An Administrative Commission (AC) was granted full power by its presbytery to handle all property and settlement negotiations with a congregation leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) in an attempt to bring the dismissal process to a timely conclusion.
During a July 29 meeting, the Presbytery of Western North Carolina (PWNC) gave the AC charged with negotiating a settlement with First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville full authority to conclude the process as it best sees fit to bring the matter to an end before the October meeting of the presbytery, without the expense of a called meeting.
Several representatives spoke to the issue, for and against, including FPC-Hendersonville Ruling Elder Larry Mobley, who indicated in an email to The Layman that the AC sought authority to complete negotiations without having to get further approval from the presbytery.
Mobley pointed out that a September 2013 Permanent Judicial Commission ruling from the Synod of the Northeast on a remedial complaint filed in the matter of Mildred McGee, et. al. vs.Presbytery of New York City and later affirmed by the General Assembly PJC in May 2014 declared it unconstitutional to delegate power to a commission to make unilateral decisions regarding division, dismissal or dissolution of a congregation. All such actions must be voted on by the presbytery.
Citing the perceived unconstitutional nature of the motion, Mobley asked that it be withdrawn.
When asked for clarification on the constitutionality of the commission’s motion, AC Chairman Cam Murchison emphasized the need for expediency in the negotiations but did not address the constitutionality. The vote proceeded, and the motion passed.
A presbytery representative, observing that the bounds of constitutionality may have been crossed, requested that a study of the point take place and a report be presented at the next presbytery meeting, scheduled for Oct. 25.
The presbytery’s stance
Bert Sigmon, stated clerk for PWNC, indicated that the motion recommended and passed to grant such power to the AC was reviewed by individuals from (PCUSA headquarters in) Louisville responsible for giving opinions on the judicial process for the General Assembly, and they determined there were no constitutional issues with the motion.
“Our position is that the language of the motion is sound and there is supporting case law to uphold it,” Sigmon said. “We’ve tested it very thoroughly and received guidance from Louisville.”
He cited the McGee case, explaining that it involved the Presbytery of New York City following its implementation of a gracious dismissal process that did not provide for any way for the presbytery to exercise its constitutional authority to vote on a request for dismissal once a congregation had taken a vote to be dismissed with a sufficient majority.
“We do see a significant difference between the procedures. McGee makes dismissal automatic, and we disagree with that,” Sigmon said. “The Book of Order allows us to delegate the functions to the AC as long as we continue to have a final vote.”
He added that the matter will come back to the full presbytery for a final vote to meet the requirements of its dismissal process.
According to the report presented at the meeting by the AC, the action of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina preserved its constitutional authority for such a vote on dismissal by delegating it to a commission.
Engaged in the process
FPC-Hendersonville voted June 5, 2013, to depart the PCUSA and affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) after formally entering the presbytery’s gracious dismissal process in December 2012. PWNC appointed an AC to work with the North Carolina congregation in January 2013.
The sides have been engaged in negotiating a financial settlement for FPC-Hendersonville’s departure. The congregation also will have to change its name.
“The negotiating team for First Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville appreciates prayers for a swift and fair settlement,” said the Rev. Dr. Bill Campbell, pastor of FPC-Hendersonville.
Reasons for the motion
In its motion to the presbytery seeking authority to bring the negotiations and dismissal to a timely conclusion, the AC noted that the process should not continue until the October meeting.
The AC indicated it had hoped to bring the matter before the presbytery for final action in January, April and July but that did not happen. Allowing the AC to have such power to proceed without approval by the full presbytery would allow the process to end in a more reasonable time without the need for and expense of a called meeting.
Rationale in the motion indicated that FPC-Hendersonville had requested, through its attorney, to proceed with the aid of a mediator, which the AC motion alleged it had proposed at the beginning of the negotiation process only to be declined by the congregation seeking departure.
The AC proposed that the departing church submit its response to the last settlement proposal through its attorney to the attorney representing the AC to avoid a face-to-face session without further delaying the process.
The request of FPC-Hendersonville to be dismissed has been pending for more than a year. Also, members wanting to continue as First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville as a PCUSA congregation have been caught in limbo even though the presbytery has provided pastoral and worship leadership to them, albeit at an alternate location.
“This is a proactive way to get more work done in less time and hopefully with less strain on everyone,” Sigmon explained. “This is not just about the members facing the dismissal itself. The presbytery still has to understand that it has an obligation to support and assist the remaining members of the church who want to stay in the PCUSA.”