After two years of seeking a gracious and amicable resolution, and more than a year after an Administrative Commission (AC) agreed to everything but the financial terms of dismissal, a Wisconsin congregation has disaffiliated and filed a civil suit against its regional governing body while its pastor has renounced jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Reiterating that $500,000 is too steep a price to pay to leave the PCUSA with its property, First Presbyterian Church of Oostburg (FPO) made the decision to disaffiliate from the denomination and filed paperwork against Milwaukee Presbytery June 16, 2014 in Sheboygan County Circuit Court to bring clarity to the issue of property ownership.
Three days later, Brian Jacobson renounced jurisdiction after receiving notification that he had been ousted as Oostburg’s pastor and that an Administrative Commission was purporting to act as the session for the church.
The exit fee of $500,000 for FPO to leave the PCUSA and join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians was finalized during a May 27 meeting when Milwaukee Presbytery voted to dismiss the congregation in exchange for the financial arrangement determined by the AC that had negotiated with the church.
The FPO session said throughout negotiations that $500,000 was more than the congregation was willing to pay and proposed a $100,000 financial gift to the Administrative Commission (AC) to “graciously and freely dismiss” First Presbyterian Church Oostburg with all its property to ECO.
However, the AC, which has no policy in place to serve as a guide for dismissing a congregation, ultimately rejected a presbytery request to engage in mediated discussions with the Oostburg session. It stood firm in its financial settlement proposal, noting in its report to the presbytery that it determined the gift offered by FPC-Oostburg to be “neither equitable to the presbytery nor reflective of the worth and mission of the presbytery over the past 100+ years.”
In light of such a stance, FPO held a congregational vote June 15, 2014 on three motions: (1) To withdraw from the PCUSA, effective on passage; (2) seek admission into ECO; and (3) that the session be authorized to take such steps as necessary to secure FPO’s legal rights to property.
Of the church’s 260 members, 187 turned out for the vote, resulting in 98 percent approval to disaffiliate from the PCUSA, 97 percent in favor of aligning with ECO, and 96 percent giving an OK for the session to address the property issue.
“We knew all along that (disaffiliation and filing a civil suit) were options,” Jacobson said, “but we were hopeful the presbytery would use the meeting as an opportunity to extend grace and find a reasonable settlement. Instead, they affirmed that amount ($500,000) emphatically, and we realized then that there was no grace to be found in the presbytery process. We came back determined to move forward with disaffiliation from the PCUSA and with a suit to clarify the property issue.”
According to a story in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, the church asserts that the property was purchased with member donations, is deeded in the name of the church and that the denomination policy asserting ownership when a church chooses to leave (the PCUSA’s trust clause) carries no weight in Wisconsin.
The Rev. Craig Howard, executive presbyter for Milwaukee Presbytery, did not respond to an email from The Layman about the matter but told the Journal Sentinel he was disappointed by the lawsuit and FPO’s decision to leave the denomination without compensating the presbytery for the property.
Jacobson said he was advised by legal counsel not to speak more about the pending litigation, though he added the congregation is hopeful about the upcoming process.
“We’re ready for whatever happens,” he said. “We’ve counted the cost and are ready to follow where God leads. Whatever takes place, our goal is to remain unified as a congregation and be faithful in engaging the future God holds for us.”
Jacobson emphasized that is true even if it means the congregation loses its property.
“For some members that will be a very difficult thing to do,” he admitted, “but we are prepared to move forward without the property if it comes to that.”
No other alternative
Jacobson noted there was a sense of being backed into a corner by the presbytery’s unwillingness to budge on the proposed property settlement, leaving the congregation with no other alternative than to simply walk away and fight for its property by legal means.
“Given the presbytery’s callous stand on an amount that is completely disproportionate with regard to almost every conceivable precedent, and given that the asking price would bind both the conscience and the ministry capacity of the congregation, the only option left to be taken was for us to leave the PCUSA,” he said. “The church had already told the presbytery it was not going to pay that amount, and the simple fact is denominational affiliation is a matter of conscience and isn’t for sale.
“We exhausted every option within the system except for the one we took, and in exercising our right to disaffiliate, we chose the route that allowed us to be faithful to our conscience and the call of God upon our congregation.”
Jacobson’s decision to renounce jurisdiction came June 19 after he received notification by certified letter of a meeting held by the Administrative Commission. He indicated that the AC purported his removal as the Oostburg pastor and termination of his salary, benefits and pension, informing him that he had until Aug. 1 to be out of the church manse or eviction proceedings would commence.
He also said the letter stated that the session had been removed from its position of authority in the church and the AC would become the new session. There was an attempt to freeze the financial assets of the church as well.
Jacobson responded with a letter of his own, renouncing jurisdiction of the PCUSA and noting that all ecclesiastical matters against him were null and void through his acceptance by ECO.
“There was a palpable sense of relief for me to renounce jurisdiction of the PCUSA and to renounce my ordination,” he said, noting that relief was all the greater following the General Assembly’s decision last week to allow same-sex marriages and change the definition of marriage. “While I grieve what that means (the same-sex decision by the GA), and while I will remain in prayer for denominational repentance and for those faithful few called to witness from within, there is a great sense of relief to think I’m not part of that denomination anymore.
“We believe we are an ECO church with an ECO pastor, and we’re moving forward with that exciting reality in mind. It’s in the hands of attorneys to go through the judicial process now. We will be focused on being the church God is calling us to be and pray that justice is done in the courts.”