Pleasanton's oldest church reborn as Tri-Valley's first to embrace ECO movement

Renamed Graceway, church also set to relocate to new permanent home

The parishioners settled in their pews, bouncing restless toddlers and hugging old friends.

The sounds of electric guitar flooded the sanctuary. Some parishioners raised their hands in worship, reaching toward the sanctuary's taut tent-like ceiling.

This is a typical scene at Graceway Church in Pleasanton, but it won't be for long.

The city's oldest church, known until recently as Centerpointe Presbyterian Church, has been through several metamorphoses since it was founded almost a decade after the Civil War, and its leaders see this year as a time of another rebirth.

Graceway is about to enter a new era as it moves to a new building, adjusts to its new name and acclimates to a new Presbyterian denomination. On March 1, the church switched affiliations from Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians -- a denomination created in 2012 that emphasizes founding new churches and holds more conservative views than current PC(USA) doctrine.

Graceway Church changed its name March 4 as part of a branding overhaul. The church wants to bring in more millennials, teens and young families, and a new name is part of that mission, said the Rev. Mike Barris, pastor of the church.

"It really represents the next logical step in their progression," said church spokesman Vintage Foster, president of AMF Media Group, a media strategy and communications firm and a division of Armanino in San Ramon. "As it moves its campus, as it moves into this new denomination, it's also moving more thoroughly into this new way of communicating with the community."

Graceway had a choice: Stay on its property off Busch Road, which it had been located at for eight years, and pay to construct a new building or sell the site and purchase an already-constructed property to renovate.

It chose the latter and bought a property earlier this month at 1183 Quarry Lane in Pleasanton. The church will hold Sunday service in rented space at Alisal Elementary School starting May 15 until renovations are completed on the Quarry Lane property. Barris said he expects to move to the permanent location later this year.

"What we want is to have a fresh start," Barris said.

At the same time, the roughly 200-member church lost several dozen members over the past few years due to disagreements within the church -- some of which revolved around whether to move to ECO or remain with PC(USA).

"There certainly were people who felt that PC(USA) was a better niche for what God called them to do, so we probably ended up losing about 10% of the congregation," Graceway elder Tim Hunt said. "For those that left, we absolutely respect them. Our feeling is as long as they landed somewhere that can help them with their walk with Jesus, God bless them."

ECO grows in Bay Area

Graceway is the first ECO church in the Tri-Valley, but the movement isn't new to the Bay Area.

At least five other Bay Area churches have switched to ECO, including the 3,000-member megachurch Menlo Church headquartered in Menlo Park.

Graceway had wrestled for years about whether to stay with PC(USA) -- the largest and historically dominant Presbyterian denomination nationwide -- when church leadership felt the denomination was shifting from its historical roots.

Barris said Graceway in particular felt PC(USA) had gotten too entrenched in socio-political issues, such as the topic of whether to allow same-sex marriages at their churches, and it wasn't providing enough support to local churches' missions to serve their communities.

"PC(USA) is really enmeshed in political and social action and is not providing support to its local churches," Barris said. "Our focus is not on the political stuff. It's on the ministry."

Walnut Creek Presbyterian, Christ Community Church of Milpitas, Morgan Hill Presbyterian and West Valley Presbyterian Church in Cupertino have also joined ECO. A few Bay Area PC(USA) churches have moved to other Presbyterian denominations, some of which are more conservative in their beliefs and practices than ECO.

Nationally, a growing number of churches had been breaking away from PC(USA) for years mainly over debates centered around gay rights. That exodus was at its strongest in recent years as the denomination debated amending its definition of marriage to allow for same-sex weddings, which took effect last year.

PC(USA) lost 101 congregations to other denominations in 2014, 148 in 2013 and 110 in 2012, as compared to 21 in 2011, according to PC(USA) data.

While some churches left for purely theological reasons, other churches' leaders said they felt they needed to get their congregation out of a politically charged and administratively taxing environment.

"Like any longtime institution, the PC(USA) had developed quite a bit of bureaucracy," said Scott Palmbush, pastor at Menlo Church's Mountain View campus. "It really became a challenge for us to work within that."

Bruce McIntosh, an elder at Walnut Creek Presbyterian, said the church's move to ECO in February has allowed it to spend more time reaching out to other congregations, rather than focusing on theological debates.

"This is a good fit for us, and we feel like we're going to get the proper kind of encouragement and resources," McIntosh added.

Palmbush said there's been much more freedom to try new ideas and reach out to the community without having to get every action approved by a higher governing board -- similar to a regional office being freed from having to run every decision by headquarters ahead of time.

Menlo Church has been able to rebrand, hire staff faster and implement projects without restrictive red tape, he said.

It still doesn't perform same-sex weddings or allow gay parishioners to be elected elders, but Palmbush denied that differences on interpretations of marriage was the driving force behind the church's change.

"A lot of people will focus on the theological controversies about the denominational change, but I think the more exciting thing is around the ability to try to do something new and different," he said.

Likewise, Barris is looking forward to working with ECO to establish other churches in the Tri-Valley. ECO emphasizes church planting -- the creation of tiny churches -- and Barris said he believes that's one of the most effective ways to spread Christianity in the Bay Area.

As for the marriage debate, Barris said Graceway hasn't yet established its policies regarding same-sex weddings or leadership roles for gay members.

ECO as a denomination defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

"We welcome people of every race, nationality, walk of life, economic circumstance and sexual orientation, and together we seek to learn about and follow Jesus," Barris said.

Facing challenges

Graceway has gone through some bumps in the road the past few years, including losing some familiar faces.

Bob Sanchez, a member for nearly 27 years, said he left after a majority of church members voted to start the process to move to ECO in December 2014.

The decision of some church members to leave Graceway was deeply personal and difficult since the members are part of a close-knit community, some stated.

Sanchez said he felt the church could have disagreed with the PC(USA) stance on various issues without leaving the denomination. He said he stood in front of his congregation before a membership vote and debated that leaving the denomination would further divide the faith, rather than fostering inclusiveness.

"I argued that you could still make your beliefs known at PC(USA), and their thought was, 'It's been too long a fight.' And my thought is you never give up the fight," he said.

He and his wife opted to attend Lynnewood United Methodist in Pleasanton. He said he also continues to attend a Bible study with friends from Graceway.

Sanchez said he felt ECO wasn't the right fit for his family. Since ECO as a denomination believes marriages must be heterosexual, he fears gay residents won't want to try to attend the church, regardless of whether the congregants would be welcoming.

"Overall, my opinion is that I feel that it's not a good direction to go where you will make some of the people who need the most saving not want to even visit your church," he said.

The church also suffered a blow to its image when parents of a former preschool student sued in 2013, claiming an employee had tied up a child. The incident, though resolved, made it more difficult to attract new congregants since news articles on the subject were near the top of the church's Google search results, according to Hunt -- who also writes the "Tim Talk" blog for

While shedding the Centerpointe name helped take care of that problem, Barris stated that wasn't the reason Graceway changed its name.

Graceway pushed past another potential obstacle in October when the Pleasanton City Council approved the church's request to rezone its property off Busch Road to allow residential development, following heated community debate about adding more homes during a season of drought. The church then sold its parcel to Ponderosa Homes, an agreement that officially closed earlier this month.

A new identity

Over Graceway's 140-year history, the church has experienced its share of changes.

Originally called First Presbyterian Church of Pleasanton, the congregation of 19 met at a chapel on Second and Neal streets -- which still stands today -- and was later renamed Pleasanton Presbyterian.

The church grew, moving to a bigger site on Mirador Drive in 1979 and again moving to a larger site off Busch Road and Valley Avenue in 2008, where a large sanctuary was planned. But the church was hit hard with financial trouble and, eight years later, is still worshiping out of a large tent-like structure that was meant to be temporary.

Just like the church was renamed Centerpointe when it moved in 2008, Barris noted it was simpler to make the name change to Graceway during a relocation. In addition, he said the church paid off the debt to PC(USA) on its former property as part of the move away from the denomination, freeing the leadership from those burdens.

Frank Napoleon, a Graceway elder, said the labels of various denominations are important on a leadership level, but such changes shouldn't affect the feel of the church's community. The "view from the pew" won't drastically change, he said.

"If you're a normal parishioner and you've been there for the last five years, it won't significantly change the service model," Foster agreed.

That's not to say the way the church runs Sunday worship hasn't changed. To draw in more young families and millennials, Graceway combined its contemporary and liturgical services into one 10 a.m. service about a year ago.

The service incorporates elements of both styles. On a recent Sunday, a band performed popular contemporary praise songs, followed by communion. The next week, the choir sang a mix of traditional hymns.

Little children ran off to Sunday School while adults watched video messages of encouragement from another Pleasanton pastor. A fundraising bake sale waited outside.

Looking forward, Barris said he wants to highlight the church's new identity, hoping to shed the difficulties of the past few tense years.

"It's more about where we're wanting to go," he said, "rather than where we've been."

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