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The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 2

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Part 2 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last post in this series, I offered some reasons why it is hard for a church, and therefore church members and pastors, to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA). One of the main problems for churches that might want to leave is that, according to PC(USA) polity, the particular church doesn’t actually have the rights to the property. Every bit of church property “is held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (Book of Order, G-8.0201). This means that if a church votes to leave the PC(USA), it might very well lose all of its property, unless the local presbytery allows the congregation to keep it. Sometimes presbyteries do; sometimes they don’t. And in some recent cases, when the presbytery does this, it gets in trouble with higher governing bodies. Most of the time, the PC(USA) wants to keep its property.

The legality of the “property held in trust for the denomination” clause is being challenged in a variety of state courts, as churches sue presbyteries to keep their property and presbyteries sue churches to evict them. Most recently, Kirk of the Hills, a large, formerly PC(USA) church in Oklahoma that is now an EPC congregation, lost its two-year legal battle to maintain its property. But the church will appeal the decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, so who knows how it will end? At any rate, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma has been victorious, so far, in its effort to oust the 2400 members of Kirk of the Hills, who, incidentally, paid the considerable expense of developing the property. But, as an attorney for the presbytery said:

“When a local church participates in, prospers from and enjoys the benefits afforded by the parent church, as has been the case here for more than 40 years, it cannot then disclaim affiliation when it disagrees with the parent body, so as to shield church property from the equitable or contractual interests of the parent church.”

No, I have no reason to believe that this attorney was being ironic.

As I begin to discuss the issue of church property ownership, I must lay my cards on the table. I feel a deep sadness concerning situations like this one. It might be because I was a pastor of a local church for sixteen years, a church that labored with great effort and faithfulness to build two buildings so that we might faithfully pursue our mission in Irvine, California. So I may very well be biased in this matter. But, whatever the reason, when I read about what has happened with Kirk of the Hills, my heart feels very heavy, with a good bit of anger mixed in. It seems incredible to me that we in the PC(USA), who also happen to be brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, would actually be fighting over property in this way. I just can’t imagine how it advances the cause of the kingdom of God for presbyteries to prohibit congregations from continuing to use the buildings they have, in most cases, worked so hard to build and maintain for ministry. Will the kingdom of God be better off if Kirk of the Hills is evicted? In most cases, it’s not as if presbyteries have thriving churches ready to use the vacated buildings. Moreover, I can’t believe that we Presbyterians think it’s edifying to the PC(USA) or helpful to our mission, not to mention the mission of God’s kingdom, to conduct our property fights in secular courts.

In conversations with Presbyterian leaders from various theological persuasions, I have sometimes said, “Why don’t we make it possible for churches to leave with their property if two-thirds of the members believe this is what’s right for their church? I don’t care if it’s a liberal church leaving a conservative presbytery, or a conservative church leaving a liberal presbytery, or some other situation. Why won’t we just let churches leave so they can continue their ministries?”

In my experience, most younger church leaders can envision the benefit of letting churches leave the denomination with their property. But most mature church leaders don’t think we should do this. Some point to our covenant connectionalism and shared ministry. Others say something like, “You can’t leave your family just because you want to.” Others point to the Book of Order as if it offered God’s Final Word on such matters. But other leaders have been more practical, responding with something like: “If we open up the door for churches to leave, hundreds will do so. This will devastate our denomination. Presbyteries won’t have the funding to continue operating, since many of the departing churches would be the larger, wealthier ones. Denominational finances would be in shambles. We’d have to lay off tons of presbytery and GA staff, and lots of missionaries. It would be terrible for the PC(USA).”

I don’t know if this fear is valid or not, though I think it probably is. If the PC(USA) changed the Book of Order to allow churches to leave with their property, I do expect that many (but certainly not all!) theologically conservative churches would leave. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the liberal churches in conservative presbyteries might follow suit, perhaps joining the United Church of Christ where they’d be free to pursue the mission they believe is right. And, yes, I expect that all of this would be very difficult for the PC(USA) in terms of denominational income.

But if this is true, what are we saying about our unity as a denomination? We can talk all we want about covenant communion and the missional benefit of unity, but it seems that, for tens of thousands of Presbyterians, what holds us together isn’t theology or shared mission or even a desire to be together, but property and money. Is mammon the glue that holds the PC(USA) together? Lord help us!

In my next post in this series I’ll explore further the implications of the PC(USA)’s claim to “own” all congregational property.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

21 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 2”

  1. RevK Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 1:52 am

    Exactly! I can’t imagine an “independent” church wanting to join the PC(USA) if they have to hand over the deed. In the ARP, it takes two subsequent congregational votes over a two year period before a church can leave — then the church may leave with everything (unless the denomination assisted with financing for building, etc. The church would have to pay that back.)

  2. Ray Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 5:33 am

    The one-sided way in which the PCUSA handles property is probably not the most ideal manifestation of Christian stewardship (as we are seeing now); nevertheless, it is the hand we have been dealt, so we have to play it as it is. Unless somebody thinks that we can change the rules at this stage of the game…

    Maybe somebody can comment on this: If a property dispute ends up in a civil court, and the congregation can demonstrate that it has consistently upheld the beliefs, practices, doctrines, etc. that were common to the PCUSA during that congregation’s life…but the DENOMINATIONAL hierarchy (not the particular church) deviated from established norms…can the congregation make the case that the property clause should no longer be valid? That the denomination left the congregation, rather than the congregation leaving the denomination? Or would the courts refuse to hear arguments about church doctrine?

  3. Thomas Buck Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 5:42 am

    Dear RevK:

    What’s an “ARP?”



  4. Jim L Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 8:24 am

    While our church (Kirk) lost in district court last week, you should know that there is a strong unity within the congregation. Spirits are high and while we are disappointed, we are not crushed. It is not a spirit of defiance; it is a spirit of carrying out the ministry in spite of the circumstances. We don’t know what the Oklahoma Supreme Court will do - we are not even certain of our arrangements with EOP for the duration of the appeal process (we should know soon). On Sunday our 11 AM worship was packed and lively. The congregation is energized and moving forward with its ministries - we are not sitting in neutral wringing our hands. Most of all we are looking forward for what the Lord has in store for us. We are continuing to stand firm.

  5. Jim Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

  6. Matt Ferguson Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 9:37 am

    I didn’t know the ARP’s process. It sounds much better than what we have.

    As I read your note there was something about your comments on liberal churches leaving conservative presbyteries that brought to my mind the idea of non-geographic presbyteries based on theological views so that a conserative church could belong to a conservative presbytery even though it is not within the geographic area (and vice versa). At least that way a church wouldn’t be leaving the denomination. Of course, such a move isn’t too different than the two Synod system.

    I have longed liked the point you make. (comment 2). I have thought that when a denomination makes a significant shift or radical change congreations congregations should be allowed the option of departing since the denomination they were a part of is now no longer in an important way.

    Of course, this means everyone needs to keep in mind the big picture that the PCUSA is not equivalent to the Body of Christ and simply because a congregation shifts to belong to another denomination or association doesn’t mean they are leaving the Body of Christ.

    If we adopt the new form of Government being proposed, I think it would change enough important things (allowing something like a per capita to be required for example) that churches should be allowed to depart because we would no longer be who we were in some significant ways.

    Also, I think a greater openness in allowing churches to depart if significant changes are made would make folks think long and hard about making radical changes.

  7. Dan Williams Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 11:39 am

    The proposed new Form of Government, which, by the way, has recently been revised following the 218th GA, will continue to propose changes that will allow for a more flexible polity. The new revision will be available very soon for study and response by sessions and presbyteries, with a deadline for response by March 31, 2008.

    However, there are two areas the 217th GA directed could not be changed by the Task Force: the ordinations standards (G-6.0106b) and the property trust clause. The existing language for both is the language of the proposed new FOG.

    Dan Williams
    Form of Government Task Force

  8. KWK Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Regarding the idea of the denomination leaving the church rather than vice versa, I believe there is legal precedent for that possibility. In the Lutheran denomination with which I am most familiar, divisions result in the possession of the property going to the group that holds to the historically-defined *theological* positions, not necessarily those that hold to the denominational affiliation (then again, the denomination itself is officially much more theologically uniform than the PC-USA, so this is currently a distinction without a difference).

    And regarding civil action between two parties within the church, I’d be interested to learn how either side deals with blindingly clear and obviously relevant Scriptural advice such as I Corinthians 6:7.

  9. Greg Darden Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 2:03 pm


    Did the 218th GA make the same requirements on Chapter 8 and Chapter 6? Did not the 218th, create a new FOG Task Force? So I am wondering if the current FOG TF is operating under the same constraints? You have the Old FOG TF Report and a charge to review suggestions and comments from across the church, but did the 218th tell the new FOG that they could change the language in Chapter 8 and Chapter 6? And do you know if their is a timeline for the Work of the nFOG TF yet and where it can be found?

    Greg Darden,
    Faith Presbyterian Church
    Germantown, TN

  10. Paul Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    When a member of our congregation disagrees with our church’s vision or the way we carry out ministry, and prayerfully determins that they cannot in good conscience remain in our church, what do we do? Generally, if they have acted graciously, we share our grief that we cannot continue to work and worship together, then bless them as they go to seek a different church home that is more in harmony with their vision, needs, or beliefs. We certainly don’t say, “You can go, but not unless you keep paying your pledge over the next five years!”

    So, when a congregation prayerfully decides that they can better carry out their worship and ministry within the context of a denomination more in harmony with their core values and beliefs, why are we less gracious to them?


  11. Whitey Bird Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Standing from a distance and watching my guess is in a few years the pcusa will look just about like the ucc. Most all of the “conservative” witness will be gone and the mostly empty buildings that remain open will be used for the glory of liberalism. God could perform a miracle and the denomination could return to it’s first Love but the chances look slim. My guess would be that God has seen enough of the worship of the “mammon” that is holding this bunch together and has decided to pour out His blessing in other places that have worshiping Jesus and reaching the lost with His Saving Grace as their mission.
    I wonder how God would work if the 2400 people of Kirk of the Hills just go down the street and start fresh without the temple and trust in God’s provisions?
    Thanks for the articles.

  12. Dan Williams Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 3:02 pm


    The 218th action was a referral, which essentially ties everything up — original 217th assignment, overtures/communications to 218th, etc. — and hands them over to the 219th GA. So, the mandates of the 217th GA have not changed.

    The 218th GA did not create a new TF as much as add three members of Assembly Committee 6 to the existing TF. I am one of three from the latter group. One of the existing TF members did not continue.

    There is no posting of a timeline yet. We are working to update and freshen the FOG TF pages on, but the TF does not have direct control over that.

    We are just about finished with a revision of the nFOG, which takes into consideration all of the data received through the 218th GA. This revised version, plus study guides, will soon be made available. (We are in the final editing/proof-reading stage now.) They will be available online (see previous paragraph) and as hard copy. In a sense, we will “launch” the next phase (study/response) of the process at the OGA Fall Polity Conference next week.

    Responses to the new revision will be sought from sessions and presbyteries from now until March 31, 2009. After receiving this input from the church, we will do a final re-write, which the 218th mandated be in the Stated Clerk’s hands by October 15, 2009.

    There will be two study guides. The first one prepares individuals for taking part in a group consideration of the nFOG. The second guide is for the group process, which ordinarily will occur either on the session or presbytery level.

    Dan Williams
    FOG Task Force

  13. MMB Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    As a church member who has participated in numerous capital campaigns nobody ever told me that my contribution was not for the local church but for the denomination. In real estate we call that full disclosure.

  14. Greg Darden Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Dan, thank you for the response about the nFOG TF. I would very much like to see the language in the minutes of the 218th as to the action as a referral. And then look closely at that. Now if the order from the 217th is still in effect for the TF, does that mean a presbytery could not overture the TF to delete or change chapter 8 or 6?

  15. Randy Jenkins Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Perhaps there is a growing understanding in the pews that for many in the leadership of the PCUSA it seems to be “all about the money.”

  16. robert austell Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 4:43 pm


    I had a similar reaction to yours. While there is no simple solution, I did make an appeal to the 2008 General Assembly that we find a better way to handle churches seeking dismissal w/property. The presbyteries have the constitutional responsibility to do this graciously… and the ability to release a church with property if they choose. Suing or counter-suing is not a requirement of the presbyteries by any stretch.

    I’d encourage any readers to check out GA item 04-28 and share the “gracious process” resolution with their presbyteries.

    Sorry I don’t know how to hyperlink - but you can cut-and-paste this:

  17. John Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Ray, You are right - this is the hand we have been dealt. How many congregations agreed to this? It was imposed by a GA and in an unseemly rush at that. I was an observer there and this was imposed more than debated.

  18. David Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Unless and until the proposed changes to the Book of Order are ratified by a majority of the Presbyteries, we can’t say that the denomination has “left us” (yet). However, if the changes are approved we are likely to see a flood of churches wanting to leave.

    If that happens it would be to everyone’s benefit if we could determine an equitable and orderly process for churches to disolve their relationship with the PCUSA that would avoid wasting energy and money in litigation and some of the heartache that comes from an angry “divorce”.

    For many of those wanting to leave, the best alternative would be to form a new denomination, which would only be possible if we are unified in our efforts to leave “in mass”. And if we are able to maintain a positive relationship with the remnants of the PCUSA it might be possible to continue to share in some of the common ministries of the church.

  19. Dan Williams Says:
    September 16th, 2008 at 8:12 pm


    Here is the action of the 218th GA:

    Here is the action of the 217th GA:
    The reference to ordination standards and the trust clause are in section b towards the bottom of the page.

    I would say that nothing prevents an overture from going to the 219th GA seeking to change either of these sections. Obviously, such was the case this year, as the 218th approved a change to G-6.0106b (subject, of course, to presbytery votes).

    The 217th thought it best to exclude these issues from the FOG TF work, to not make it more complex than it already is. Also, ordination standards seem to be before every Assembly in some form, and the approach of the GA is that the same issue cannot be before more than one committee at the same GA.

    Dan Williams

  20. RevK Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 2:14 am

    # 19. David,

    Why form a new denomination? Just choose a NAPARC member of your liking!

  21. Greg Darden Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Dan, thank you for your help inregard to nFog TF.

    There should be a provision in the nFOG that will allow individual congregations to depart if this is approved because this would be a radical transformation of our current polity.

    and Mark

    Your series of articles on the state of the denomination and the property issues are excellent commentary. Thank you.



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