Seattle First Presbyterian, a downtown congregation whose membership has dwindled, is the latest local church to weigh a split from its denomination amid controversies over theology, bureaucracy and same-sex marriage.
Seattle First Presbyterian — a landmark, downtown church with a $20 million property — is considering a split from the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country.
The move comes as the liberal-leaning denomination, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), faces a number of defections locally and nationally over theological controversies, particularly its decisions over the last few years to ordain gay and lesbian clergy and to redefine marriage as between two people, rather than between a man and a woman.
Married co-pastors Jeff and Ellen Schulz said they and a team of other leaders in the church are recommending the split to the congregation as they seek to rebuild its massively diminished membership. Once thought to be the largest Presbyterian church in the country or even the world, with 8,000 members, it now draws just 125.
It’s a small group in a huge, 38,000-square-foot building, which stretches from Seventh and Eighth avenues along Spring Street, across from Town Hall.
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Ellen Schulz said the revitalization effort requires “out-of-the-box, entrepreneurial” approaches that don’t mesh well with the bureaucratic structure of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
She and her husband also acknowledged theological differences. “In some denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Bible has become not the authoritative word of God, but one of many guides,” Jeff Schulz said.
Yet, he insisted the denomination’s shift regarding gays and lesbians is “not the issue for us. It’s just not.”
Speaking Wednesday, the Schulzes said a congregational vote on the split was scheduled for Sunday.
Scott Lumsden, head of the Seattle Presbytery, the regional governing body for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), declined to speak about the potential departure. “It’s really just an ecclesiastical matter,” he said.
But he has called a special meeting Nov. 17 for the whole presbytery to discuss the development.
Three other local churches have recently left, or are in the process of leaving, the denomination: Port Orchard’s Adventure of Faith, Maple Valley Presbyterian Church and Rose Hill Presbyterian Church in Kirkland.
For Seattle First Presbyterian, at stake are financial, as well as religious ties. According to the Schulzes, the denomination claims some financial interest in Seattle First Presbyterian’s property, a prime piece of real estate given its location and size.
Jeff Schulz said the precise arrangement over the property is a subject of “considerable conversation.” If a split happens, he said, he would expect the church to impart some “financial gift” to the denomination.
If Seattle First Presbyterian’s plans pan out, there could be a lot of money to go around. The church is planning to knock down its modernist, 1962 building and develop a mixed-use project that would incorporate a new, smaller church, residential and business spaces and perhaps a school, either public or private. Seattle Public Schools has been wanting to open a downtown school, Ellen Schulz noted.
“It an incredible opportunity to serve the city,” she said.
After years of considering redevelopment, the church is now working with an investor who is looking for a developer.
The co-pastors say other changes are afoot.
At one time, the church attracted the city’s elite, who helped found Harborview Medical Center and the Union Gospel Mission, and spun off 25 other churches around the city. “This was the mother church for this whole presbytery,” said Ellen Schulz.
But as Seattle First Presbyterian, along with other downtown churches, lost much of their congregations to the suburbs, new types of people began showing up — refugees, poor people, the homeless.
The Schulzes, who came to the church 10 years ago, said they have sought to build upon the diversity. As they spoke Wednesday afternoon in an upstairs meeting room, volunteers downstairs were preparing a dinner for those coming to a weekly men’s shelter run by the church. Overseeing the operation was Neal Lampi, a Seattle First Presbyterian elder who started coming to the church when he was homeless himself.
The church is also forging a partnership with a Christian, Rainier Valley-based anti-poverty group called Urban Impact. The Schulzes said their denomination didn’t always encourage such partnerships.
Sexuality, orthodox teachings
“Why now?” That’s the question Tony De La Rosa, interim lay pastor of Newport Presbyterian in Bellevue, said he and others are asking of churches that are leaving Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
John Foreman, senior pastor Adventure of Faith, said the departures have been long in coming. According to Foreman, the denomination’s more conservative churches have felt for years that their national organization is “unwilling to state its essential beliefs” and allows its leaders to “stray from traditional, Orthodox Christian” teachings.
He said Adventure of Faith discussed issues around homosexuality “in passing” before it decided to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which specifically arose three years ago as a home for disaffected members of Presbyterian Church. (U.S.A.). But sexuality issues were only part of the larger debate, Foreman said.
But a big part, De La Rosa suspects, speaking generally about such departures. “The timing speaks for itself.”
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) acted on the ordination of gays and lesbians in 2011. Its decision on same-sex marriage came this past March.
In September, the denomination named De La Rosa, who is married to a man, the interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which works nationwide on social justice, evangelism, disaster relief and other issues. Believed to be the first openly gay person to head one of the denomination’s five agencies, he leaves for the job in Kentucky later this month.
Speaking of the changes around ordination and marriage, De La Rosa said, “These are the decisions that are used as markers of Biblical faithfulness.”
Lee Riley, senior pastor of Central Kitsap Presbyterian Church, frankly acknowledged that sexuality issues were “by far the most emotionally charged” ones when his congregation considered splitting from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this year. Most of his members hew to traditional notions on the subject.
And yet, he said, the church decided its best approach was “to graciously stay in conversation.”
On Friday, Ellen Schulz said her church was still “in dialogue with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the presbytery.” The situation was “fluid,” she added, and might continue to be so throughout the weekend and beyond.
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 13, 2015, was corrected Nov. 14, 2015. Because of an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Seattle First Presbyterian is across from City Hall. The church is across from Town Hall. Also, Neal Lampi resigned as elder and shelter director shortly before this story appeared.