Can We Trust the Gospels?

Recent Posts

Past Posts Archived by Date

Search this site


Search this site


« The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 8 | Home | Mo Ranch . . . Only in Texas »

The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 9

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, September 26, 2008

Part 9 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last several posts I’ve been proposing a basic process for a congregation that believes God might be calling it to leave the PC(USA). This process includes the following steps:

1. Put on the whole armor of God.

2. Congregation leaders should communicate with leaders from other churches that have considered leaving the PC(USA), or have left, to learn about what was good and not good in their process.

3. Congregation leaders should communicate with the presbytery.

4. The congregation should engage in a discernment process that is prayerful, biblical, humble, open, truthful, loving, respectful, fair, and timely.

So what should happen next if a congregation goes through a process like what I’ve proposed and votes to leave the PC(USA). What should the congregation do? What should the presbytery do?

Let me add a couple of technical notes. In my opinion, a church vote to leave the PC(USA) should be at least two-thirds in favor for the church to take action. Moreover, the actual motion that a church would be voting on would not to be leave the PC(USA), but rather to ask their presbytery to dismiss them to another denomination. According to the Book of Order, an individual congregation does not have the authority to leave the denomination. Only a vote of presbytery can make this happen.

So let’s suppose that a congregation has gone through an appropriate process and has voted by a strong margin (more than two-thirds) to ask the presbytery to dismiss it to another denomination. Further, suppose the congregation asks the presbytery to allow the church to keep its property.

What should the presbytery do?

In fact, presbyteries have been all over the map in their responses. Some presbyteries have allowed churches to leave with their property, with no further financial obligation. Other presbyteries have required departing churches to pay a certain amount for the property, with the amount varying from a small percentage of assessed value of the property to the whole assessed amount. Other presbyteries have acted swiftly to oust congregations from their property, and have filed suit in secular courts to secure title to the property.

I believe that the ousting and suing option is inconsistent with Scripture, with PC(USA) polity, with the PC(USA)’s commitment to ecumenism, with our missional purpose, with the biblical call to grace, and with Jesus’ command to walk the second mile. I’ll have more to say about this later. So I am clearly in the “allow a church to keep its property” camp. But I don’t think its always right for a church to leave with its property and not give anything back to the presbytery.

For one thing, when a church leaves the denomination, this will cost the presbytery the loss of the church’s per capita contribution to the presbytery. In the case of a large church, this could amount to a substantial amount of money, perhaps the salary of a full-time presbytery worker. Moreover, many churches contribute mission money to their presbyteries. This too would dry up when a church leaves. Thus it may be appropriate for a departing church to continue supporting the ministry of the presbytery for a period of time to allow the presbytery to recover the loss of income.

For another, most Presbyterian churches began as mission projects of their presbyteries. In many cases, presbyteries invested money in the church property and/or initial buildings. Often these investments were repaid by the church to the presbytery. Even so, it seems to me that it would be right, at least in some cases, for churches to compensate their presbyteries financially if they leave with their property.

How should this be worked out? In a spirit of mutual love, grace, and charity. Specifically, here’s what I see as a truly Christ-like response when a congregation asks a presbytery to dismiss it with its property:

If the congregational process was appropriate, and if the vote was at least two-thirds in favor of leaving the PC(USA), the presbytery should vote to dismiss the church with its property. Plus:

• If the church owes money to the presbytery for loans, these should be paid off in a timely fashion.

• The presbytery should ask the church to continue to pay its per capita for a period of time, perhaps by a decreasing percentage. This should not be a requirement, but a request.

• The presbytery should ask the church to consider making some sort of gift to the presbytery to help it with its ongoing mission. The size of the gift should be determined by the church and should not be a requirement. (If a church has sufficient resources, I’d think of a gift that’s perhaps a tithe of the value of the church’s property. Obviously this would not always be possible.)

• The presbytery should reach out to the members of the congregation that did not vote to leave the denomination, helping them to find a new church home if they wish. Some will stay with their churches, or course, even though they’d prefer to remain in the PC(USA).

I can imagine that some people would not like my suggestion because it means the PC(USA) loses title to church property. But, in light of our denomination’s commitment to Christ and the kingdom of God, such a loss isn’t a big deal. It’s not as if a church is being dismissed into the Church of Satan, after all. A congregation that joins the EPC or the UCC or the RCA is still engaged in the ministry of Christ, and in a way largely consistent with our own mission in the PC(USA). We’re still fighting in the same battle, only on different fronts.

You might wonder why I think a particular church should be able to keep its property, especially if there are some members of that church who vote to remain in the PC(USA). Shouldn’t these members retain the property? Why can’t the departing members build new church facilities? Wouldn’t this be a win-win solution?

In some cases it might be. But in most cases of which I am aware, votes to leave the denomination, while not unanimous, are strongly on one side or the other. If at least two-thirds of a congregation votes to leave the denomination, the remaining group often does not have the resources (or the will) to keep the existing church afloat. Even if it stays together as a congregation and remains in its buildings, the remnant is not able to remain healthy.

Moreover, the departing congregation, if it must start from scratch when it comes to buildings, will have to spend a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money to develop new church property. During my sixteen years at Irvine Presbyterian, we had four capital campaigns and built two major buildings. This meant we had fewer resources to devote to ministry and mission. (Photo: The Sanctuary and Activity Center of Irvine Presbyterian Church, built in 1995-6).

So, though there may be situations when the kingdom of God is well-served by a departing congregation building a new church campus and a remaining congregation keeping the property, in most cases the mission of Christ would be enhanced by allowing the departing congregation to keep its property and helping those who are left in the PC(USA) find other churches to join. This might even give these other churches a helpful shot in the arm, financially and otherwise. So perhaps a win-win-win situation.

Ironically, or perhaps providentially, as I was working on this blog post today, I received an email from someone in the Presbytery of the Mid-South (covering parts of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri). He sent to me a statement that was recently approved by the presbytery: “Proposed Procedures, Guidelines, and Standards for Dismissing Congregations.” You can download a PDF of this statement here. It lays out in much detail a process very much like the one I have envisioned here, though with much more wisdom and attention to specifics.

In my next post in this series, I’ll look at two actions taken by the last General Assembly that relate to the issue of church property.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

3 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 9”

  1. Matt Ferguson Says:
    September 26th, 2008 at 9:17 am


    A tiny correction: In the early paragraph starting with “Let me add a couple” you have the sentence, “Moreover, the actual motion that a church would be voting on would not to be leave the PC(USA), but rather to ask their presbytery to dismiss them to another denomination.” I think you want reverse the words “to be” so it reads “would not be to leave the PC(USA)”. I only bring this up because I know many of us are saving your blog to use as resources for discussions in our churches.

    It may be due to the churches where I grew up and have served but I don’t think your statement “For another, most Presbyterian churches began as mission projects of their presbyteries.” From my experience most churches are so old they would have no direct link (or support) from the current denomination, or the one before it, or the one before it. And back when these churches started it was churches planting churches most often. I know the congregation I serve (180 years old) was started by members from a nearby church in another town and that this church helped start 3 others in other towns. Maybe it is different out in California where most Presbyterian Churches are not as old.

    Finally, while a church may vote 70 - 30 to transfer many times those who didn’t vote to transfer still want to be part of the local congregation and will go with the majority as their ties are to the people in their church family more than to a particular denominational structure. Thus, another reason why the majority should retain the property. Yes, you can find congregations where a bitter division has come about this is not so but for the most part I have heard the minorty wants to stay together as a congregation.

  2. Paul Becker Says:
    September 26th, 2008 at 7:31 pm


    For me, your posts have been a quiet place of reason in a maelstrom of confusion, vengeance, and conflict. Denominational leaders and Sessions should consider what you are saying. I believe that Jesus is in this place. Jesus is the eye of our hurricane. Peace be with you and thank you.

    There is another dimension of the church property issue that doesn’t quite fit into the flow of your thoughts… yet. It is the issue of “what happens after a dismissal vote?”

    In Pittsburgh Presbytery I have witnessed three actions to dismiss congregations. The wake of each dismissal was different in its level of intensity, acrimony, and reasoned debate. (For my Pgh colleagues, this is stated as an observation.) Each dismissal was marked by prayer. I commend those who were asked to pray after each dismissal. Prayers were offered to thank God for the witness of each church, to ask God for forgiveness, and to receive God’s grace to move on. Living into those prayers - especially the last one - has been a challenge to say the least!

    Mark, I think it is wise to move through a dismissal with a goal in mind. This “goal” is the reason for my comment. It would be noble and right to envision a worship service that involves the Dismissing Presbytery, the Receiving Denomination, and the Congregation being sent and received as a missional body of the Holy Catholic Church. I imagine a worship service that involves prayers of thanksgiving, charges, words of support, words of welcome, hymns, and a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I imagine that the property itself would be “decommissioned” by one branch of the Lord’s service and “recommissioned” by the other. This could be symbolized by a stone marker that displays the date of the congregations’ founding and its dismissal and reception date from one denomination to the other. Near the dates would be the symbol of each denomination, side by side. The monument would stand as a witness to God’s Holy Spirit power to redeem and bring new life to each body. And then, I imagine a reception hosted by the congregation as a way to demonstrate its willingness to offer hospitality to all in the name of Jesus.

    If this kind of “end” were in mind, I think it would help to shape the discussions leading up to dismissal. And in regards to our relationship with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, I think that taking the “high road” would go a long ways towards healing a breach experienced decades ago.

    By the way, the same kind of worship service could be used to receive congregations from other denominations.

    Mark, I’ve shared my thoughts with colleagues. Some have commended the ideal. Some prefer cynicism. Others prefer to grip more tightly to their “right” to be angry at congregations that talk about or take action to be dismissed. I believe that God isn’t done with any of us.

    I pray that the Lord would help us to dream dreams and grant us courage to live into them.

    Grace and peace,
    Paul Becker

  3. Paul Says:
    September 30th, 2008 at 1:10 pm


    What a beautiful suggestion. What a healing way to bring “closure” in a potentially painful situation.



Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

You must be logged in to post a comment.