Special to the Layman
Until recently all Presbyterians across the theological spectrum could be gratified that, with a few sad exceptions, presbyteries were treating churches departing the Presbyterian Church (USA) in gracious, Christ-honoring ways. In recent months, however, a growing minority of presbyteries seem to have shifted to a harsh, unbiblical approach.
Case in point: the San Francisco Presbytery extracted a payment of $8.89 million from Menlo Park Presbyterian – to allow Menlo Park to leave the PCUSA with its property. Now the Milwaukee Presbytery is demanding that 265-member First Presbyterian of Oostburg, Wis., pay $500,000 to leave with its property. Tropical Florida Presbytery plans to expropriate the assets of two Hispanic congregations that want to leave, and congregations in California are looking at settlements over $1 million for the privilege of realigning denominations.
The reasons for this changed approach aren’t clear. One possibility is that presbyteries assumed that departures would always be a harmless trickle, but now they fear departures are turning into a flood. Another possibility is that non-PCUSA Presbyterians (Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in American, and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians) have already moved ahead of the PCUSA on important measures of vitality such as per-capita giving, new church development and foreign missions activity. It could be that the newly harsh treatment of departing churches is a mean-spirited reaction to presbyteries’ realization that the PCUSA is shrinking to a hollow shell of its former self which is ultimately going to end up on the left wing fringe of Presbyterianism.
Whatever the case, vindictive presbyteries would be well served by hitting the pause button and taking a close look at what is happening in the Episcopal denomination (TEC). TEC has the same property trust clause as the PCUSA and TEC has been strictly enforcing it. TEC won’t even discuss the property with a departing congregation, giving them only two options of either surrendering the property voluntarily or going to court. TEC’s national leader (the presiding bishop) has shamelessly declared that she would rather see the buildings of departing churches converted to saloons than used by the people who built and paid for them to worship God. In one case in New York City, TEC sold the building to a Muslim group for a price lower than offered by the Anglican congregation. At TEC’s triennial conference in 2012, TEC was forced to disclose that it had spent $18 million on legal fees suing congregations for their properties. Since 2012, TEC has changed its financial reporting in a deliberate effort to disguise the costs of taking churches’ properties but careful forensic analysis of TEC’s financial statements indicates that the cost of property seizures is now approaching $30 million.
So how is strict enforcement of the trust clause working out for TEC? They’ve spent $30 million on legal fees, winning some cases while losing others. When they win the property in court, TEC has to pay utilities, insurance and maintenance on an empty building. Then in many cases TEC can’t resist the temptation of trying to save face and redeem its behavior by starting a new congregation in the building loyal to TEC which requires them to subsidize the nascent congregation for however many years, if ever, it takes the membership to grow to break even financially. So by the time all of TEC’s property seizures play out, the cost of legal fees, ownership expense and new congregation subsidies will likely exceed the proceeds from buildings they sell by many millions of dollars.
The sobering lesson of the TEC fiasco for Presbyterian churches and presbyteries is that the trust clause is a net loser for the denomination and that most departing churches are better served just handing over the keys and moving rather than paying the presbytery an exorbitant departure penalty. Without any exceptions I’m aware of, Episcopal congregations who lost their buildings are thriving in all manner of alternate settings while the denomination suffers the humiliation of subsidizing tiny successor congregations in nearly empty buildings. In the last 30 years it’s become crystal clear that the last thing a church needs to do vibrant, high-impact ministry is a churchy building, an organ and stained glass windows. Willow Creek grew rapidly in its early years worshiping in a rented movie theater. Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA), the largest, most dynamic Presbyterian church in New York City with weekly attendance of 5,000, holds Sunday services at four rented locations in Manhattan and didn’t own any property in its first 17 years. It’s puzzling that many Presbyterians who are otherwise theologically astute seem to have lost sight of the fact that the church is that body of believers committed to following Jesus and when the church mails in the keys, the presbytery ends up with a pile of bricks and mortar, and sometimes a steeple, but no people.
Which reminds me of the address that Pastor Rick Warren gave to those departing the TEC and forming the Anglican Communion of North America (ACNA) in 2009. Warren assured the ACNA that “you may lose the steeple, but you won’t lose the people. The church has never been a building; God did not die for property.”