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The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 5

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, September 19, 2008

Part 5 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In my last post I offered a theological critique of the Book of Order’s statement that all church property “is held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” This statement is in tension with what is said elsewhere in the Book of Order about Christ and his church. In the first chapter we say that:

God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body.

Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world . . . . . It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills . . . . (G-1.0010 a, b)

It seems to me, therefore, that any legal or ecclesiastical statement about the ownership of church property must always be qualified by the fundamental fact that all church property belongs to Christ, and that he can do with it as he wills.

This is surely implicit in the Book of Order, which may be why it isn’t included in the specific statement of church property being held in trust for the use and benefit of the PC(USA) (G-8.0201). If we were to ask those who actually wrote G-8.0201 about this, they might very well say: “Of course all property ultimately belongs to Christ, and it’s his to do with as he pleases.” At any rate, I think that’s what we in the PC(USA) should be saying today, in light of our own statements in the Book of Order about Christ’s headship, not to mention biblical statements concerning Christ’s lordship over all. After all, if our own bodies belong to the Lord and not ourselves (1 Cor 6:19-20), surely we’d have to say that land and buildings dedicated to him belong to him first and foremost. We’re just renters, in a way.

Actually, the Book of Order implicitly and explicitly allows that it could be right for a church to leave the PC(USA). In Chapter XV on “Relationships,” we state:

G-15.0203 Reception and Dismissal of Churches

a. When a particular church of another denomination requests that it be received by a presbytery of this denomination, the presbytery shall verify that the church has been regularly dismissed by the governing body of jurisdiction, and the advice of the highest governing body of that denomination dealing with relations between denominations has been received, and shall then receive the church in accord with its responsibilities and powers. (G-11.0103h.)

Dismissal of Churches

b. Similar procedures shall be followed in dismissing a particular church from this denomination to another. (G-11.0103i)

By recognizing that it’s okay for the PC(USA) to receive a particular church from another denomination into the PC(USA), we’re implicitly acknowledging that it can be right for a church to leave a denomination and join another. Our statement on the dismissal of churches makes this explicit. Though nothing in Chapter 15 mentions church property explicitly, it stands to reason that if a church can rightly leave a denomination, then it could be right for that church to leave with its property. If the PC(USA) recognizes that there are times when it’s right for a church to leave a denomination, surely we can allow such churches to leave with their property?

But could the PC(USA) ever let a church leave with its property since we state that all church property is held is “held in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination”? Yes, I think we could. I believe that the PC(USA) could, with freedom and integrity, allow churches to leave with their property. How? The argument would go something like this:

All church property in the PC(USA) is held in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination. Ordinarily, this means we strongly discourage churches from leaving the PC(USA) over minor differences of opinion. But when the differences between a particular church and the denomination are significant, when they involve central issues of theology and mission, and when these differences have led a church into a wise and godly process of discernment that has ended in super-majority vote of the congregation to leave the PC(USA), then it may very well be consistent with the “use and benefit of the PC(USA)” to allow a church to leave with its property. Why? Because the PC(USA) does not exist to advance its own cause or its own glory. It does not in fact exist for its own benefit. The PC(USA) exists to benefit Jesus Christ and to extend his kingdom. Thus hanging on the ownership of church property may not be for the benefit of the PC(USA) in all cases, given our greater commitment to Christ. Even as we confess individually that our chief end as human beings is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” so the chief end of all church property is God’s glory (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1). We recognize that it may not always be most glorifying to God for the PC(USA) to retain ownership of all church property.

Again, the case of a pastor leaving the PC(USA) helps by way of analogy. When I became ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament in this denomination, committed myself to the following (G-14.0405)

(5) Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

(7) Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

(9) Will you be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith, and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

westminster abbeyThese were strong commitments, not simply to the Church of Jesus Christ, but to the PC(USA) in particular (lower case “church”). But the PC(USA) does not insist that, as a pastor in the denomination, I can never move to another denomination and maintain my ordination. Even as we recognize the ordination of pastors ordained in sister denominations when they join the PC(USA), so we can dismiss pastors to other denominations with their ordination intact. We understand that that PC(USA) is not the whole Church, but only a church within the whole Church. Perhaps this same sort of logic would give us the freedom to release congregations with their property. (Photo: From inside of Westminster Abbey, where the Westminster Shorter Catechism was considered in the 1640s.)

Now I realize that, in fact, it often gets very messy when churches consider whether or not to leave their denominations. This is especially true when churches feel threatened by denominational bodies, as is often the case in the PC(USA), and for good reason. On many levels, the denomination has made it clear that it will evict churches that vote to leave the PC(USA), and pursue legal action against churches that seek to leave with their property. In response, churches have sometimes not involved their presbyteries in the discernment process, and have even sued their presbyteries preemptively. Surely something is terribly wrong with this picture. (Sin, for example.)

So what should happen if a church, which usually means its leaders, begins to think that it should leave the PC(USA)? I’ll sketch out the contours of what seems to me a godly, just process in my next post in this series.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

8 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 5”

  1. Ray Says:
    September 19th, 2008 at 8:54 am

    If we could figure out a way to re-structure the denomination into two groups - maybe under the same organizational umbrella, or maybe with each completely independent of the other - the leave/don’t leave question becomes moot.

    In the interest of good stewardship, there has to be a way to incorporate the whole pie into any dissolution. The property of a particular church is only part of the equation. What about the particular church’s interest in denominational mission and organizational assets related to those ministries? What about the particular church’s interest in endowment funds and other long term capital assets? After all, where do presbytery, synod and GA funds come from, except as a result of faithful and sacrificial giving by individual memebers of particular churches?

    One of the big issues for me is treating pastors with fairness and respect (I am a layperson, by the way, so I don’t have self interest involved here). I think it would be grossly unfair for a church and its pastor to go through the process of discernment that Mark will so graciously outline in his next post, and to determine that God is calling that congregation to another denominational home, only to find that their pastor is now totally without the pension/retirement plan that was promised to him by the PC(USA). If the move is legitimate, and not an act of rebellion, shouldn’t the congregation be able to carry with them ALL the benefits that they rightly paid for during the course of their existence in the PC(USA)?

    I believe that a division in the PC(USA) is on the horizon. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it should be done cooperatively by the whole denomination, with the involvment of all parties, so that every party’s interests are considered in the final solution. Grass roots, independent attempts to leave piecemeal will not result in an optimal outcome.

  2. Dave Moody Says:
    September 19th, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Again, kudos- thanks for blogging so clearly for the rest of the body.

    Ray, as I understand it, once a participant in the pension plan has been in the plan for three yrs, s/he is fully vested. If they should leave for the EPC, PCA, CRC, etc.. they will not lose anything they’ve already put in. They won’t be able to add to it,. But, upon retirement, they will receive checks from the PCUSA pension plan as per the formula of time served, ending salary, etc… in the PCUSA.

    Thats how I understand it- and again, I could be wrong.

  3. Ray Says:
    September 19th, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Like I said, I’m not in the plan so I haven’t checked it out. Maybe I should get my facts straight before I start going off on something. What was it that James said about tounges…or, by extension, keyboards?

    Thanks for the correction. I feel better about pastors’ financial security if they can be vested in the pension plan even if they break ties with the PC(USA).

  4. Dale Says:
    September 19th, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    I am not as sure that I think it is implicit that we are saying it is okay for a church to leave their denom or if we are really saying that if they do the “wrong thing” and leave, we would still accept them.

    I would liken that to performing a marriage for two people who were previously divorced. We are not saying it was right that they were divorced but God can still redeem the situation.
    Just a thought. I mostly agree with you but I thought it was an interesting train of thought.

  5. Mark Roberts Says:
    September 19th, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Great comments folks, thanks.

    Ray: Once a pastor is vested (not sure of how long), that pastor will receive whatever benefits he or she has earned. What I’m not sure of is how the pension program is overseen, exactly, and how this might relate to future denominational configurations. Others are much smarter than I am about such things.

  6. RevK Says:
    September 19th, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    Someone stated that if a member of a church decided to leave, a default position would be to discern the “why” of leaving (moving, theological reasons, personal reasons, etc.) and then to attempt to separate with blessings. However, if a session learned that a member wanted to transfer to a group outside the orthodox faith, I would trust that this session would discourage such a departure and recommend a likeminded fellowship. (Evidently, Dr. Roberts said that these relationships exist for PC(USA) pastors and other denominations [ELCA, UCC, etc.]) With any of these churches seeking to depart the PC(USA) has there been any conversation to this effect? Or is it only and always, “You must stay with us no matter what!”

  7. Mateen Elass Says:
    September 20th, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    As one ordained as a minister in 1982 in the UPCUSA and continuing on in the PCUSA until 2000, when I was called to a pastoral position in the EPC, I can tell you absolutely that my PCUSA pension was not affected, just frozen at its then calculated amount, updated from time to time by “experience apportionments” along with everyone else’s. My ordination was transferred into the EPC with no problem. Seven years later, in 2007, I transferred back into the PCUSA, having been called by God to First Pres, Edmond, OK, and was received by the Indian Nations Presbytery without having to be reordained. In other words, my ordination was recognized and accepted.

    On the subject of PCUSA churches leaving with their property, which I favor in principle, I wonder since the merger in 1983 how many churches have transferred into our denomination, and how many of them did so with their property. Is our denominational leadership speaking out of both sides of its mouth in saying that property should be held in trust for our denomination, but that shouldn’t necessarily apply to other denominations, such that we are more than happy to accept the church properties from other denominationally-formed churches to add to our coffers, as it were, but we refuse to let any churches leave us with the same dispensation. We want to have our cake and eat it too, perhaps.

  8. Adel Says:
    September 22nd, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    I believe that it is the just and right thing to remove the property clause. Why are we not fighting to remove this?


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