After growing tensions within the Church of the Brethren and a lack of unity regarding theology and practical concerns, a meeting was called for 70 nominated delegates and leaders from around the nation to speak with the National Board of the Church of the Brethen.
The nominated delegates were Kinnick; Grover Duling, a standing committee member in West Virginia; Musa Mambula, a leader from the Nigerian Church of the Brethren called EYN; and Jim and Craig Meyer, leaders of the Brethren Revival Fellowship.
“It was actually a very important day because we had really no knowledge of anyone ever doing this before, going to the National Board and in a gentle way, complaining about what was happening and asking for them to help correct the situation.” Kinnick said. “We went to the main offices in Elgin, near Chicago, Illinois, and they allowed us—the five of us—they allowed us 45 minutes to speak.”
After the National Board meeting, Kinnick and the rest of the delegates held a Prayer Summit and invited the entirety of the denomination to attend. The Prayer Summit allowed the attendees to share in worship through prayer and Bible study, and the Summit was later continued within the next several years as a result of its influence on the attendees.
Unfortunately, despite the Prayer Summits and the success of the meeting with the National Board, the Church of the Brethren was only becoming more progressive in straying away from the word of the Bible. Kinnick and the other five delegates, now called the Prayer Summit Group, were called to a meeting by churches in several districts of the Church of the Brethren to discuss how to move forward. This meeting was held in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on July 27, 2019. Kinnick could not attend but sent John Swonger in his place.
Swonger’s role in the creation of Covenant Brethren Church dealt with the legalities of making Covenant Brethren Church its own denomination. In this meeting, the attendees openly spoke and voted on how to respond to the issues within the Church of the Brethren. The people also voted for members on the temporary executive board and the committees involved.
“During the time of that meeting, they actually asked for volunteers for various committees to serve on,” Swonger said. “After, they formed and voted the Executive Board. The Executive Board named committees that they were going to need to help pursue exploring the formation of a new denomination. I was voted and on the Legal Committee at that time.”
52 people from 13 different districts of the Church of the Brethren attended the Chambersburg meeting to discuss the rising concerns in the denomination. The Prayer Summit Group and Brethren Revival Fellowship led and posed questions for discussion. Some of the questions inquired if there was any chance of healing with Church of the Brethren and explored the interest of separating from the denomination.
“We took people in attendance at that meeting and divided into groups, like three or four person groups,” Swonger said. “Then we each discussed in our own group what our responses to the various questions were. We appointed a group leader to respond to everyone as we went around the room giving our response. The idea of that was to see if there was unison amongst the group and their responses. Everybody got to give their input by being in smaller groups. Everybody got to share their faults.”
After the Chambersburg meeting, Swonger said it was clear that many people had recognized the lack of Biblical authority in the Church of the Brethren and wanted to proceed forward with separation. The Covenant Brethren Church then formed, and the process of its creation became clear.
“This was the meeting that prompted the formation of the Covenant Brethren Church,” Swonger said. “There was a lot of people that wanted to do something, but nobody knew what to do, and at this meeting we came together and said, ‘Okay, this is what we want to do,’ and it was done in a way that nothing was pushed upon anybody. Everybody got to give their input as to whether they wanted to go in this direction or not.”
The Temporary Executive Board then drafted a letter and the Church of the Brethren’s main office, informing them of the Chambersburg meeting and about what had been conducted there.
The letter writes, “After several hours of vigorous discussion and earnest prayer, the group, by a vote of 48 to 1, agreed to ‘explore the process to separate from the denomination.’”
The letter then reinstated the main concerns raised in the meeting, the most prominent of which was the lack of Biblical authority.
Swonger said that one of his committee’s roles with the legal aspect of the Covenant Brethren Church denomination dealt with insurance and getting filed under 501(c) (3) for tax-exempt purposes. According to the International Revenue Service’s (IRS) Internal Revenue code regarding churches and religious organizations to be considered under 501(c) (3), “an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c) (3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual.” The IRS also states that the organization may not be an “action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities, and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”
Swonger and the Legal Committee also dedicated time to creating the bylaws and statement of faith for Covenant Brethren Church. The bylaws consisted of eight different articles, each with several sections. The articles explain how members can be added to the denomination, the principles of the Executive Board and the roles and/or designation of committees. The bylaws also included the Covenant Brethren Church’s Statement of Faith, beliefs, practices and the affirmations to which they hold. Kinnick said that this process took around a year to complete before the Legal Committee fully drafted the Covenant Brethren Church’s bylaws.
“They worked on that, and then they would work with our executive committee,” Kinnick said. “We actually rejected it seven times. The eighth draft is the one we finally decided on. It was a tremendous amount of work, but we saw it as God giving us the right people to help and God guiding us.”
Once the bylaws and other legal processes were complete, Kinnick put in his official six-month notice of resignation to the Church of the Brethren. Kinnick and his board decided to hold the Southeastern District’s conference that called together the churches in the district for the meeting in the summer of 2020.
The 24 districts of the Church of the Brethren each have their own district conference which allows the churches in that district alone to discuss business in the district. Out of the 24 districts, 22 had cancelled their district conferences due to the covid pandemic, but the Southeastern District was not one of them. They proceeded with their conference, where 25 out of 43 churches in the district decided to attend. Kinnick and his board were ready to proceed with the separation.
“We were ready to leave,” Kinnick said. “We held our conference at Pleasant Valley Church in the gym, and we made everyone wear masks--temperature checks, social distancing, we kept everyone safe. No one got sick, and we had conference, and we released nineteen churches that day.”
Don Hilton is the preacher at Pleasant Valley Church and worked closely with Kinnick to help arrange the conference and separation of the churches that wanted to leave the Church of the Brethren from the Southeastern District. Hilton was a chairman of the board for the Southeastern District and described his role as “behind the scenes” when it came to helping with the split from Church of the Brethren.
“We devised a plan, a couple of people—Scott being one of them—to make it easier for the churches to leave first,” Hilton said. “We found out the districts in the Church of the Brethren, the district board, has the authority to grant churches whether they want to leave or not. So, the board met, and we come up with a plan for the churches to leave.”
Hilton’s church was one of the 19 that were released from the Church of the Brethren at the District Conference. He said that his church was mostly unanimous in the vote to leave, and the decision has given Pleasant Valley a feeling of liberation.
“We feel like we’re freer,” Hilton said. “When somebody asks about the Church of the Brethren, we don’t have to try to explain, especially when people get on the internet and look at some of the things that the Church of the Brethren has said and statements being made. We don’t have to apologize anymore.”
After the churches that decided to leave Church of the Brethren in the Southeastern District joined Covenant Brethren Church, the new denomination’s foundations truly began to settle. Within the next two years, four regions were set up under the Covenant Brethren Church denomination. Kinnick became the Executive Director of the Southern Region and a board member on the executive committee for the denomination. He said that the regions expanded quickly and were only continuing to grow today.
“The second region we developed we call the Central Allegheny Region, and it is West Virginia and Maryland,” Kinnick said. “We have a third region in Pennsylvania. We also have opened up globally, and so we have churches in the D.R. Congo and Rwanda.”
As of 2022, Covenant Brethren Church has a total of 75 churches that have taken the denomination as their own. The amount of growth that has happened for the new denomination is encouraging to Kinnick and those that helped in the process of its formation. According to Swonger, it also allowed for unity amongst the churches that wanted to separate from Church of the Brethren.
“The churches would’ve been fragmented if it hadn’t been formed,” Swonger said. “The seventy-five churches today would have already left the Church of the Brethren, and they would have been independent churches rather than being united. There would have been no place for them to have gone.”
With perseverance, the Covenant Brethren Church has grown stronger in its numbers and unity, and Kinnick believes there is a bright future for the new denomination. Swonger’s hope is for the denomination to convey “the accountability to God’s Word, and the love of God’s Word.” As time moves forward, Covenant Brethren Church holds a positive outlook toward the future and what it may hold for the denomination.