The trustees at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church (MDPC) in Houston have filed a lawsuit asking the civil court to reaffirm that the church, itself, owns its property as “supported by established law in Texas.”
The trustees also filed – and was granted – a temporary restraining order to protect the church from any interference by the Presbytery of New Covenant or the Presbyterian Church (USA) while the case is being heard.
The trustees of the church took the route of filing a lawsuit only after talks with the presbytery about participating in its discernment process had failed.
Church leadership decided “early on to separate church property from the discernment process,” according to a source with knowledge of the situation. A 2013 Texas Supreme Court decision – Masterson vs. Diocese of Northwest Texas – held that a denomination could not unilaterally impose a trust on its member churches in the state of Texas.
Based on that Texas Supreme Court decision, state courts have awarded summary judgments to First Presbyterian Church and Winwood Presbyterian Church, both located in Houston.
In view of those court decisions, MDPC was adamant that the church’s property would not be part of any discernment process with the presbytery. With the church’s property valued at $35-$40 million — as a fiduciary issue — the trustees could not put the property at risk.
The source said that the church could not get assurances from the presbytery that:
- If the church went through the presbytery’s discernment process, it would not be challenged by others in the presbytery.
- If the church went through the process, the church’s property would not be at risk.
While the court case is being heard, the church will continue with a discernment process. According to a March 8 letter, signed by Senior Pastor Alf Halvorson and Clerk of Session Jere Overdyke, “The Declaratory Judgment filed with the court will not prevent us from having a gracious, fair, and inclusive-of-different-viewpoints Discernment Process, which will occur in April and May of this year. In fact, it preserves that goal.”
The Presbytery of New Covenant issued a response to the church’s lawsuit in its weekly newsletter, The Tuesday Connect:
Our General Presbyter and Stated Clerk have received notice that the Trustees of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church (MDPC, Houston) have filed suit for a Declaratory Judgment and Temporary Restraining Order in State court on Monday, March 7, 2016. Details of this lawsuit and the response of General Council will be forthcoming. The leadership of the presbytery is extraordinarily saddened and disappointed that the Trustees of MDPC have not trusted the assurances of our General Council that the procedure the congregation voted to enter would allow MDPC to be dismissed to another Reformed Body with property, if the procedure were followed and the congregation voted by 2/3 vote to do so. The General Council made two attempts to address the fears of the Trustees and to encourage the leadership to faithfully utilize the Gracious Reconciliation and Discernment Procedure the congregation voted to enter on February 22, 2015 by offering written assurances that General Council will abide by the terms of the GRDP and has no intent to challenge the outcome. We ask the presbytery to pray for the unity of the congregation in light of this legal action, which has been so divisive in other congregations.
The 3,461-member Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church began discerning its future in the PCUSA in early 2015, when the congregation voted 839-277 to enter the presbytery’s discernment process. However, the church was searching for a new pastor at the time, and put the process on hold until a new pastor was called. In August of 2015, the Rev. Dr. Alf Halvorson became the senior pastor and during the first two months of 2016, the church leadership began meeting with representatives from the presbytery and exchanged four proposals.
“After conscientious effort, we could not reach agreement on any process that would adequately protect MDPC’s church property,” according to the FAQ document posted on the church web site.
Read the church’s FAQ document.
Original Petition and TRO, filed March 7, 2016, by MDPC
Temporary Restraining Order, filed March 7, 2016, by MDPC