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.”
“God did not die for property”
I would hope God values a church’s integrity more than its property. Unfortunately, I see too many people (on both sides, but the bulk of the people reading articles here lean conservative) rationalizing unethical behavior on the part of churches so they can keep their property. A commitment is a commitment. Refusing to come to a mutual agreement w/ the denomination before leaving despite the promises voluntarily made during the merger that created the PCUSA is dishonest. Saying being dishonest is acceptable because of the PCUSA’s stance on gays is rationalization. Claiming God says you can have an expensive piece of property and don’t have to keep your promises can be seen as self-serving.
A church that would lie to the denomination to keep its property will also lie to me as a member of the congregation to get me to help pay for it.
It’s not quite that simplistic, Scott. If a denomination decides that it no longer believes what it believed (and on issues other than homosexuality) when a church acquiesced to the denomination’s ownership of its property, what should an honorable church and denomination do when a church chooses not to change its beliefs too? Should a church lose the use of the property because it still believes what its denomination used to believe? Hopefully churches and presbyteries going forward will think about these questions in a more nuanced way than you do.
They are free to leave as individual believers. This was a known risk when the original agreement was made. You can’t choose to not pay off a bank loan because the bank’s new owners start donating to Planned Parenthood. Do you also want your previous tithes returned in cash? The only ethical thing to do is walk away individually.
Intriguing conversation, Scott. So let’s say the teaching and ruling elders of a church sit in presbytery meetings for years observing how isolated and anachronistic they’re becoming in their own presbytery. So they and 90% of their congregation vote to leave the PC(USA) and align with another Reformed body where they think they can be more effective in mission. What’s your view on what the church and the presbytery should do about the church’s building?
Perhaps this is a tangent, but some churches also own cemetaries where deceased family are buried. This is harder to walk away from. Would the cemetery also be part of the trust clause?
Your 90% hypothetical case? They’d likely make the best offer for the church bldg after they all left individually and there was nothing but an empty shell behind. Cheaper than building a new church. If not, then build a new one. If they get shafted by their own self-interested church/denomination leadership, then they can take that as a lesson moving forward to be careful how they treat those they, in turn, lead. Learning humility is never a bad thing for a church. The big, rich ones ECO targets usually need that lesson anyway.
Every separate church that leaves the PCUSA is telling the (sometimes sizable) minority in their own congregations that if you like the PCUSA, you’re free to leave the church, parents buried in the graveyard and all, and go back to it. That’s no more and no less harsh than what I’m saying to the majority.
The recent case that set me off is one (FPC Houston, other articles about it are on the Layman) where the church agreed to a discernment process, fell just shy of the required 2/3 vote, and are getting cheered on for suing to take their property back and leave anyway. Grace Pres is in the same Presbytery (New Covenant), and when they voted to leave last week, overwhelmingly, both sides are being civil about it. I don’t see anything from New Covenant concerning FPC or GPC leaving that is so over the top that either can legitimately claim the denomination has violated the agreement first.
I don’t know what the laws are about that. I also don’t know what the laws concerning the commercial cemetery my parents are buried in. I do know I don’t own the whole business and get to keep them from selling, merging, spinning off, reorganizing, etc.
Besides, majority rule either applies or it doesn’t. As individuals, if we believe a church or denomination has lost its way and won’t turn back, leaving is a matter of individual conscious. Corporately, I don’t accept that if a majority of a church wants to leave the PCUSA (ignoring anything previously agreed to and doing so unilaterally) then the majority rules and the minority submits, but if a majority of the PCUSA as a whole wants to go in one direction, the minority doesn’t have to just submit because they can break their agreements and go.
Since it it clear that for “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,” it is also true for the Presbyterian congregations who “lost their buildings.” Presbyteries and Dioceses that inflict these fees are going to wind up being landlords over empty buildings, many of which are historic and therefore have no mortgage to some bank for which the presbytery is obligated to pay off. This is the natural consequence of what happens when a denomination leaves its confessional roots for the latest theological fancy.
Would you rather break a covenant with God or man? The PCUSA ceased being a Christian church in 2010 when they passed NFog. PCUSA no longer believes in the essential tenants of the faith. If you don’t believe that, study the NFog, it is stated in “somewhat” plain english. PCUSA recently published the results of their own survey which revealed more than 50%, (I forget the actual percentages), of the Teaching Elders and a higher percentage of the Ruling Elders do not believe Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father! Continuing to stay in the PCUSA literally now means that you are worshipping a false religion. I renounced my ordination as a Ruling Elder in my church because of this, (and the whole abortion issue) when I finally saw how all three of my Teaching Elders supported the PCUSA blindly and refused to listen to scriptural testing of the issues. It was the hardest decision of my life to leave the church where my faith grew to where it is at today. It is so ironic that the teaching I learned at my church is what lead me to discern that I had to leave. It breaks my heart that the leadership of PCUSA is twisting the Word of God and destroying itself in the process. For me the question reduced down to who do I fear the most, God or man. Buildings are just stone and sand that will crumble. What a shame we are fighting over them instead of fighting for lost souls!
“Would you rather break a covenant with God or man? ”
We’re talking about breaking a property agreement between a church ‘corporation’ (their legal organization for tax purposes) and the PCUSA. Obviously individuals are free to leave whenever they think the denomination (or their own church) has gone off the deep end.
Again, why do Christians alway assume those on the opposite side of the table in these matters share their world views and basic faith orientation. Always seeking good outcomes all around. the Step one: Until proven otherwise, those on the other side are pagan, that put things, property, stuff over faith and people. Treat them accordingly, and never turn your back. Step two: You have a client, your church and people, and your client has a valid case to make. This is why God made lawyers. Step Three: Engage the enemy, the adversary and fight the good fight. Will you win all the time and get all your toys at the end?, No you will not. Is there a cost, a price to pay? Usually is. Will you lose some folks along the way? Most definitely. Will everybody like you or be your friend at the end? No. You will make enemies.
And there are times and situations, where either due to tactics, logistics or another concerns the best, the wise, the most just and right thing to do is simply walk away from the property. Give it up, shake the dust off your feet. I have advocated such a policy in other posts. Is your time and treasure to be spent fighting the good fight, or other ends? Depends on how much time and treasure you have I suppose. God will be with you and your community of faith will thrive and grow. At the end of the day is just brick and mortar, nothing less or more. Get over it.
Scott, I understand what we are talking about here. It seems you have completely missed my point.