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The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 12

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, October 3, 2008

Part 12 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

I ended yesterday’s post by promising to discuss another stunning move by the General Assembly in relationship to the church property issue. I will fulfill this promise on Tuesday. Today and Monday I want to focus on a breaking story from Oklahoma. (If you’re new to my blog, I should say that my weekend blogging is lighter and more inspirational. I get back to heavy lifting when the week starts.)

According to the Tulsa World, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma has offered to sell the property where the Kirk of the Hills had been meeting for forty years to Kirk of the Hills for $1.75 million. Here’s a bit of history: Two years ago, Kirk of the Hills, a 2500+ member congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, voted almost unanimously to leave the PC(USA) and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The congregation intended to keep its well-developed property, which it had built at its own expense. Apparently, the presbytery had helped Kirk of the Hills get off the ground financially forty years ago, but these costs had been repaid over the years. Nevertheless, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma demanded that the congregation vacate the property, even though the presbytery had no congregation that needed the property, and Kirk of the Hills had no other property to use for ministry. An extensive court battle ensued, and in August, an Oklahoma judge ruled that the presbytery did own the property. Kirk of the Hills promised to appeal the decision. (I have no idea how much of Jesus’ money got burned up in this litigation, but I bet it was plenty.)

The presbytery’s offer to sell the property to Kirk of the Hills was not without strings attached, even in addition to one and three-quarters million financial strings. If Kirk of the Hills buys the property, the congregation must also drop its legal appeal. But if the church appeals and wins, it owns the property without having to pay the presbytery. If the church does not appeal and pays what the presbytery demands, it owns the property and the presbytery has a whole lot of money. Moreover, the legal precedent would help to intimidate most other churches who might think about challenging the financial empire of the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma.

The Rev. Greg Coulter, the leader of the presbytery, said that the $1.75 figure was “a very fair and reasonable settlement” since the property was worth more than this figure. He didn’t mention that it was worth so much because the congregation built the buildings at their own expense. But it could be that Coulter is speaking truly here. If, for example, the property, with its buildings, is worth $17.5 million, then the presbytery is asking for a tithe of its value, which impresses me as a fair request. If the property is worth more, the fairness increases; if less, it decreases, as far as I’m concerned.

Rev. Coulter went on to explain what he and the presbytery were trying to accomplish:

“We’re trying to find an appropriate balance between our constitutional responsibilities as members of the Presbyterian Church USA and our pastoral responsibilities toward our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been partners in ministry for more than 40 years with us.

I want to parse this statement carefully, since it helps us to understand the presbytery’s motivation. Rev. Coulter says that the presbytery is “trying to find an appropriate balance between our constitutional responsibilities . . . and our pastoral responsibilities.” He assumes that constitutional responsibilities go on one side of the scale and pastoral responsibilities go on the other. That creates the balance. In the way Rev. Coulter and the presbytery see things, their constitutional responsibilities are opposed to their pastoral responsibilities. They seem to know that their actions are not helpful to the church, but they defend these actions as being demanded by the PC(USA) Constitution.

If this is true, doesn’t it call into question the rightness of the PC(USA) Constitution? If loyalty to the Constitution means that presbyteries have to do what which is not pastoral, that which is not best for congregations, then shouldn’t the Constitution be changed? Do we want to have a church Constitution that puts institutional loyalty ahead of pastoral care?

Frankly, I think Rev. Coulter and his colleagues should re-read the PC(USA) Constitution, and not just the part about church property held in trust for the denomination (G-8.0201). Consider what is said in our Book of Order about the responsibilities of a presbytery (G-11.0103, italics added):

b. to coordinate the work of its member churches, guiding them and mobilizing their strength for the most effective witness to the broader community for which it has responsibility; . . .

f. to provide encouragement, guidance, and resources to its member churches in the areas of leadership development, church officer training, worship, nurture, witness, service, stewardship, equitable compensation, personnel policies, and fair employment practices; . . .

g. to provide pastoral care for the churches and members of presbytery, visiting sessions and ministers on a regular basis; . . .

i. to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches in consultation with their members; . . .

j. to control the location of new churches and of churches desiring to move; . . .

Also, through its Committee on Ministry, the presbytery offers special care for churches in hard times (G-11.0502, italics added):

i. It shall serve as an instrument of presbytery for promoting the peace and harmony of the churches, especially in regard to matters arising out of the relations between ministers and churches. Its purpose shall be to mediate differences and reconcile persons, to the end that the difficulties may be corrected by the session of the church if possible, that the welfare of the particular church may be strengthened, that the unity of the body of Christ may be made manifest.

From these passages, it’s clear that pastoral care for churches is not something to be pitted against constitution responsibilities. Indeed, caring for congregations, wanting their best, and even sending them to other denominations is an explicit constitutional responsibility of the presbytery. The presbytery is expected by our Constitution to do far more than make sure church property stays in the PC(USA).

Furthermore, I would encourage Rev. Coulter and his colleagues to read, not just the chapter in the Book of Order on presbyteries, but also the first four chapters of the Book of Order. These chapters place our whole ministry as a denomination within the larger work of God in the world. We’re not in the business of building a denomination, but serving God by participating in his mission in the world. Therefore, if it’s in the best interest of a congregation and its mission to keep its property when it moves to another denomination, then it could be completely constitutional for the presbytery to release that congregation, property and all. There is no demand in the Constitution that a presbytery must hang onto the property when a church leaves, though there could be situations when this would be best (as in a close vote of a congregation, or in a case where another church could use the vacated property, etc.).

Moreover, as I’ve explained earlier in this series, the PC(USA) exists under the authority of and for the mission of Jesus Christ. All church property belongs truly and ultimately to him, to be used for his purposes. So Rev. Coulter and his colleagues in the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma are not in any way bound or encouraged by our Constitution to kick Kirk of the Hills out of the property they themselves developed, if that property would be well used for that congregation and its mission, even when it is an EPC church. Surely the leaders of the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma would acknowledge that the EPC is part of the kingdom of God, and that an EPC church belongs to Jesus Christ. If a church were trying to sell its property to a commercial enterprise or to a pagan cult, then the presbytery would do well to prevent it. But, when I last checked, the EPC is pretty much like the PC(USA) in the basics of faith and mission. In fact, to my knowledge, no denomination is closer to the PC(USA) than the EPC.

For many reasons, I would argue that a balanced reading of our Constitution makes it clear that there is no need to pit constitutional concerns against pastoral concerns for a congregation. The presbytery is constitutionally compelled to do what’s best for its congregations and their mission, and I don’t see where this responsibility ends just because a congregation moves to another limb of Christ’s body. If a presbytery has another congregation that needs and can use well the property of a departing church, then it might have a good argument for hanging onto the property. But if a presbytery doesn’t have such a congregation, if it’s planning to rent or sell the property, and if the departing congregation will be able to use the property in the mission of Christ, then, I believe, the Constitution of the PC(USA) directs the presbytery to let the church go with its property.

I’ll finish up my response to this story on Monday.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

19 Responses to “The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 12”

  1. RevK Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 1:43 am

    This reminds me of a fellow church planter in my denomination (ARP) who was planting in a city where the local PC(USA) church had been without a pastor for a very long time and was in steep decline. This church planter was invited by the PC(USA) congregation to rent the facility for his services. When that church became more acquainted with this pastor and his denomination, the remnant congregation there decided to join the ARP. The PC(USA) Presbytery simply signed off on this arrangement as an appropriate decision. That’s a great story about the kingdom!

  2. Toni B Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 7:55 am

    And we wonder why Busters and Mosaics have a problem with Christianity…we wonder why these folks, if they believe at all, are doing church in a box or in private homes…alas we wonder why our denomination is dying…look no further.

  3. Ray Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 8:59 am

    According to the World Council of Churches 2007 Financial Report, pages 38-49, the PC(USA) was ranked 10th out of 369 contributing churches/organizations worldwide. We gave more to this cause than any other contributor in North America; in fact, we gave 20% of the North American total. The absolute numbers aren’t important, it is our commitment to the WCC relative to our sister denominations that I am emphasizing.

    My point is this: Regardless of your opinion of the WCC, isn’t the PC(USA)’s commitment to ecumenism obvious? Doesn’t it seem inconsistent to place such a high regard for common fellowship and shared ministry among sister branches of the one true Church (even extending to common worship with Muslim and Jews, as we also saw from this year’s GA)…and yet, at the same time, to say that we will forcefully oppose any attempt by a PC(USA) congregation to faithfully pursue God’s call to unite with a sister denomination?

    Seems that we want to have it both ways here…

  4. HenryH Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 10:34 am

    According to St. Louis County tax records, the Kirk of the Hills owns three pieces of property with a combined assessed value of $1.8 million. That’s considerably lower than the appraised value of just under $6 million. I have no idea how realistic that $6 million is - the numbers appear to have been the same a year ago. In any case, either number is considerably lower than the $17.5 million you thought would make the presbytery’s request reasonable.

    Here’s where I found the information. Isn’t the internet fun?

  5. Jim L Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Mark - thank you for a very insightful analysis of the situation.

    Henry - wrong church, wrong denomination. You are thinking of Kirk of the Hills in St.Louis, which I believe is PCA. This is about Kirk of the Hills in Tulsa, OK, which was PCUSA and is now EPC.

    Estimates on the property vary widely. Sale value may be $4 - 5MM. That is what a large methodist church one mile away sold for a few years ago. New construction would probably be close to $20MM ($200/ft. @ 100,000 sq ft).

    A significant complicating factor regarding settlement is the ability for others outside of the EOP to interfere by filing a complaint after the settlement is executed. So, a settlement is not really final, despite the best efforts of a congregation to make it final.

  6. Mark Roberts Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Henry: Thanks for the information.

    Jim: Thanks for the clarification and additional information. Sigh!

  7. Jim Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    Neither side is say much about appealing. If Kirk appeals EOP wants:
    $2.5M Rent
    + $52K Cash (at time of leaving)
    + $500K Legal fees (about)
    + ?? breach of contract
    $3M - $4M (10% bond fee=$300,000)

    On Fri 10/03, Kirk is going to place a hold on the property, like EOP did, in case of Appeal. So EOP can not sell it.

  8. Matt Ferguson Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 4:57 pm


    You are far kinder than I would have been if I attempted to write on the situation at Kirk of the Hills. (I live in Illinois, not OK.) I cannot even write a sort comment here on the leadership of that presbytery without getting out of bounds with my comments, and I have tried a couple of times just now. I am betting there are many folks who, like me, just as strongly repulsed by the presbytery’s actions as I do. Thus, you ability to write this critique as nicely as you did is a testiment to your being more mature in the faith than I.

  9. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    October 3rd, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Matt: You may be interested to know that you are reading what is very much a second draft. My first draft was much angrier. But then I took a long walk and had time to pray. I realized that I was not showing to the presbytery the kind of Christ-like love I wish they were showing to Kirk of the Hills. So I had to repent and rewrite. I don’t know that this says too much about my maturity, other than I know I need to take time to pray before I shoot off my mouth (or fingers).

  10. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    October 4th, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Ray: Great insight about the WCC and the PC(USA). How ironic and sad that we claim to be so ecumenical (some would say “way too ecumenical”), yet are willing to sue churches that associated with the EPC, the denomination closest to the PC(USA) in theology and made up, mostly, of former churches in our denomination.

  11. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    October 4th, 2008 at 10:54 am

    The reasons why a Presbytery ought NOT be too insistent on retaining a departing church’s property seem obvious. What I would really like to see is some analysis of why the part of the Book of Order that deals with property being held in trust by the presbytery for the denomination (which I noted that you cited, but did not quote) is even there in the first place. It seems to me that there are likely intentions OTHER than just making sure a property isn’t used by some cult.

    In any event, I want to be fair to the presbyteries as much as I do to departing congregations, and to do that I need to try to understand why that rule is there in the first place. Right now, I simply don’t get it.

  12. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    October 4th, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Am only now discovering that this post is part of a longer series, and that some of these questions are dealt with elsewhere. My apologies.

  13. Al Sandalow Says:
    October 5th, 2008 at 1:02 am

    I find it odd that I might take the PBYs side here, since I have long assumed that if I ever got involved in a property fight, I’d be the one leaving.

    I think what needs to be remembered here is how the Kirk started all this. I think a church ought to be able to go through a fair and reasonable process to leave the denomination, but one that also gives the PBY fair and complete access to the congregation to present their side.

    The good folks at the Kirk simply decided to leave, said “goodbye” (without thanking them for all the fish) and thought that was a sufficient and fair process. Frankly, if that happened in my very evangelical Presbytery, we wouldn’t allow it either. Churches can’t just walk away, thumbing their noses as they go. That’s not fair either. IMHO, what they did was arrogant.

    I think the Kirk deserves a better solution, but it has to be said that they are in the position they are in because of their unwillingness to go through the kind of process that many other congregations have gone through when they left the denomination.

  14. Viola Larson Says:
    October 5th, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    Al, I could be wrong, often am, but isn’t it true that the presbytery filed a lien against all of the churches in that presbytery before the church filed the case? I am not justifing anything but I don’t think the Kirk moved first.

  15. Matt Ferguson Says:
    October 5th, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Viola is right that the presbytery acted first. Not just against the Kirk but in filing for all church properties held by all churches in their presbytery—and doing so without telling the churches. Not a very good trust building exercise.

    But just because your brother or sister wrongs you gives you no right to wrong them back—and that would apply to either side. I think if both sides would be honest, they wish the could go back to the beginning and move through this process again. The reality is, they could back up and have a do-over if they both so desired. God is all in favor of such things.

  16. George T Says:
    October 5th, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    I am just curious. But, aren’t staff/leadership of Presbytery being paid by assessments from membership churches? If that is the case, wouldn’t there be conflict of interest in regards to do the “right thing” here in being graceful while balancing self interest? Fear is the anxiety from unknown, which can led to anger. Kirk being the largest church in EOP would elicit a lot of fear in leaving because it could leave a huge hole in the EOP budget structure, if my assumption is correct, and could led to loss of jobs and programs. Wouldn’t that explain some of the actions on the Presbytery, which appeared to be quite angry? Church property issue is the only leverage that Presbytery has in keeping the membership church at Presbytery for continuity sake. If member churches can come and go at will, wouldn’t that drive the budgeting process at Presbytery crazy? Perhaps someone smarter than me can figure out a way to resolve all these issues of Presbytery continuity and apparent conflict of interest.

  17. Al Sandalow Says:
    October 5th, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    >But, aren’t staff/leadership of Presbytery being paid by assessments from membership churches.
    George, these assessments (we call the “per capita”) are optional. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the Kirk was probably not contributing this gift.

  18. Jim L Says:
    October 5th, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    A couple of quick summary clarifications from an individual Kirk member’s perspective:

    1. We (the Kirk) were concerned that if we entered into the official dismissal process that there was a strong likelihood that our session and pastors would be dismissed. Remember, we acted not long after the Louisville papers came out, asked the EOP to remove the lein, and they declined. The only way at this point to remove the lein was a quiet title suit (which we lost last month).

    2. For as long as I can remember (20+ years) the Kirk had designated all per capita giving to missionaries and not to the general operating fund. I am not certain if we stopped per capita in the most recent years (up to 2006), but I don’t think so.

  19. HenryH Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Jim L wrote: “Henry - wrong church, wrong denomination”

    And I thought I was being soooo clever, too. Well, thanks for clearing that up for me. Next time I’ll pay a bit more attention to the details. Tulsa County’s land records do not seem to be freely available on the Web.


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