Featured Stories


The people's church: Community Presbyterian

This is the third in a series of features that will examine the attitudes, approaches and reasons we integrate faith into our community. It is not meant to endorse any one faith, but to consider the relevance and function of a church in modern society.

Greg Thorson is an easy-going, down-to-earth guy with a relaxed conversational style. He’s also the pastor at Community Presbyterian Church in Sandy. This is not to say that church pastors don’t generally come with these attributes, but it is worth mentioning that Thorson’s church does not have a hierarchy of leadership. As pastor, he is more of an administrator, and carries the same level of influence and guidance as any other church member.

Thorson’s chosen faith, like other pastors, was informed through mentors he had when he was younger. He kept company with Presbyterians in college and came to agree with their beliefs. He began going to church as a child, traveling with his father.

“My dad was in the military, and we went to Protestant chapel,” Thorson said. “Because I was exposed to true Presbyterians, I started to study their Polity and I liked it. The pastor is no more special than anybody else in the church.”

Thorson points to another factor in his choice, and one that is definitively Presbyterian.

“Having been raised in the Air Force, I didn’t want a bishop telling me where to go,” he said. “The Presbyterian church is a representative church, so a pastor applies to the job like any other job, so I was able to choose where I wanted to work.”

The Presbyterians, formed in Geneva by former Catholic seminarian John Calvin, brought their democratic form of Christianity to Colonial America in the late 1600s. Some in the church claim their representational form of church governance was part of the model for the American political system. In fact, Presbyterians are so democratic that they seem to keep the “Pro” in Protestant. Presbyterians even took sides during the American Civil War, forming Northern and Southern Presbyteries, not reuniting again until 1983. This fluid nature of the Presbyterian church is something Thorson quips about when describing his faith.

“We’ve only been around for 400 years or so, and yet we’re more fractured than the Catholic church has ever been,” he said. “Some people think it’s a travesty that the (post-Reformation) church was fractured, but I think it’s a good thing. I think we reach different types of people.”

The democratic nature of the Presbyterian church and its propensity to maintain a sort of perpetual reformation played out again last year. As a result, Thorson’s congregation has taken a new side in the Presbyterian faith. The Presbyterian Church USA recently split, giving way to the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. Thorson’s church in April voted to align with this new order.

“We found ourselves at odds with our own denomination,” he said. “There is a very large group in the PCUSA where the majority of people were at a position that varied with ours in terms of how we viewed scripture. There is a big schism happening.”

Thorson said this disagreement began to affect primary issues of belief.

“It got to the point where many churches in our congregation felt they could not continue,” he said. “This led to us forming a new denomination.”

So, what is different about the ECO? Thorson explains that the PCUSA does not require pastors or leaders to adhere to any specific doctrines.

“They would not define the links between the nine confessions (the collection of professions of faith within the Presbyterian church),” he said. “The problem is that it became meaningless. So the ECO adheres to a set of simple tenets.”

Another difference is that the ECO has no desire to own property. What this means is that each individual ECO church will own and maintain its own church property, rather than a larger presbytery owning it, much like the Catholic church does.

Needless to say, the big question mark is, how do churches that break away from the PCUSA deal with the fact that their church was technically owned by the larger entity?

The issue actually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court last month, and the justices agreed not to hear cases on denominational ownership, leaving the issue up to the states. This means the PCUSA is asking some ECO churches to purchase their property.

“In some places in America, they are asking for a very stiff penny,” Thorson said. “Our presbytery decided to be nice and ask for no money, but we’re giving them $7,000 as a parting gift.”

The amicable departure from the PCUSA bodes well for Thorson and his congregation, and an entire church for just $7,000 seems like a bargain, but Thorson points out that Community Presbyterian had been paying all the bills anyway.

“Actually, we appreciate it, and we couldn’t be more grateful,” he said.

Beyond the legal matters, Thorson said the two-year process that led to the ECO alignment has taken its toll.

“It has been difficult, though, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We had some people leave because they thought we didn’t react quickly enough in the debate. They wanted us to react and be outraged. There were some other people who just don’t like conflict. Finally, there were some people who were scared by the word Evangelical. I think a lot of them thought of the word as smacking of Elmer Gantry (the main character in the novel about a hapless drunk womanizer who stumbles into evangelical ministry), and pressure tactics, and that’s not at all what we’re doing.”

Thorson said that in the process, he and his fellow church members thought about leaving the Presbyterian faith altogether, but in the end they decided they liked the ECO form of government.

“The ECO is different in that it has a flatter leadership model,” he said. “The whole presbytery is structured to generate accountability from congregation to congregation, and to create a continuity of message.”

While such upheaval and restructuring is a part of the Presbyterian experience, it is important to note that the church, a member of the Sandy Ministerial Association, makes time to give to the community as well.

“On Friday nights we have an open door ministry and we feed homeless people,” Thorson said. “We’ve had this running for five years, and there’s a surprising number of homeless in our town. Also, a number of elderly and working poor come.”

The open door ministry was started by two students, one in high school and the other in college. Thorson thought the idea was well-intentioned but probably wouldn’t catch on.

“They came to me and I thought, ‘Sure, great,’ but I never thought it would last,” he said.

How’s that for a representational church?