It took almost seven years, but a legal dispute between a presbytery and a congregation ended recently with the church receiving a clear title to its property valued at $11.2 million, without having to pay a monetary settlement.
On April 8, Windwood Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas and the New Covenant Presbytery reached an agreement through court ordered mediation in which the presbytery agreed to provide clear title for all property and assets of the church to its trustees by June 5, 2015 in exchange for the church dropping the suit. No money will be paid by either side, except that paid by each party to their respective attorneys.
Windwood had filed a lawsuit in September of 2008 to clarify ownership of its property and assets. The lawsuit challenged the trust clause in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s constitution that claimed all church property and assets were held in trust by the local churches for the benefit of the denomination. The church argued that the trust was improperly formed since the beneficiary of a trust cannot create that trust, and that Windwood had never agreed to form one. And, even if such trust did exist, the lawsuit argued that it was not irrevocable and Windwood revoked it.
“With this agreement, we are finally free from the last tie to a denomination that we have wanted to be away from for many years,” said the Rev. Kevin Rudolph, senior pastor of Windwood. “We look forward to focusing our full energies to sharing the good news of the Gospel in our area and around the world. This end is a new beginning for us and we’re excited to be moving ahead.”
A new beginning
The 1,000+ member church is moving ahead in a new denomination. In 2014, Windwood voted by 99 percent to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians after the presbytery refused to allow it to enter into the dismissal process unless it dropped the lawsuit.
“2014 was Windwood’s 50th anniversary year, and getting into ECO as a great way to celebrate. Getting clear title to our property is a great way to start our next 50 years.” Rudolph commented.
New Covenant Presbytery, however, has refused to recognize the disaffiliation vote. Now that an agreement has been reached, the presbytery has scheduled a vote to dismiss the church to ECO at its July meeting.
Rudolph said that Windwood will not be participating, or acknowledging the presbytery’s action. “We’ve happily been a part of ECO for almost a year now. What the Presbytery of New Covenant does or doesn’t do is not relevant to us. We have been, and will continue to focus on what God has in store for us in the future as we remain faithful to Him and His Word.”
This has been nearly a seven year process, said Rudolph, and “we’re very glad it is over. We’re glad to be out a denomination that thinks each local church exists to support a national church that is out of touch with the people in the churches and worse, out of touch with God’s Word. We feel like we didn’t leave the PCUSA, the PCUSA left us.
“It has been great to be in ECO where the national church recognizes that it exists to support the local churches and not the other way around. It’s been great to be in ECO and know we have a real connection based on common theological convictions. The trust level is so different in ECO compared to the years of mistrust and coercion we felt in the PCUSA.”
In the future, the church hopes to build out more of its acreage to accommodate the growth of the church and the area.
Windwood lost the first two rounds in court after the local court and the Appellate Court, both citing the principle of hierarchical deference — the principle that if the local church is part of a hierarchical denomination, the civil courts “defer” to the courts of the denomination — in their decisions.
Following the 2012 decision, Windwood filed a request for the whole appellate court (all nine justices, not just the three that wrote the opinion) to hear the case, but before it could rule on that motion, the Supreme Court of Texas acted in the Masterson case in August of 2013.
In that case, between the national Episcopal Church and the Fort Worth Diocese that had pulled out of the denomination, the Court clarified that church property disputes in Texas were to be judged solely according to neutral principles of law and defined specifically how that was to be understood. In addition, the Texas Supreme Court stated that this was a clarification of the law, not a new law and therefore would apply to cases prior to the clarification.
As a result, in January of 2014, the Appellate Court reversed its ruling in the Windwood case, voided the judgment of the Appellate Court and the lower court and remanded the case back to the lower court.
Windwood filed for summary judgment, but before the March 9 date set for oral arguments, the presbytery requested court ordered mediation to see if the case could be settled. The request was granted and the mediation was set for April 8, 2015.
Rudolph said that the Windwood congregation is “glad it is over.”
“We have been, and will continue to focus on what God has in store for us in the future as we remain faithful to Him and His Word,” Rudolph concluded.