The session of Highland Park Presbyterian Church (HPPC) in Dallas, Texas, has come out in support of actions initiated by the church’s Board of Trustees in filing a civil lawsuit seeking not only to protect church property from the presbytery, but also asking the court to declare that the church itself owns and controls all of its property, not the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The session sent a letter to the congregation of Highland Park on Sept. 12, informing the members of its unanimous vote to support the action of the trustees in filing the lawsuit.
“The session believes that the trustees made a wise decision in commencing the court action. The historic opportunity to clear the property of HPPC cannot be allowed to slip away,” read the session’s letter. “The court action frees the congregation from the distraction of the property and allows it to focus on other critical issues it must consider in deciding its future relationship with the PCUSA.”
The letter listed four reasons for the support, including shielding the session and congregation during the discernment process; recent actions of Grace Presbytery; “seizing the opportunity” of the recent Texas Supreme Court Ruling declaring that Texas courts must follow neutral principles of law when deciding church property cases; and trying to “avert disastrous consequence” of the presbytery taking control of the church.
“This court order provides a shield, a safe environment, for the session and congregation to have an open discussion of what is God’s will for the future of HPPC’s relationship with the PCUSA,” according to the session’s letter.
The letter also spoke of the session’s concerns over recent presbytery actions, including:
“These actions are among the reasons that combined to lead to the conclusion that presbytery’s dismissal process is too unpredictable to enter into, or allow to be initiated. A shield is needed,” the letter continued.
In discussing the Texas Supreme Court’s decision, the letter read that “This ruling appears very favorable to HPPC and presents a historic opportunity to end the longstanding uncertainty over the right of HPPC to control its property. Clearing up property rights would honor the legacy of our past and provide stability for our future.”
Time for discernment
The letter to the congregation also announced a session retreat to be held this weekend (Sept. 20-21) to consider the report of the session’s task force on the future relationship of HPPC and the PCUSA.
Following the retreat, the session plans to “make a recommendation to the congregation for its discernment on the critical question: ‘Should HPPC stay in the PCUSA or change to another Presbyterian denomination?’”
The letter cites the Mission Study Report of HPPC, showing the report highlighted the question as “one of the key issues that the congregation believes must be resolved before HPPC calls a new senior pastor, and the session has responded.”
The Rev. Dr. Ron Scates recently resigned as senior pastor of the church. The Rev. Joe Rightmyer was named interim head of staff and acting moderator of the session effective June 1, 2013.
Filed on Sept. 10 in Dallas County District Court, the court documents cite the recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court declaring that Texas courts must follow neutral principles of law when deciding church property cases.
A judge granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) that same day.
“Recent actions and statements by a regional governing body of the PC(USA) led us to believe it might try to interfere with our denominational discussion,” said Mike Crain, chairman of the church’s board of trustees in a press release from the church. “We felt it was wise to take steps to allow our process to move forward without outside influence.”
Salient facts from the court papers include:
- The church was first incorporated Jan. 31, 1928, and, “At no time in history have the articles of incorporation for Highland Park Presbyterian Church contained any provision creating or establishing any trust, express or implied, in favor of a national denomination upon the property held or for the local church or its civil corporation.”
- There is also no mention of “Grace Presbytery, the Presbyterian Church (USA), or their predecessors, nor is mention made of any trust over local church property in favor of the PCUSA or its predecessors and enforceable by Grace Presbytery” in the church’s articles of incorporation.
- All property deeds list as the owner “Highland Park Presbyterian Church, a Texas corporation,” and also make no mention of any particular denomination, district presbytery or other ecclesiastical entity.
- Neither Grace Presbytery nor the Presbyterian Church (USA) has provided “any substantial financial support” to the church for more than 85 years. However, the church has made substantial financial contributions to the presbytery and denomination. From 1998 until now, the church has “donated to Grace Presbytery and to the PCUSA, in voluntary per capita contributions, voluntary mission giving, and special offerings and other related giving and support, in excess of $3 million.”
Grace Presbytery posted a response to the legal action on its web site. It read, “We are shocked and saddened that Highland Park Presbyterian Church (HPPC) of Dallas has chosen to file suit, today, September 10, and request an injunction that will take us into civil court. There has been no conversation at the presbytery level to seek control of their property or establish a commission to work with the church during their period of discernment as to whether or not to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA). We will seek to keep our congregations informed and updated on this situation as possible.”
In the 2011 comparative statistics, Highland Park was listed as the fourth largest church in the denomination with 4,854 members. The court filing estimates the value of the real property owned by Highland Park Presbyterian Church to be $30 million.
I don’t know how many of Grace Presbytery’s congregations and sessions – 162, according to the PCUSA web site – are unhappy with the denomination, to the point that they would consider starting a discernment process. Don’t assume that, since Grace is geographically in the “Bible Belt”, the congregations are full of theologically conservative members. Some no doubt are; but others, like the 600-member congregation I attend in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb, have an eclectic membership, with people from a variety of faith traditions and political backgrounds. Any talk of leaving the PCUSA would cause a critical fissure in our congregation, so I don’t expect that talk to happen. But there must be other Grace congregations that are more unified in their opposition to the direction of the PCUSA. If Highland Park finds protection of its property in the Texas Supreme Court decision, that may embolden some of the other Grace congregations – and those in the other four Texas presbyteries – to consider whether they might now have a clear path to leave the PCUSA. For the last few years, the departing PCUSA congregations have been like small leaks here and there in the dam. I wonder if HPPC will begin a much larger hole in the dam, one that will eventually be Texas sized and even bigger.
By the way, Grace Presbytery’s statement, quoted in this article — “We are shocked and saddened … There has been no conversation at the presbytery level to seek control of their property” — rings a little hollow, now that Grace has filed suit in Federal court in an attempt to escape the implications of the Texas Supreme Court ruling. It appears that Grace is, indeed, seeking control of HPPC’s property.