In the book of Genesis, there was a conflict between Abram and Lot; both of them needed great space to support their growing herds, so much so that “the land could not support both of them living together” (Gen 13:6). As a result, there was strife between the groups of herders, who fought over who controlled what share of the land. “Then Abram said to Lot, ‘let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders, for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you?” (Gen 13:8). And so, they separated, each to his own land, and the strife ended.

This story came immediately to mind for me again when the ECO congregation announced its decision to find new space for its ministry in the New Year. This decision follows the recent court ruling that affirmed that the property of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem continues to be held in trust for the Presbyterian Church (USA) after a portion of the congregation, including almost all of the elected leadership, left to form a new congregation in the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

This decision by the ECO congregation was one of many scenarios that your Session has envisioned as a possibility after the court ruling. We designated a Transition Team to navigate those various scenarios some time back, and that Team had already extended an invitation to the ECO leadership for a meeting to discuss their intentions and to define a new and equitable sharing of the building space, should they want to remain on campus. With this announcement, the meeting will still take place as scheduled, just after the new year, now focusing on the timetable of their departure and the changes to space usage and other issues that will need to be addressed while they still remain on campus.  We will keep you informed of all developments as quickly as possible.

There have been many painful disagreements in this conflict. Yet at least one place we can agree is with Dr. Crumpler’s observation that it is obvious it would not be possible to fully accommodate the needs of two growing congregations in the same space. As the Genesis story puts it, the land cannot support both of us living together. The ECO congregation feels its mission requires the share of the space it currently holds; the PC(USA) congregation feels that its overall mission has been considerably impeded under the current arrangement. In fact, we have an urgent need for a significant increase in space to allow us to embrace the growth we are experiencing and the ministry opportunities we have right now through worship, the spiritual formation of children and youth, and adult discipleship. With this news of ECO’s relocation, each congregation can now have the space it needs to focus on embracing a future full of possibility as followers of Jesus Christ here in Bethlehem. It is my fervent hope and prayer that, as we separate, each to our own land in the example of Abram and Lot, our strife will also end, and we can reaffirm our relationship as kindred within Christ’s larger household, and wish the other Godspeed in their own ministry. I am grateful that Dr. Crumpler has already stated that is the ECO congregation’s intention, as well.

In closing, I extend a special invitation to all those who have been members of First Presbyterian of Bethlehem but felt caught in the middle of this division as it happened. Some of you have taken a “sabbatical” from church life and ministry, unable to stomach these painful divisions or uncertain of how you really felt about the issues. Some of you have worshipped with congregations elsewhere or with ECO , focused simply on worshipping and serving Christ in community, regardless of the denomination. The invitation is simply: come and see. Come and see what is happening now at “FPCB” as we move into the future. Come and see the Spirit moving among us as we continue to build a church where “All Are Welcome.” First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem continues to be a growing community of faith, where many different kinds of people come together in a spirit of koinonia (Christian love and communion) to worship, serve, and follow Jesus Christ. That is the legacy we have received from the generations of Presbyterians here before us, and that is the identity we still hold today. So come and see! If you consider First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem your church home, please know that we feel the very same way. I’m excited and honored to be the new pastor here, and I hope to meet you soon.

Grace and Peace,

JC