denominations.
 It is worth noting that one of these congregations reverted to mission status, which is not quite dissolution, though it is technically a “loss” of particular status (and thus, a statistical loss of a particular congregation).
 To be very clear, I mean absolutely no disrespect or offense in making this claim. While I am alarmed by the theological progressivism evident in the RCA and I strongly disagree (on biblical grounds) with the practice of ordaining women into ordained office, I esteem the EPC and the ECO as evangelical – though functionally egalitarian – expressions of Christ’s church. In fact, I was converted in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) which moved into the EPC in 2011. I applauded this move even as my wife and I were transferring our family’s membership to a congregation of the PCA at that time.
 Note that most of the ministerial transfers in 2019 and 2020 were to non-NAPARC denominations, with the EPC topping the list.
Zachary Groff is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church in Woodruff, SC.