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The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 3

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Part 3 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

Friends: Thanks for your many helpful comments. I’m glad this can be a place where people can interact freely and respectfully. I hope we can continue to discuss and even disagree in Christian love. Please understand that, though I read your comments, I often don’t have the time to comment on them.  I wish I did, but sometimes writing a blog post takes all the time I’ve got. 

In my last post in this series I began to consider the implications of the PC(USA)’s claim to “own” all congregational property. One implication is the possibility that what holds the PC(USA) together as a denomination isn’t so much theological conviction or covenant communion as property and money. This seems to be implied when people fear that letting churches leave with their property would lead to hundreds of departing congregations.

I realize that what I’ve just said doesn’t reflect well upon the PC(USA). I’m quite sure that there are hundreds of churches that are joyfully part of the PC(USA) and would never consider leaving. For them, the church property issue is moot. But as I try to understand what’s going on in this church property issue, I read things that deeply trouble me about the health of the PC(USA). Let me start at the foundation, with the statement of property ownership in the Book of Order. It reads:

G-8.0201 Property Is Held in Trust

All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

I understand that this language has a legal tone because it was intended to prevent churches from leaving the denomination with their property. But when I read the last clause, my theological conscience cringes. Should we say that church property “is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)”? Legally, this language may be defensible, some would say necessary. But is it theologically defensible? Is church property actually meant for the use and benefit of a denomination? Isn’t church property meant first and foremost for the use and benefit of the Lord? Shouldn’t we say this when we talk about church property? What if Christ, for his purposes and in his wisdom, actually wanted a PC(USA) church to join another denomination? What if it was actually better for some congregation to be allied with another denomination? Are we in the PC(USA) open to that possibility? Or are we certain that in every case the best thing for a congregation and for the kingdom of God is for church property to remain in the PC(USA)?

An analogy might be helpful here. When I became ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), I made many strong commitments to our denomination. But if I believed that God was calling me to be a pastor in a sister denomination, that wouldn’t be frowned upon or prohibited. In fact, my switch to, say, the ELCA would surely be blessed my presbytery, representing the whole PC(USA). The PC(USA) doesn’t believe it has some lasting and irrevocable claim on my services. I am not “held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). So doesn’t it make sense that we view church property in a similar vein?

Again, I get what the Book of Order is trying to do. And, in general, I’m not one to encourage churches or individuals to leave the denomination. In fact, I’ve never done so in my life. I’ve been a member of the PC(USA) (previously, the UPCUSA) for over forty years, and an ordained PC(USA) pastor for half of that time. Whenever members of my former church in Irvine would raise the issue of leaving the PC(USA), I’d discourage this idea. Nevertheless, I am concerned that the way the Book of Order talks about property is inconsistent with the true purpose of the denomination, and even with our basic convictions about the nature of the church.

Part of what concerns me about the statement that church property is “for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” is that it gets the order backwards. I have argued elsewhere that denominations exist to support, advance, and extend the ministry of individual congregations. That’s their primary purpose. Particular churches, after all, are on the front lines of ministry. At their very best, denominations help churches do their ministry faithfully and effectively. Churches do not exist to support and further denominational concerns, for the most part. Denominational interest in church property, therefore, should focus on the use and benefit of the individual congregation in its community, not the use and benefit of the denomination. If a church is considering leaving the PC(USA), what should matter most to a presbytery is the question of what is best for the particular church and its mission. The Book of Order gets things backward, in my opinion.

There may well have been a time when denominations were a primary instrument of ministry and mission. I have argued, in fact, that denominations have done many valuable things throughout the ages. (See my series: What’s Good About Denominations?) But almost everyone who studies church life today concludes that the age of denominationalism has passed. And, in my opinion, there’s no biblical argument for the necessity of denominations. Yes, churches will continue to be involved connectionally in ministry and mission. Yes, churches will gather for worship and communion. But future partnerships will be less and less rigid and institutional, and more and more flexible and organic . . . rather like the body of Christ, come to think of it.

In addition to my “getting it backwards” criticism, I have another, even more significant objection to the idea that church property exists “for the use and benefit” of the denomination. I’ll explore this in my next post.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

14 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 3”

  1. Matt Ferguson Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 9:19 am


    I have never thought of this issue in this way. Thanks for the insight.

    I do wonder about your statement near the end, “And, in my opinion, there’s no biblical argument for the necessity of denominations” and your follow up comments to that statement. I don’t see reflected in your comments the need for oversight / accountability.

    While I agree that the age of denominationalism is past, the new structures that emerge need to include some oversight / accountability as we see happening in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and in meetings of leaders in the early church.

  2. Kirkfriend Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Thank you for your comments regarding the Kirk of the Hills decision. From Tulsa, it feels like we have returned to feudalism and the worst abuses of the medieval church. Isn’t that one reason we had a reformation–to check the power of economically focused bishops? The Presbyterian form of government has no bishops! And we have (contrary to the presbytery’s press release) no Parent church. We do not send our money to Washington DC or to Rome or to Salt Lake City. And we certainly derive very little benefit from our “representative” presbyteries. The Kirk has a balance sheet showing the monetary contributions TO presbytery which are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the monetary contribution of presbytery to the local congregation has been $0.00. Yet now they own the land, the buildings, and the personal property within them which has been completely paid for by the congregation. Most people looking objectively at this including many in the local community that do not attend the church, see this as a grave, and almost frightening injustice.

  3. Dave Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    This church property issue is making me think of this issue a little differently. I’d been thinking of it as the pro-gay ordination people attempting to take over the PCUSA. Now I’m wondering if this property clause issue didn’t create the current mess we’re in by not letting the pro gay ordination churches leave with their property over the last 30 years. And now the shoe is on the other foot. Those who hold to the traditional PCUSA view on ordination are forced to consider the possibility of leaving the PCUSA without their property. What a mess for both sides.

  4. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    Matt: Good point. Yet the Jerusalem Council model suggests, not some permanent denomination, but a more fluid structure. The question of how accountability should happen is an important one.

    Kirkfriend: That is terrible. Ugh!

    Dave: Good point. How ironic!

  5. Robert Campbell Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    I hate to say this, Dave, but you may have noticed that very few pro gay ordination churches have ever sought to leave the denomination. I think there are a couple of reasons for this:

    1. The pro gay ordination folks are trying to take over denominations. The more mainline denominations they control the more they can say that they are mainline and that the rest of us are wrong.

    2. They believe in progress. They really believe if they just hold on long enough, (and educate the rest of us enough) that everyone will become convinced that they are right. They are succeeding at this because we Evangelicals have a tendency to leave rather than stay the course and because, like it or not, the public school systems are teaching our children that being gay or acting on one’s sexual desires, as long as they are consensual, is fine.

    The truly sad thing is that they may not only succeed in the PCUSA they may also make it illegal to even say that they are wrong. Consider the situation in Canada.

  6. Jim L Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    Important Update on the Kirk - the Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery has decided that we (the Kirk) can either buy the building (price TBA) or move out. No lease and no bond during the appeal. If we buy, we have to drop the appeal. If we want to appeal, we have to move out. I believe the Presbytery meets this weekend to decide. The EOP leadership has now sunk to a new low.

  7. Ray Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 10:46 pm


    What a sad situation, for both Kirk of the Hills and for your (former) presbytery. My prayers are with all of you.

    What if you offered the presbytery half the market value of the property in exchange for a free and clear title to it? That offer still favors the presbytery, since their cash investment in the property amounts to…let me see…ummm…ZERO…but it allows the congregation to keep its buildings and real estate without a costly and protracted legal battle. More importantly, it allows the mission in your community to continue uninterrupted.

    This kind of legal/ethical battle frosts me. It is not only unnecessary, it is destructive. It detracts from the mission of the Church, it injures individuals, and it leaves needs in the local community unmet.

    The disagreement in our denomination is utterly irreconcilable, and we need to face that fact. Otherwise, countless other Kirk of the Hills scenarios will be played out across the country. Attempts at peacemaking are laudable, but ultimately unproductive. We need to plan for a way to move forward as two completely new denominational entities, but we can’t do that until everyone accepts that we can’t remain as we are. How can we summon the entire PC(USA) together to decide once and for all that we can’t decide? That, for the benefit of everyone, we need to find a way to divide the PC(USA)? How do you call a “congregational meeting” for a whole denomination? Call for a constitutional convention? I dunno.

    But I do know that the PC(USA) will be of much greater service to our Lord as two distinct groups, each moving into its own sense of call. Being yoked together into a single denomination is way too time consuming. People only live for so long.

  8. Jim Berkley Says:
    September 17th, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    In 2004, Presbyterians For Renewal suggested an overture that would have slightly amended the language of the property sections in the book of order as follows:

    1. Shall G-8.0201 be amended as follows: [Text to be added or inserted is shown as bold.]

    “All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and for God’s wider purposes and glory through the extension of the Kingdom of God.”

    2. Shall G-8.0300 be amended as follows: [Text to be inserted is shown as bold.]

    “Whenever property of, or held for, a particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ceases to be used by that church as a particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in accordance with this Constitution, such property shall be held, used, applied, transferred, or sold as provided by the presbytery. Consideration shall be given to the best stewardship of the property for the good of the larger Body of Christ, and to the spiritual welfare of the worshipping community in that location.”

    Unfortunately, the overture was not successfully moved from concept to reality. I think such a set of amendments would still be a good idea and would better serve the true purposes of the church.

    Thank you for the wise and generous look at what should be the case concerning property. Greed and covetousness does not become a presbytery or the national church.

  9. Whitey Bird Says:
    September 18th, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    “For the use and benefit of the Lord!” What a novel idea. If that was the goal of the leadership of your denomination there probably wouldn’t be hundreds of congregations wanting out.

  10. David Walters Says:
    September 18th, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Kirkfriend’s revisionist history needs updating. The mission agency of the UPUSA and the predecessor of Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery bankrolled an NCD that became the Kirh of the Hills chruch. The UPUSA agency made a very favorable loan to acquire the land and erect the original buildings.

  11. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    September 18th, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Jim: Thanks. That is fascinating. I didn’t know about it.

    David: Thanks for the clarification. I would have expected something like this. Usually presbyteries help to launch new churches with some financial investment (buying the land, etc.). Often churches pay presbyteries back for such investments. In the case of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I know the presbytery helped launch us financially. Over the years, we invested far more in the presbytery than they had done in us, which is exactly how it should be in a healthy system. We were happy to invest in presbytery ministry initiatives. But I do think that it’s a hard case to make in most situations that the financial investment of a presbytery in church property comes anywhere near the investment of the congregation in that property, not to mention the congregation’s contributions to the presbytery.

  12. Jim L Says:
    September 18th, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Mr Walters -

    The Kirk repaid the loan years ago and has paid every penny on the property ever since. If you paid off a mortgage, does the bank still have any rights to your house? Of course not.

  13. Dave Says:
    September 18th, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Robert, Given that “very few pro-gay ordination churches have ever sought to leave the denomination” I’m back to thinking the pro gay ordination folks want to take over the PCUSA. I wonder what the pro gay ordination churches would say today if the PCUSA offered to let them go with their property. Also, I wonder what percent of the churches would leave.

    I wish we’d just split now, and move on with our missions. Those who’ve been in ministry the past 30 years deserve the chance to go to a GA without having to dealing with this issue.

  14. Kirkfriend Says:
    September 20th, 2008 at 7:54 am

    Mr. Walters–The date on the quit claim deed to the Kirk’s property is 1969. On the balance ledger that leaves a $0.00. The deed also predates the formation of the PC(USA) (1983) and its trust clause.


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