After agreeing to pay $1-million, First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in Houston now has clear title to its property.
The settlement agreement between FPC and New Covenant — reached on May 10, 2016 — ended two years of civil litigation between the two parties. The church filed its civil lawsuit on May 29, 2014 seeking to clear the title of its property from claims by the denomination that it holds a trust interest in FPC’s property.
According to a letter posted on the church’s web site, and an announcement posted on the presbytery web site, FPC agreed to pay the presbytery $700,000 in semi-annual installments of $175,000. Also, the church will make a $300,000 mission payment — four quarterly payments of $15,000 for five years — to a mission partner chosen by FPC Houston in consultation with the presbytery.
The total amount of $1-million is less than one percent of the church’s total asset value.
The settlement also offers protection to the FPC’s pastors and session from any disciplinary action by the presbytery, the synod or the PCUSA for five years.
The letter to the church, signed by the pastor and clerk of session, said that the “financial settlement was made in part in recognition of the long-standing relationship between FPC Houston and presbytery and in support of the shared mission values that are at the heart of both organizations.”
In Feb., 2015, a judge had ruled that FPC owned its property. Judge Wesley R. Ward found that there was “no enforceable trust or property interest created by any version of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order or the Presbyterian Church of the United States Book of Church Order under the neutral principle factors set forth by the Texas Supreme Court in Masterson V. Diocese of NW Texas.”
That decision had been appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston. This settlement ends the appeal.
“Despite the strength of our case, there is always a risk of an unexpected decision from a court,” stated a FAQ document posted on the church web site. “Settling the litigation eliminates the risk of a judicial surprise and allows us to conclude the matter in a peaceful and respectful manner, honoring our long-standing relationship with the Presbytery of New Covenant.”
The document also makes it clear that the legal settlement does not change the church’s denominational affiliation. “We remain affiliated with the PCUSA as a member church of the Presbytery of New Covenant.” It continued:
That being said, It was clear from the vote taken over two years ago that a substantial majority of our membership was sufficiently concerned about the direction of the PCUSA to vote in favor of dismissal to another denomination. In session’s view, nothing has happened since the vote to ameliorate that concern, and certain actions of the PCUSA since that time have increased the discomfort of many within our congregation. The session is keenly aware of the concerns expressed by the majority of our membership, while recognizing that some members feel differently. As a part of its spiritual leadership function, session regularly assesses the relationship of FPC within the PCUSA and whether continued affiliation is in the long-term best interest of FPC. That assessment is ongoing and will continue. If at some point in the future session believes that the mission of FPC is best served by a reconsideration by the membership of our denominational status, session will bring that issue to the membership. Until such time, FPC continues to be an active part of the PCUSA and the session intends to honor the obligations and duties of membership within the PCUSA.
FPC-Houston files lawsuit seeking clear title to property
Judge rules that church, not presbytery, owns property
Texas Supreme Court rules in favor of neutral principles
Presbytery’s announcement of the agreement
” If at some point in the future Session believes that the mission of FPC is best served by a reconsideration by the membership of our denominational status, Session will bring that issue to the membership.”
FPC is setting up breaking their earlier promise.
The presbytery got what they wanted $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$, I hope FPC bolts the pcusa the first chance they get, besides the presbytery did everything they could to manipulate the dismissal process.
Big churches in Texas need to stop settling and see these cases through the court process. By settling, they provide presbyteries windfalls they use to fund fights against small churches. FPC Houston could have forced New Covenant Presbytery to decide whether to risk bankruptcy in a losing battle. FPC San Antonio could have done the same to Mission Presbytery. Texas law favors individual churches.
While the PC(USA)General Assembly is considering an overture of apology to the LGBT community that breaks its promise of freedom of conscience over same sex marriage. And the Salem Presbytery PJC just ruled congregations and sessions actually don’t have the authority not to perform same sex marriages, breaking earlier promises to the contrary.
Between the PC(USA) and FPC Houston, I believe the latter has far the better of it when it comes to integrity.
This seems untenable to me. How can a congregation “have clear title to it’s property” when the BOO is clear that in the PCUSA congregations do not own property exclusively, property is common to the church as a whole. The are going to leave as soon as the “leaders” get a feeling they can muster a vote that will go in their favor…
Peter S, the BOO is not the Bible, although to revisionist it is, Texas law does not regard to trust as binding, and besides the presbytery never paid one dime for FPC property.
And given the recent PJC ruling, FPC has every right to leave when the louisville sluggers looked us right in the face and lied to us on freedom of conscience regarding SSM.
Peter S, the BOO is not, necessarily a legally binding document. While it claims a trust has been established it is also incumbent upon the denomination to demonstrate that the church has agreed to that trust. Without that the neutral prinicples of law stand which claim that the name on the title establishes ownership, at least as I understanding things, now…
Mr. H – Did I say the BOO is the Bible? However, it is the agreement that congregations voluntarily agree to operate under, that is the point. Sounds like you do not want to be in a PCUSA congregation – your choice. For those who do, we should all work together to honor our agreements on operations – simple courtesy.
Disagreement with evangelicalism is not a lack of integrity.
Trust law is not created by votes of the General Assembly of the PCUSA. Trust law is created by votes of the Texas Legislature. Property is conveyed stricktly according to civil law.
The highlighted comments in the letter were inapt. The purpose of the entire discernment process was not to determine what individual congregants wanted, but to discern the will of God through prayer. The results of the vote confirmed that God wants FPC to remain a member of PC(USA). We are stronger united.
Sir, not my point – as we live together in the organization, we all voluntarily agree to abide to the operating principles. Therefore, it would seem the leaders in this church want a different agreement? Not sure what that would be nor why they want it, therefore my guess is they want out.
Everyone knows it’s all about the money! Louisville and judicatories are piling up the dollars. How very sad, and very evil!
Going to great lengths during debate to assure all that passage of same sex marriage would not bind the consciences of those who read Scripture to say marriage is between a man and woman and then taking the opposite view two years later is. Assuring all, before a vote, that Sessions and Ministers
can not be compelled to perform same sex marriages, then, two years later, saying they can be compelled, reflects a complete lack of integrity.
I have no idea what “Disagreement with evangelicalism” means. When I goggle evangelicalism, I get “…maintaining that the essence of the gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s atonement.” If you don’t believe that, we don’t have any more common ground for debate.
New Covenant paid a fixed fee for their legal expenses. They weren’t risking bankruptcy.
Mr. Walters – you just demonstrated the problem with evangelicals, you are hysterical. One Presbytery PJC ruling indicating that congregations cannot put in place blanket policies on ssm does not require congregations or TEs to perform ssm or any marriage for that matter. It just indicates that each request be examined in a consistent and like manner. No blanket exclusion policies – why the rant and rampage?
Peter S, “simple courtesy”
No, simple greed
Counselor, “We are stronger united”.
What a load, your side is richer if we are “united”………
Yeah look what they try to pull with MDPC, and the members of FPC came on this site to tell us what the presbytery did, besides what do you care about FPC?
You mean settling with MDPC? That horrible action?
“Hysterical..rant..rampage..?” Those word choices are wildly inaccurate critiques of what I just said. And suggest rational debate is not your strong suit. If you’d like to debate, rebut the specifics of what I said and stop with the emotional attacks.
I continue to pray that God will help you overcome the
bitterness and anger that seems to overwhelm you, James H.
What did the Presbytery do vis-a-vis FPC other than to provide two articulate and passionate advocates for remaining within PC(USA) who clearly outperformed the ill-prepared and unpersuasive ECO representatives at a Townhall meeting?
I agree with Peter S. About the PJC decision, Tome Walters. You and others are grossly misreading the decision for your own objectives. The PJC decision is of limited import and must be read to be consistent with the Advisory Opinion issued on the matter.
Sorry if you are offended sir. On to debate: In no way does this ruling “bind” anything – it just tells leaders they need to use the same process for all requests for marriages. There is NOTHING that compels anyone (TE or RE) to approve or perform a ssm, or any other marriage, in this ruling. Your definition of evangelicals is outdated. evangelicals in most of the US are people who want to enforce their politics, culture, and opinions on others under the banner of the Gospel. Shameful and unwise…
Counselor, I’m more apt to believe the members of FPC after we all saw what the presbytery was trying to do to MDPC, which was to keep changing the rules in the miiddle of the game, designed to extract more money or the property outright. That’s not being bitter, that’s just stating the facts.
So back to the point of the article: FPC Houston has made a “love offering” of $1 million (~1% of its assets) to the presbytery, which was more than happy to accept because it knew it would lose at the appeal level, also. Since the Texas Supreme Court had already ruled there is no such thing as an implied trust. And now FPCH is free to eventually leave on a majority vote with its property, apart from the (non)gracious dismissal policy. At which point the largest PC(USA) churches in the 3 largest Texas cities–Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston–will have all departed. I should think you and Peter S. would be delighted to be rid of those mean, evil evangelicals whom you take such delight in trashing. And to finally create a homogeneous PC(USA) of like-minded cultural, political, and theological liberals.
Just to clarify, I’ve never thought of myself as an evangelical. The definition I used popped up from Wikipedia when I searched to see what “evangelicalism” was.
In scriptural terms, James H. is ‘rebuking’ and ‘admonishing’ as we’re instructed by God to do. I’ve heard much stronger scripture preached (long ago) by ‘hellfire and brimstone’ Presbyterian ministers.
“In scriptural terms, James H. is ‘rebuking’ and ‘admonishing’ as we’re instructed by God to do”
And I’m doing the same.
As has been noted, I’m on every FPC related thread, and don’t remember seeing any specific accusations against the Presbytery during the discernment process.
New Covenant settled with MDPC right off the bat. New Covenant let Grace (an equally large, rich church) leave w/o any drama. Why does this only happen to First?
Scott, you are being misleading when you say New Covenant settled with MDPC right off the bat. MDPC entered discernment process before the NC gracious dismissal policies changed with the understanding that the financial payout that they would have to pay would be under the old rules (around $500,000 to leave). When MDPC tried to get this in writing from the presbetary several months ago, the Presbytery would not sign off. MDPC offered to pay the Presbytery $750,000 to have title to the property. The Presbytery declined. At this point MDPC filed suit to have the courts decide who owned the property. The Presbytery then settled for a little more than MDPC’s origninal offer and gave up rights to the property. I hardly call this settling right off the bat.
I beg your pardon, but when have I ever “trashed” evangelicals?
For your information, inasmuch as I attended the appellate hearing, it was actually clear that FPC was going to lose on the overly broad injunctive relief. Indeed, one of the judges actually laughed about it at the hearing while another seemed incredulous. The impetus on the part of FPC to settle rather than “go the distance” was to preserve the leadership status quo since they were at substantial risk of losing the protection of the injunction from the lower court.
All cases for each church are different, bu the facts FPC laid out in the trial court are available for all the small churches to use. Ultimately it’s Risk Management. If FPC lost the appeal it would mean they went back to district court and more attorney fees. Even if the won the appeal there was the possibility of a further appeal and more fees. For PCUSA they could not take the chance of losing the appeal – if they did, then they lose more than just the FPC assets – they lose they only hammer they have.
Also the FPC settlement is really $700k not $1mil. The $300k payments to Presbyterian charities was something FPC was already doing ad would have continued to do. PCUSA just locked them into maintaining that support for five years (because I’m sure the feel that within that period of time, that FPC will move to another denomiation).
“The highlighted comments in the letter were inapt.”
“Counselor,” it is not clear, since you refer to discernment, what highlighted comment you find to be inapt. Reading the letter linked in the article, there is no reference to discernment.
Perhaps you refer to the comment posted earlier by “Scott” who selected a small portion of an answer from the FAQ also linked in the article. The full question and answer is:
“4. What does this settlement agreement mean in terms of our denominational affiliation?
The settlement agreement has no bearing on our denominational affiliation. We remain affiliated with the PC(USA) as a member church of the Presbytery of New Covenant.
That being said, It was clear from the vote taken over two years ago that a substantial majority of our membership was sufficiently concerned about the direction of the PC(USA) to vote in favor of dismissal to another denomination. In Session’s view, nothing has happened since the vote to ameliorate that concern, and certain actions of the PC(USA) since that time have increased the discomfort of many within our congregation. The Session is keenly aware of the concerns expressed by the majority of our membership, while recognizing that some members feel differently.
As a part of its spiritual leadership function, Session regularly assesses the relationship of FPC within the PC(USA) and whether continued affiliation is in the long-term best interest of FPC. That assessment is ongoing and will continue. If at some point in the future Session believes that the mission of FPC is best served by a reconsideration by the membership of our denominational status, Session will bring that issue to the membership. Until such time, FPC continues to be an active part of the PC(USA) and the Session intends to honor the obligations and duties of membership within the PC(USA).”
The full text clearly indicates the session is living into the understanding of God’s will learned at the time of the congregational vote – to remain in the PC(USA) – but recognizing the unease within the congregation of which a majority voted for dismissal and working to maintain unity while continuing to seek His will as the denomination and the congregation move forward.
I’m curious about why new covenant settled for less than their legal fees.
“because I’m sure the feel that within that period of time, that FPC will move to another denomiation”
Then they will have lied:
The clerks of session – Jane Costello, Lesley Lilly and David McCarty – wrote that “It’s important to stress what this lawsuit is not. FPC is not seeking to leave the PCUSA through the filing of this legal action. Nor is this lawsuit seeking another vote on whether FPC should leave the PCUSA. All this action seeks is a determination from the court of whether FPC completely controls the use of its property.”
http://fpchouston.org/am-site/media/letter-to-congregation-may-2014.pdf “FPC is not seeking to leave the PC(USA) through the filing of this legal
action. Nor is this lawsuit seeking another vote on whether FPC should leave the PC(USA). All this action seeks is a
determination from the court of whether FPC completely controls the use of its property.”
http://fpchouston.org/am-site/media/property-faq-update.pdf “FPC recently completed the Presbytery’s process for seeking “dismissal.” This is a Presbytery-preferred process in
which leaving the PC(USA) occurs as a result of a vote by the Presbytery to dismiss the congregation to another
Reformed body. The vote by the congregation on whether to ask the Presbytery to dismiss it fell just short of the
Presbytery’s required two-thirds supermajority. Your session has no plans to ask the Presbytery to initiate the
Presbytery’s dismissal process again.”
And what about the hundreds of thousands, possibly more than one million, local Presbyterian in the pews who were never told their local church property was owned/controlled by another entity? For generations, those local loyal Presbyterians gave thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars for construction, personal labor, restoration, other improvements, and believed it was their local church? Fraud? Deception? Why weren’t we told? Many, if not most local PCUSA members still don’t know another entity owns the property.
“Many, if not most local PCUSA members still don’t know another entity owns the property.”
You mean, another entity lays claim to the property.
The unilaterally imposed property trust clause in the PC(USA) Book of Order is not legally binding in civil courts. Presbyteries have used it in support of their claim on departing congregations’ property, but ultimately the courts look to what is actually stated on the congregations’ property deeds and articles of incorporation—documents that are legally binding in civil court. Unless these documents explicitly state that their property is held in trust for the denomination with which they are affiliated, there is no legally-binding property trust.
The session is not some static entity. The members change every year (just like every board of directors) and the will of the session can change as well. Just as each year the will and policies of the PCUSA change.
I don’t remember any of this equivocation in FPC’s blanket statements about leaving the PCUSA before the suit was settled.
Then why make statements that you know the ever changing makeup of the session will invalidate?
“Stronger united”? Yes, if one is united in the truth of Scripture. The great tragedy of the PCUSA is that, abandoning the clear teaching of Scripture, it has walked outside at night to a sundial and held up a flashlight to determine the time. It has united around grotesque error to suit ephemeral cultural changes.
“It is better to be divided by truth than to be united in error. It is better to speak the truth that hurts and then heals, than falsehood that comforts and then kills.” ~ Dr. Adrian Rogers
based on the standard you are offering the session would never make a statement then.
Oh Timothy I see, they were giving to build up and have control of “their” local church – thought they were giving to the LORD and for the sake of the Church. Thanks for the clarity…
If the rebuke does not reflect the Spirit of Christ in tone and character, it is not of the LORD
Nobody on the FPC session feels themselves beholden to any statements made by recent, earlier sessions? There is nothing new or unpredicted going on with the PCUSA; it was all known when the session repeatedly said they weren’t planning to leave.
By your standards, nobody should accept anything said by the session. How do we know what promises have expiration dates?
Exactly. I agree the vast majority of time, sweat and money given to local Christian churches was to promote the Word of God.