Each side had 10 minutes to express its viewpoints.
By Linda Linonis
STRUTHERS — Struthers Presbyterian Church voted to secede from the Presbyterian Church USA and Eastminster Presbytery. The vote, taken after the 11 a.m. service Sunday, was categorized as “97 percent in favor of disaffiliation” by Forrest A. Norman, the Struthers’ congregation’s Cleveland lawyer.
Norman described the church, at 110 Poland Ave., as “standing-room only” for the vote in which congregants’ names were checked on a membership list. Church members received ballots on which to vote.
Before the vote, Dan Becker, a 50-year member, and Milan Belohlavek, a member of the 12-person session, the church board of trustees, addressed the congregation. Also speaking was the Rev. Dan Schomer, general presbyter of Eastminster Presbytery. Each side had 10 minutes to present views before the members.
“I expressed to them the hope that they would table the motion,” said the Rev. Mr. Schomer, who agreed with Norman’s tally of the vote. He said the church had between 180 and 185 members on its last report to the presbytery.
Mr. Schomer expressed concern that the church made a “very big decision” without “adequate time given.” He said the presbytery didn’t have much of a chance to talk to the congregation about leaving the denomination before Sunday’s vote.
Mr. Schomer said the Presbytery first learned of Struthers Presbyterian’s intention to leave the denomination at a meeting Jan. 4, which was to focus on how its session was making decisions for the church.
“The presbytery was concerned the session was not following the constitution of the Presbyterian church,” he said.
Last month, the session at Struthers Presbyterian had recommended that the church no longer be affiliated with the national church and the presbytery “for theological reasons of conscience.”
Mr. Schomer said the presbytery and its churches are concerned about the future of Struthers Presbyterian.
“They are without a pastor right now,” he said, adding that the Presbyterian Church USA has an excellent call process. Now that the church has left the denomination, it won’t be able to use that service. The church has been without a pastor for 10 months, Mr. Schomer said, and had delayed starting the call process.
Norman said a formal letter would be sent to Presbyterian Church USA and Eastminster Presbytery concerning the decision of Struthers Presbyterian.
On Jan. 5, the church obtained a temporary restraining order from Judge James C. Evans of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court barring the presbytery from, among other things, attempting to assert control over the local church’s real estate or financial assets.
“The deed is in the name of the church,” Norman said, adding that the Struthers church, in 1983, “disavowed any trust interest.”
The trust interest refers to the practice that individual churches maintain their buildings for the denomination.
Struthers Presbyterian will be an independent Presbyterian church for the time being, Norman said.
There is a possibility it might join another Presbyterian organization, but nothing has been discussed or decided.
“I describe the experience like this ... it feels like a member of the family has disowned another member,” Mr. Schomer said.
He said Presbyterian Church USA includes conservative, moderate and liberal churches and congregations. “Eastminster Presbytery is a moderate presbytery,” he said.
The presbytery, a regional organization based in Mineral Ridge, has 53 churches in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, Portage and Summit counties.