Can We Trust the Gospels?

Recent Posts

Past Posts Archived by Date

Search this site


Search this site


« Preachers Challenge IRS by Endorsing Candidates | Home | The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 11 »

The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 10

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Part 10 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last post in this series I suggested that if a congregation has engaged in an appropriate process to consider leaving the PC(USA), and if the vote was at least two-thirds in favor of leaving, then the presbytery responsible for that congregation should, in most cases, allow it to leave with its property. I added that the congregation should consider contributing financially to the presbytery it is leaving.

Sometimes this very thing has happened. Often it has not. In fact, in many cases, either presbyteries or congregations have initiated legal action, thus taking the church’s business into the secular courts. This sort of thing can be quite expensive, not to mention costly in terms of energy, good will, and the image of the church, presbytery, and denomination. For example, when Londonderry Presbyterian Church in Londonderry, New Hampshire, voted to leave the PC(USA), it found itself in a legal battle with the Presbytery of Northern New England. In this case, the church initiated the lawsuit. The cost to the presbytery has been over $200,000 so far. One might assume that the congregation that left the PC(USA) had similar legal expenses. That’s a lot of money that wasn’t use for ministry and mission!

Note: The Londonderry Church voted 200-86 to leave the PC(USA) and join the New Wineskins Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. This presbytery was formed for former PC(USA) that join the EPC. Expensive legal fights ensued between the leaving congregation, the remaining congregation, and the presbytery. Late in the summer a settlement was reached in which the leaving congregation received a substantial amount of vacant property while the remaining congregation and presbytery retained use of the church facility and its land. From a distance, this seems fair to me. Too bad it couldn’t have been reached more graciously and inexpensively. (Photo: Londonderry Presbyterian Church)

In light of the legal costs they were incurring, the Presbytery of Northern New England sponsored resolution 03-21 in the PC(USA) General Assembly meeting last June. It stated, in part:

That the 218th General Assembly (2008) do the following:

1.  Provide funds to the Office of General Assembly for the purpose of sharing the cost of legal fees defending our Constitution against the New Wineskins Non-geographic Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and a group which has joined that denomination.

2.  From these funds, reimburse the Presbytery of Northern New England for half of all of its remaining legal costs up to a maximum of $185,000.

It was originally proposed that the denomination come up with $2,000,000 of funds for lawsuits against the New Wineskins Presbytery of the EPC and congregation that join the EPC. From this $2,000,000 the Presbytery of Northern New England would receive $185,000.

So, basically, the General Assembly was asked to approve a resolution that would fund lawsuits by PC(USA) presbyteries against the New Wineskins EPC presbytery, which is made up of congregations that, until recently, had been part of the PC(USA).

When the resolution was discussed in the General Assembly, someone added an amendment:

3. That the Office of the General Assembly establish and promote an Extra Commitment Opportunity (ECO) account that will be the source of this support and welcomes contributions from the whole church.

In other words, the funding for lawsuits would not be taken from the denominational budget, but would come from extra donations given precisely for this purpose. The amendment passed with 60% in favor. Then, after debate, the amended motion passed with 57% in favor (395 yeas; 286 nays; 9 abstentions)

In fact, the amendment stripped the resolution of its possible impact. It’s hard to imagine that people would give very much to support legal action against former PC(USA) churches and a fellow Presbyterian denomination. But, nevertheless, the fact that the General Assembly passed this resolution still astounds me . . . and distresses me. It seems, more than almost anything the General Assembly did, to strip away our mask of integrity and show the decaying heart of the PC(USA).

Or at least of part of the PC(USA). There were 286 people voting against the motion. Among these was Robert Austell, the Pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Austell was a commission to the 2008 General Assembly. He spoke passionately and persuasively against the “sue our fellow Christians” motion. Austell posted his testimony on his website:

Brothers and Sisters, please vote ‘no’ on this motion.

There is an immeasurable cost to what this motion proposes. And brothers and sisters, that cost is not the two million dollars, which is inconceivable enough as we struggle to support our missionaries. The immeasurable cost is the damage done to real human beings in our midst and to our witness to Jesus Christ in the world as “Christians sue Christians.” Friends, there is a better way!

One might say that we are experiencing a kind of divorce between some congregations and the PCUSA. In a local congregation, when a divorce is in process, a sharp attorney might advise one spouse to get all they can while the getting is good. But, as pastors and elders, we have a different perspective, particularly if one or both parties are Christian. We must be concerned that in these church dismissals, we function first as pastors and elders in Christ, rather than as legal counsel for one party. Brothers and sisters, there is a better way!

But what if a church initiates action? Jesus doesn’t call us to stockpile arms, but to lay down arms and shepherd his sheep. Will this encourage more churches to leave? On the contrary, grace is inviting and winsome while legal threat or retaliation further divides. In the big picture, litigation is a lose-lose situation for the people in our churches and it is deadly to the cause of Christ. Beloved, there is a better way!

I urge you to vote NO on this motion.

Way to go, Robert! Thanks for such a strong and wise word.

Tomorrow I’ll say a bit more about this, laying out my reasons for believing the the General Assembly acted unwisely in passing Resolution 03-21..

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

9 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 10”

  1. Evan Says:
    September 30th, 2008 at 9:06 am

    I am following this series with great interest. Every Christian denomination is facing these issues, although it has come to a crisis for the PC(USA) and the Episcopal Church. Every other denomination will either find a better way to proceed or find that schism is upon them. There are two thoughts I would throw out into the mix.

    The first is 1 Cor 6. “How dare you sue one another?” Paul asks in the opening verse. Indeed, there is a ministry of the Christian Legal Society that does mediation and reconciliation between Christians as an alternative to going “to law before unbelievers.” But the salient verse is verse 7: “Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged ? Why not rather be defrauded ?” Needless to say, the notion of being wronged or defrauded does not appeal to anyone, and I have heard many explanations as to why this chapter can be ignored as Christians sue each other, which is a sad thing.

    But that leads to the second thought: At what point does it turn out that we are NOT dealing with Christians on both sides, but perhaps only one (or neither)? Now, I am not talking about the glib explanation where anyone that disagrees with you obviously
    cannot be a Christian, so sue away. None of us can follow Jesus’ teachings perfectly– all of us will sin to some extent. But when the folks you are dealing with excuse some pretty flagrant sins as being wholesome and wonderful, certainly you are coming up to the line. And in my experience (certainly not dispositive), when I have encountered folks that are ignoring straightforward New Testament directives, it almost inevitably turns out that their conception of Jesus will disallow His divinity, His authority or His resurrection, and often all three. So the question would be whether our conduct would therefore change if the opposite parties do not hold to the vital fundamentals (oh, that word!) of the faith?

    Dr. Roberts is nothing if not methodical in his exposition, and I may be jumping the gun here— it may be these topics were already in the mix. But I am tossing them out for consideration, and hopefully they can be explored.

  2. Paul Srch Says:
    September 30th, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Mark, I’ve been following this series closely, although I’m not part of a Presbyterian denomination. It’s sad in so many ways to see the infighting and wrangling that seems to have become part of the way the PC(USA) does business.

    One question struck me this morning: how is the PC(USA) doing in terms of new church starts? Are they planting churches, and are they still planting them at the same rate, or has the rate of new church plants declined over the past few years?

    I’m a church planter myself, and would feel very uncomfortable starting a church with these kinds of political issues at the forefront. In good conscience, I could not hide these things from people looking to become part of our church family - but suspect that many non-churched people would shy away from a situation like this. Few would willingly join a dysfunctional family.

  3. Jim Berkley Says:
    September 30th, 2008 at 4:13 pm


    I greatly appreciate your series! Thanks!

    One thought came as I read about Londonderry: The presbytery didn’t have to incur any cost, had it so chosen. It could have declined to fight the congregation and simply let it go: “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?”

    The cost to the presbytery would then have been zero dollars. If the presbytery really felt for the remaining Londonderry members who did not leave with their congregation, the presbytery could have positively spent $200k or more not on court costs and attorney’s fees, but on a new church development in Londonderry. The money would have gone to ministerial salaries, mission, and bricks and mortar. Wouldn’t that be a good, positive story for the rest of the world to read?

    One other thing: Is the property the departing congregation received contiguous to the remaining church property and buildings? If so, will there eventually be two bummed out Presbyterian churches situated cheek to jowl in that small community? That could be interesting…

    Jim Berkley
    Bellevue, WA

  4. David Walters Says:
    September 30th, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    So far there have been 41 or 42 law suits filed. Only two of these have been bought by presbyteries. Many of the presbyteries that have had to answer suits brought against them have had to strain to pay their legal costs. Some have received help from their synods. I do not understand what the issue is in asking for help at the General Assembly level.

    In 1973, my presbytery went from 63 to 21 churches on the same day when 42 churches left for the PCA. those of us that were left had to deal with the debt left from several ncd’s, a camp facility and a retirement home project. We filed a judicial case, called Bagby, and won at the GAPJC. we then filed a civil case, which we lost, due to the Baptist judge who could not understand the case. there were not actions on the part those that remained after the exodus that cause any to those that left to do so. The lawyer, who was in my church, represented us for out of pocket cost. WE found a way to pay off our indebtedness.

    I suppose any given presbytery could decide not to answer a law suit and allow a local church to go where it will and the kingdom will arrive anyway. But that leaves little justice for those who are still here and those who came before us that built the churches that are leaving.

  5. Mark Roberts Says:
    September 30th, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    David: A couple of posts ago I suggested that departing churches contribute to the presbyteries they are leaving, taking into consideration the very things you mention here. That seems to me to be a “grace upon grace” sort of approach, rather than an adversarial one.

    I’m not happy with the fact that churches are suing their presbyteries. I fear they’re doing this preemptively, in many cases, because they rightly expect that their presbyteries will lower the boom. It would be so much better if churches and presbyteries would work together on a just solution that didn’t require lawsuits. We’re really in a mess these days, with so little mutual trust and cooperation.

  6. Viola Larson Says:
    September 30th, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    As you know our Presbytery and churches are reeling from property problems. The sad part is that gracious departure can be destroyed by human sinfulness. The first two Churches that left did sue first, but they dropped the suit when we came to a very good agreement which included them giving money to the Presbytery. That of course ended with the complaint filed by three pastors of one Church.

    This last Presbytery meeting when we voted to let a very small Church in Winters go, (and they were giving a small amount of money which the Presbytery was giving to a charity) one of those same pastors complained that the presbytery had not handled the motion correctly and he didn’t get to speak so we redid the motion. When he spoke he complained that the assets of the Church had not been listed. We of course did let the Church go but are still holding our breath that another complaint will not be filed. It will perhaps be okay because Winters I have been told has empty Church buildings that no one is buying. But this is such a shame

  7. Mark Roberts Says:
    September 30th, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    Viola: What a sad, sad situation! Ugh! Can’t get too much farther away from what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ.

  8. Clay Allard Says:
    October 1st, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Thank you for this series. This comment is not to defend, but to offer some detail on the General Assembly vote. If you look at the margin that voted for this motion, you will see it is almost identical to the margins for the moderator, the stated clerk, the removal of G-6.106b, and the Knox Presbytery overture. This was the makeup of this Assembly. The discussion of this particular overture was perhaps the least edifying and most shrill of all these overtures. Progressives held an absolute majority, and used it in the end for vengeance’s sake.
    A little bit of a taste of this Body: right before GA took up this overture, we saw a video presentation about the horrors of pastoral sexual abuse at a mission in San Francisco. Generations of young men had been abused. We were asked to give San Francisco Presbytery $100,000 to help defray the massive counselling costs for these victims. We voted it down.
    In the next item of business, we authorized $2,000,000 for lawsuits. I have never felt so heartsick in my life.

  9. The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 11 | Says:
    October 2nd, 2008 at 12:01 am

    […] even more unsettling. Though I was not there at this time, one of my blog readers was present. He describes the context for the vote on Resolution 03-21 this way: [R]right before GA took up this overture, we saw a […]


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.