A historic Delaware church that disaffiliated from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in December 2012 came to an agreement with its former presbytery to end a property dispute and avoid extended litigation.
The 318-member White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church (WCCPC), founded in 1721 in Newark, Del., as one of the first Presbyterian churches in the United States, and New Castle Presbytery (NCP) agreed to a settlement June 5 that was approved by Delaware Court of Chancery Vice Chancellor J. Travis Lester. The sides signed the agreement and closed it with a payment of $220,000 from the congregation to the presbytery.
In exchange for the financial compensation, New Castle Presbytery drops its claim that it owns the property, allowing White Clay Creek to retain its use moving forward as a part of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
“It had always been the desire of the White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church to avoid litigation in the first place and settle the case reasonably as soon as possible,” said Lloyd J. Lunceford, of the Baton Rouge, La., law firm of Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips, one of the attorneys who represented the Delaware church. “The leadership of White Clay Creek obviously feels this settlement is a favorable one that’s financially feasible and that will allow it to freely pursue a new future to which they believe they have been called.”
John Bard, clerk of session for WCCPC, echoed Lunceford’s comment.
“We were always looking to settle, but we had to settle on some amount that was affordable for the church,” Bard said. “Obviously, it’s more than we would like and less than the presbytery would like, but it works for both. We all are meeting our obligations.”
The Rev. Barry Gray, interim head of staff for WCCPC, said, “We feel this is a positive development with the presbytery and are grateful to the Lord for what has taken place.”
New Castle Executive Presbyter Jim Moseley declined comment when contacted via email by The Layman.
A settlement rather than extended litigation
Calling it a “fairly gracious settlement,” Bard said goodwill on the part of presbytery leadership led to a return to the negotiating table that resulted in an agreement both sides could live with moving forward.
“There were some things that happened in the past we wish would not have happened, but a settlement was presented that each side felt it needed,” he said. “There was some goodwill among the presbytery leadership to resolve this.”
The agreement between the parties came after an April 30 hearing in which NCP asked Laster to render a summary judgment in the matter, which stemmed from the presbytery’s assertion that the WCCPC property was held in trust for use by the PCUSA and arguments by its attorneys that the congregation was seeking departure from the denomination because of the 2011 passage of Amendment 10A and its language allowing the ordination of gay clergy.
Responding to WCCPC’s assertions that multiple deeds show the congregation owned the property and that the matter involved civil rather than ecclesiastical issues, Laster agreed in a bench ruling to grant the congregation’s request to strike the lawsuit’s allegation that Amendment 10A was the reason for seeking departure. He also beseeched the sides to settle the matter before taking the case to trial.
“Positive institutions like churches are not in the world to fight internally or with each other. You are in the world to do good works and help people. I think it would be much more beneficial if there were some way you could devote your resources to doing good works in the world,” Laster said.
Lunceford acknowledged the judge’s response at the April hearing and the presbytery’s corporate board’s involvement as factors in the negotiation of a settlement.
“The judge’s comments in response to what he heard at the April hearing and subsequent greater involvement in the negotiation process by the business men who serve on the presbytery’s corporate board helped facilitate a more pragmatic approach that led to a mutually agreeable settlement,” he said.
More than gay clergy ordination
Bard explained that the ordination of gay clergy was a symptom rather than a cause for WCCPC’s decision to seek dismissal and then disaffiliate from the PCUSA.
“Our core issue was the authority of Scripture and whether it would be viewed as authoritative,” he explained. “Certainly, 10A was a part of that, but it was more a symptom than the cause. There was a desire to be in a denomination where the authority of Scripture was honored. We saw that in ECO with its concept of fostering an environment of developing disciples for Christ, which is clearly in line with our vision statement.
“This was not just about leaving but about where God was calling us to be. We felt a strong call that (ECO) was the kind of environment that was consistent with where God was calling White Clay Creek. This was not just about trying to get away (from the PCUSA).”
Attempting to reach an agreement
WCCPC tried to work through the presbytery’s discernment guidelines to be dismissed from the PCUSA and had a congregational vote in September 2012 that showed the membership in favor of doing so.
However, the WCCPC session was notified in November 2012 that the Presbytery Council rescinded those guidelines, and there was a recommendation approved at the Dec. 1, 2012, presbytery meeting to form an Administrative Commission (AC) with power to assume original jurisdiction of the church if needed.
Later that month, the WCCPC congregation voted 96-2 to disaffiliate.
“We took immediate action to maintain control of the governance of our church,” Bard said.
The sides tried to reach a settlement into the spring of 2013 through a series of offers and counter offers made during a three-month status quo agreement before reaching an impasse that led to court filings by both parties in June 2013.
Three months later, NCP adopted a new policy for dismissing congregations.
Trusting God during a period of uncertainty
Bard said the WCCPC session merely followed God’s call in leading the congregation out of the PCUSA.
“As a session, the view we took was that it was God leading us to ECO, and we always believed God would provide what we needed to continue His mission,” Bard said. “We didn’t really know if it would be with our property or even with our name, but we know that God is sovereign.”
Gray, who arrived at WCCPC in August 2012, noted the leadership displayed by the session in working through the process of dismissal/disaffiliation and litigation before reaching an agreement.
“My job was to keep the church doing ministry and not forgetting what Jesus called us to do,” he said. “This was an effort led by the session, and I think they did an exceptional job guiding the congregation.”
Bard indicated there was simply a need for some sort of resolution to help the congregation know how it needed to act moving forward, and there is a sense of joy now in being able to move on to the next chapter in the life of the church.
“We expect that ECO will be a place of disciple building, church planting and being true to essential tenets, and we’re happy to be moving into the next phase,” he said. “This process and court action has not been a time of just treading water. We’ve seen growth in our ministries and a time of maturation for our church to learn what it means to be fully dependent on God.
“We hope the lessons we have learned of God providing in a time of uncertainty will help us as we move forward.”
Gray added, “God’s doing some great things here, and we’re very excited about what the future holds.”