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First Presbyterian Church, located at 601 Sixth Ave. in Sibley, Iowa, is now affiliated with the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, effective March 1. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

Sibley church first in Iowa to join new Presbyterian denomination

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SIBLEY, Iowa -- It took more than two years of research and prayerful consideration, but Sibley's First Presbyterian Church officially joined the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) on March 1, becoming the first Iowa congregation to do so.

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Previously part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the congregation began considering a switch in denomination following the PC (USA) General Assembly in the summer of 2010, at which the ordination of gay clergy and changing the definition of marriage were topics of discussion. That debate is ongoing, and at the 2012 assembly, a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage was struck down by a narrow margin.

"The one thing we did was, when the people were the most agitated following the summer General Assembly in 2010, we did not make a decision right then," said the Rev. Terry Simm, First Presbyterian pastor. "We did not make a decision in haste or in response. We were going to wait and think this through."

A church task force developed a spreadsheet to consider the available choices, and more than 300 of the congregation's 400-plus adult members participated in cluster meetings to consider the change. A straw poll was taken, with the outcome overwhelmingly showing a desire to pursue a different denomination, Simm related. As the decision was made to leave PC (USA), First Presbyterian's leadership considered two choices -- the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) or ECO.

"We sent two people to the ECO Fellowship Gathering in Orlando a year ago this last January as we were getting closer to deciding which way to go," explained Simm. "... When they went, we were more thinking about EPC, but when they heard the things that ECO was going to do, they were excited about the possibilities, and moving into ECO wouldn't be as much of an adjustment," because of similarities in the confessions to which First Presbyterian already adheres.

"Both had a set of essentials that were biblical principles, theologies that were very sound -- a list of 'this is what we believe in,' which PC (USA) was not able to do. They could never ratify around a set of essentials that everybody could adhere to, and that became problematic to us," Simm continued.

To make the switch, First Presbyterian had to complete paperwork to its Presbytery and work through the other aspects of its dismissal from PC (USA), a process that started almost a year ago. A settlement also had to be reached for the church property, which was held in trust by the Presbytery.

Now officially part of ECO, Simm said members and prospective members probably won't sense much change in the church philosophy.

"We'll still continue to be Christ-centered, evangelical, biblically-sound and mission-oriented," he said. "The thing that ECO does is push us to be better at making disciples of Christ, instead of just putting members in pews ... they really are disciples, especially in our local community. It shows us that perhaps our biggest mission field in in our own backyard. We don't have to go overseas; we have a mission right here where we are at."

According to its website, "ECO seeks to serve the ministry and mission of Christ's Church. Our name represents a three-fold commitment to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Evangelical), connect leaders through accountable biblical relationships founded in God's grace (Covenant), and commit to a shared way of life together (Order). The acronym ECO also speaks to our commitment to strengthen the 'ecosystems' of local churches, providing the resources needed to grow, thrive, and reproduce."

First Presbyterian has been yoked with three other congregations that are part of its ECO Presbytery. One is in Colorado, one is in Idaho, and the third, in Rapid City, S.D., is in the process of dismissal.

"We will work with each other in sharing ideas, concerns, giving encouragement," Simm explained. "It's a way to work together as congregations, to hold each other accountable, as well as encourage and promote ways of doing things better."

Currently, there are only two ECO Presbyteries -- east and west. As ECO continues to grow -- Simm reported there were 31 ECO congregations in January, 39 now, with 33 congregations in the dismissal process and more than 100 in the process of discernment -- he believes the geographic boundaries will get smaller, with more opportunities for interaction among the congregations.

So far, the transition has been quite smooth, Simm said, and he anticipates the new affiliation will be good for his congregation.

"We're excited about what lies ahead," he said. "As the pastor, I think there are challenges that are now before us that hopefully will just make us better at being the church."

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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