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.”
Our church followed a nearly identical path six years ago (we went to the EPC). After the vote to disaffiliate (which the AC ordered us not to have) the Presbytery of Wabash Valley pretended that we were still a part of the PC(USA), pretended that our members will still members of the PCUSA (about 30 members did leave and keep their PCUSA membership), and pretended that they had some kind of authority over us, including the AC that had stalled and misled us for nearly two years. We obtained a restraining order to keep the Presbytery out of our building (and our bank) and petitioned the court for clear title to our property. Following a mediated settlement (and more shenanigans from the presbytery), we eventually agreed to a ransom amount – we had offered a gracious gift, but there was nothing gracious about the process. The relief of being out from under that overbearing institution was worth every penny. Hang in there, Oostburg; there’s a ways to go yet, but the destination is worth the journey.
FPO would have been better to seek to join the EPC because the ECO does not state its view on the substitutionary work of Christ which has to be defined by the eco, otherwise, stay independent.
The PCUSA is GREEDY. Churches around the country want to leave and be affiliated with a pro-life denomination, but the PCUSA won’t cut them a break. They want as much money as they can get. It’s also necessary for pro-life people take the PCUSA out of their WILLS.
Steve Jones, sorry you had to go through all of that. Just wondering what it was like in your Presbytery in the years leading up to this. Sounds like they are a group of radical liberals.
The behavior of the Milwaukee presbytery in this matter is indicted by none other than the majority of presbyteries in the PC(USA) which have been treating departing churches is gracious, Christ-honoring ways. FPC Oostburg can enjoy Spirit-filled confidence that regardless of what happens to its property, it will continue to be an important, vibrant part of the body of Christ in Oostburg. Meanwhile if the presbytery is awarded title to the property in court, it will deserve its humiliation when it is stuck with the cost of utilities, insurance and maintenance on an empty building or even worse the cost of subsidizing a tiny, successor congregation loyal to a dying body like the PC(USA).
I grew up near Sheboygan County, WI & am distressed by this report. I’ve been to Oostburg a number of times, although not to that church. I pray that FPO & the Milwaukee presbytery will find grace & peace in their separate paths. We all need God’s mercy.
This is only the first of many lawsuits to come. The recent actions of the General Assembly have made it clear PCUSA is no longer focused on God of the Bible but the God of Progressive Secularism as preached by the Democratic party. Every position approved this year is almost word for word planks of the DNC. That one fact says all anyone needs to know about who we as a church have become.
‘Stop the World, I want to get off.” The antics of PCUSA are identical to those in control of the Democrat Party: Force, Coersion, Rejection, Expulsion, Tryanny.
A few years before we decided to seek dismissal and eventual disaffiliation, the presbytery studied some of the divisive issues. This was about the time of the Confessing Church movement (of which we were a part). I happened to attend the meeting where the presbytery’s findings were reported. One speaker (whose church left shortly before ours) noted that there came a time when Abraham and Lot simply couldn’t do ministry together anymore even though they served the same God. The other speaker valued the “conversation” so much that she believed we must stay together and continue it ad infinitum no matter what. That turned out to be the prevailing attitude. EPC presbytery and GA meetings are much more focused on the mission of the Church and so much more encouraging.
The testimony of those close and within the jurisdiction of this presbytery is compelling and shameful.
I could never bring myself to vote to seize the property of a congregation and convert it into cash. At best, a presbytery has only an echo of an investment in a congregation, so why should the modest investment reap
a bountiful harvest? Greed and need to stay afloat for another season.
Of course, as with Louisville, most presbyteries are strapped for funds, as congregations shrink and the per capita declines.
Yet to demand ransom from a congregation to keep the institution going, all in the name of “mission,.”
is a disgrace. There is seldom a mission. .