Complaint says presbytery violated PCUSA Constitution
By John H. Adams, The Layman Online, February 25, 2004
A remedial complaint has been filed with the Synod of Mid-America contending that the Presbytery of Heartland committed an “unconstitutional irregularity” by taking action against a local congregation whose session voted not to pay its full per-capita apportionment.
The presbytery’s response, detailed in a separate story, denies that its action was unconstitutional, even though it acknowledges that the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) “does not technically permit presbyteries to make per-capita payments mandatory.”
The complaint contends that the presbytery adopted and failed to rescind a policy “which on its face punishes congregations whose Sessions do not pay their full per capita apportionments; and impairs the duty of Sessions to assure that all offerings are distributed to the objects toward which they were committed by usurping the power of Sessions to determine the distribution of benevolences.”
The complainants in the case are three of the ministers of congregations in the presbytery: the Rev. Kirk Johnson of First Presbyterian Church in Paola, Kan., the Rev. Laurie Johnson and the Rev. Tom Sparks of Stanley Presbyterian Church. The counsel for the complainants is Robert L. Howard, a prominent Kansas lawyer and an elder at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita. Howard is also the immediate past chairman of the Presbyterian Lay Committee.
Depending on the final resolution, the case could be a key legal precedent in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Previously, the highest court in the denomination has twice declared that sessions can neither be coerced into paying per capita nor punished for failure to do so.
But the courts have not given specific interpretation of cases such as that involving the Paola church and the Presbytery of Heartland.
Paola is a fast-growing evangelical congregation that has begun a building program financed by a temporary loan. The session has redirected some of its per-capita apportionments as a statement of conscience in opposition to some of the actions and decisions of the denomination’s leaderships.
The presbytery decided that it would not approve a long-term permanent loan as long as congregations fail to remit the full amount of per-capita apportionments to support the General Assembly, the synod and the presbytery.
On June 17, 2003, the presbytery voted 102-76 “that no congregation be considered eligible to request assistance from the presbytery in the form of mission support, shared grants or loan guarantees unless that congregation has demonstrated its full participation in the fiscal and ecclesiastical life of the presbytery including the paying of per capita, the making and meeting of a mission pledge, being current on Board of Pensions dues, the filing of annual statistical reports, and the annual reporting of the pastor’s terms of call.”
Less than a month later, on July 12, 2003, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly, the denomination’s highest court, reiterated the denomination’s historic constitutional stand that congregations could not be compelled to remit per capita nor punished for failure to do so.
On Sept. 13, 2003, Sparks made a motion to rescind the Heartland policy, and it was approved by a vote of 92 to 58. But it was ruled that the motion failed to follow the required notification period for changing presbytery policy.
Subsequently, the Rev. David Moore presented a written motion at the meeting of the Heartland Presbytery Council on Oct. 20, 2003. The council voted to postpone Moore’s motion. It was not placed on the docket for the November 2003 presbytery meeting.
The complainants say the Heartland policy “is an unconstitutional irregularity because it punishes churches that do not pay all per capita allocations.”
The complaint quotes, using bold type for emphasis, from the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission in a 1976 case (Westminster v. Presbytery of Detroit):
- “Presbyterian history, custom, and our system of connectionalism all indicate that congregations should contribute on a per capita basis to the conduct of the legislative, judicial, and related administrative costs of their denomination, but neither the present constitution nor prior case law dictate that per capita apportionment is a tax or compulsory contribution.”
It also quotes from a 1992 ruling in Central Presbyterian Church v. Presbytery of Long Island:
- “Yet presbytery must acknowledge that the session has the responsibility and power to determine the distribution of the church’s benevolences …” (G-10.0102h). Presbytery may not punish, directly or indirectly, a church who determines the distribution of the church’s benevolences in a way contrary to the presbytery’s approved policy. This commission perceives that the presbytery’s resolution, by using the word ‘obligation,’ presents the potential for the presbytery to take coercive action, such as demanding payment, assessing interest, or otherwise punishing a church that is behind in making payments.”
In citing the 2003 case of Minihan v. The Presbytery of Scioto Valley, the complaint said ” … the presbytery policy at issue required sessions ‘to raise and timely transmit per-capita funds to the Presbytery, unless the Presbyter excuses a Session from doing so.”
The complainants said the analysis of the denomination’s highest court in the Minihan case “is directly applicable to the Heartland policy.” They included two quotes from the Minihan decision.
- “Although the Presbytery contended at oral argument that its resolution did not compel a session to remit per capita monies, our reading of the [Scioto Valley] resolution leads to a different understanding. Specifically, the necessity of a Session applying to the Presbytery for an ‘excuse’ from its ‘responsibility’ to pay per capita monies strongly suggests compulsion if an excuse is not given.”
- “Thus, notwithstanding the fact that the 1992 amendment was neither considered nor a part of the Book of Order at the time of this Commission’s decision in the Central case, we hereby reaffirm this Commission’s holding that ‘a church may neither be compelled to pay nor punished for failure to pay any amounts pursuant to such plan.”
The complaint says the Heartland policy is also unconstitutional because the policy “usurps the power and impairs the duty of sessions.” The complaint cites as its authority for that conclusion sections of G-10.0102 from the Book of Order:
- “The session is responsible for the mission and government of the particular church. It therefore has the responsibility and power
- h. to challenge the people of God with the privilege of responsible Christian stewardship of money and time and talents, developing effective ways for encouraging and gathering the offerings of the people and assuring that all offerings are distributed to the objects toward which they were contributed;
- i. to establish the annual budget, determine the distribution of the church’s benevolences, and order offerings for Christian purposes, providing full information to the congregation of its decisions in such matters.”
The Heartland policy “unreasonably purports to dictate to the Session what they budget for missions and also requires them to meet any mission pledge they make,” the complaint says. “How can a Session assure ‘that all offerings are distributed to the objects toward which they were contributed’ if Presbytery usurps its power to ‘determine the distribution of the church’s benevolences’? It cannot – because one cannot assure what one cannot control.”
Under the Heartland policy, the complaint continues, the presbytery “could require a church to support PCUSA policies as ‘mission,’ even if a church determines such ‘mission’ is totally unbiblical or inconsistent with the great ends of the church.”
The complaint noted that in recent years “the PCUSA has witnessed repeated attempts by presbyteries, through various coercive policies, to usurp or intrude into the Constitutional powers of Sessions to determine the distribution of the church’s benevolences. Fortunately, all such efforts have been consistently rejected by GAPJC’s commitment to upholding the rule of constitutional law within the PCUSA.”
In its conclusion, the complaint contends that the Heartland policy “violates the historic spirit that undergirds our connectional system.”
Allowing the policy to stand, the complaint says, “would set a dangerous and divisive precedent for the whole church. It is a well-known fact that Presbyterians in the pews already have expressed significant mistrust of the policies and politics of ‘higher governing bodies’ of our church.”
“Many Sessions have prayerfully and thoughtfully determined that the benevolences of their congregations should not be used to pay per-capita apportionments, but instead redirect such gifts to mission causes they deem more faithful to Scripture and/or designate all of their mission giving, so that no undesignated monies are sent to Presbyteries or the General Assembly for discretionary spending. Such determinations by Sessions are Constitutional, but they are also diagnostic of the serious level of mistrust of ‘higher’ governing bodies. Christ commands that such mistrust should be dealt with pastorally, by forbearance, and by understanding – not by coercion and punitive measures.”
The complaint suggests the court ask: “What would our congregations be like if our Sessions adopted policies that declared that ‘no member of this congregation shall be eligible for any pastoral services, unless such member makes and meets a pledge to the mission budget of the church and pays a per capita assessment as levied by Session?”
The complaint calls for two forms of relief:
1. Declare that the Heartland policy is unconstitutional.
2. Assess the Heartland Presbytery the costs of “this unnecessary remedial action” because it “has unnecessarily forced this remedial case and contemptuously refused to repeal a plainly unconstitutional policy.”