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The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 14

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Part 14 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In recent posts I’ve argued that the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma should allow the Kirk of the Hills to keep its property even though it has left the PC(USA) and joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. I’m not just singling out this one presbytery, however. I have made the case for a presbytery allowing a church to leave the denomination with its property if the church’s process is appropriate and if the vote of the congregation is at least two-thirds in favor of leaving.

One might object that I’m not being fair to presbyteries and their leaders. After all, they believe, rightly, that the Constitution of the PC(USA) states that all church property is “held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S. A.)” (G-8.0201). They interpret this to mean that presbyteries should seek to keep congregational property within the denomination, even if this requires costly court battles. Though I have argued that the Constitution of the PC(USA) actually gives plenty of room for dismissing congregations with their property to other denominations, my view isn’t dominant among presbytery leaders. So, for them, keeping property in the PC(USA), or making sure the presbytery is compensated financially when a departing church keeps its property, is a matter of Constitutional duty.

Moreover, one might also object that I am not seeing things from the perspective of the presbytery. After all, I have been a pastor of a congregation, not a presbytery official. I may not realize how discouraging it is for presbyteries to lose congregations, how contrary to a presbytery’s mission, and how costly in terms of mission dollars. Currently, the average PC(USA) church contributes about $20.00 per member to the presbytery, of which about $5.00 goes on to the General Assembly. This means if a church the size of Kirk of the Hills (2000+ members) leaves the denomination, the cost to the presbytery is would be more than $30,000 a year. (Note: in my suggested process for a congregation that leaves, I argued that a church should gradually wind down its contribution to the presbytery, and consider a special gift besides.)

It’s true that I have never been on presbytery staff, nor held a leading role in a presbytery (moderator, vice-moderator, etc.). But I have been active in two presbyteries, and have had close relationships with presbytery officials in Los Ranchos Presbytery. It isn’t hard for me to imagine how hard it might be, emotionally and practically, for presbytery leaders to lose churches to other denominations.

In fact, I’ve experienced something quite similar in my tenure as a parish pastor. Let me cite a few examples.

A Family Leaves Because of Their Teenagers

First, I think of times when leading members of Irvine Presbyterian Church chose to leave this congregation and join another. For example, early in my pastorate in Irvine, a couple from the church met with me. They were central leaders in the congregation, arguably the most influential. They were also major contributors to the church (though I never knew exactly what people gave). They explained that they loved Irvine Presbyterian Church, but their teenage children had not connected to the youth ministry (which, at the time, was pretty weak; it’s much different today). Their kids had gotten involved in the top-notch youth ministry of a large, independent church in Irvine. Reluctantly, they had decided to leave Irvine Pres and move their family to the other church.

As you might well imagine, I was terribly disappointed. I think to some small extent I took it personally, though I believed their reason for leaving had nothing to do with me. I also worried greatly about the budgetary impact from their leaving. Yet I could understand why they wanted their children to be in an excellent youth ministry, and why they were choosing to keep their family together. So, by God’s grace, I was able to bless them and their move. We maintained a caring friendship over the years. And, in time, God brought new leaders and contributors to the Irvine church.

A Man Leaves Because He Is Unhappy with My Leadership

On another occasion, another leader in the church met with me to announce that he and his family were leaving. This departure did have something with me and my leadership. He was frustrated that I was not moving the church more quickly ahead in areas of disciple and mission. Our conversation was a hard one. Not only were we about to lose a key family, but also the reason for leaving had to do with me. I found myself wanting to be defensive, even to get angry. But, somehow, I managed to glimpse a larger vision of the kingdom of God. This man was not my enemy, but my friend and brother. Our differences were significant, and we wouldn’t be able to be in the same congregation anymore, but we were still part of Christ’s mission together.

Years later, that man and I continue to be good friends. Neither of us burned the bridge when he left. Over the years, he would sometime join us for worship. At times he became a trusted advisor to me. I still wish he hadn’t left our church (and denomination), but God has greatly blessed him and his ministry as a lay person since his departure.

An Elder Leaves to Become a Southern Baptist

My final example concerns a man named Buddy. He was one of my closest friends in the Irvine congregation and a key elder on the church session (board of elders). Buddy’s partnership in ministry meant a great deal to me and to our church.

One day I received a phone call from Rick Warren. (Yes, the Rick Warren. He was a casual friend whose church was about ten miles away from mine.) Rick began by saying, “I have something to ask you that you’re not going to want to give me.”

“What is that?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine anything that I had to offer Rick Warren.

“I want to hire Buddy for my staff. He’ll become a key leader in our Purpose-Driven ministry. I need somebody with Buddy’s maturity and experience. Obviously he can’t stay our your elder board, which is why I’m calling you.”

“Ugh!” I said. “But if that’s what God wants, then I don’t want to stand in the way.”

“I owe you two draft choices and another player to be named later,” Rick added. Thanking me for my support.

As I got off the phone, I felt almost sick to my stomach. I hated the thought of losing Buddy . . . and to a Southern Baptist church, no less. But I had to remember that the kingdom of God is much bigger than my church or my ministry. So, with sadness, we sent Buddy off to Saddleback.

A few months later I participated in his ordination at Saddleback. I had never before helped ordain a PC(USA) elder to the role of a Southern Baptist minister. I had never before particpated in any Southern Baptist ordination, for that matter. Though I rejoiced in God’s new call for Buddy, I still felt sad about losing such a fine partner in ministry. (Photo: The worship center of Saddleback Church. Talk about church property! Sheesh!)

A couple of months ago I had supper with Buddy. We are still dear friends. It was great to hear of all the ways God is using him at Saddleback. Though Irvine Pres and I missed Buddy after he left, and though our ministry was hurt by his absence, nevertheless, his kingdom impact was much greater at Saddleback than anything he would have experienced at Irvine Pres. I can see so clearly that God moved Buddy to Saddleback.

I’ll stop with my stories. I could tell many more like these. My point is that I do have some idea how it feels to invest in something – in my case, in somebody – only to see that investment pay off in another ministry. In none of the examples I’ve given did those who left Irvine Presbyterian join a PC(USA) church. Yet in every instance, God used them mightily in their new ministries. My loss, and Irvine Presbyterian Church’s loss, was clearly a gain for the kingdom God. And that is what really matters, isn’t it?

I’m sure there are times when it’s not the best thing for a PC(USA) congregation to leave the PC(USA), and to leave with its property. I’ve discussed some of these situations earlier in this series. But surely there are times when God is, in fact, leading a PC(USA) to join another denomination. And, surely, in many of these cases the kingdom of God is best served by presbyteries allowing the churches to leave with their property.

No, I haven’t stood in the shoes of presbytery leaders going through this process. But I’ve worn similar shoes, and found that sometimes it’s right to walk the second mile in them as people leave my ministry for another. I wish more denominational leaders, including presbytery leaders, could have this perspective and experience.

Topics: PCUSA: Church Property |

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

  1. RevK Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 2:23 am

    You really struck a chord there! It was as if I was listening in on each of those conversations and feeling the pain of loss. Thanks for blessing me with these and this important lesson.

  2. Ray Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 7:01 am

    It saddens me to imagine the emotional turmoil and waste of resources (not to mention distraction from mission) that accompanies each of these stories about churches leaving the denomination. I agree that the differences that divide us are significant enough to make sharing denominational bonds impractical. Further, I think that trying to keep such disparate belief systems yoked together in the same denomination is actually an impediment to mission. However, these differences are not so great that they divide us into “Christians” and “non-Christians”. We will always be unified in Christ, even as we are called to different roles in his Church.

    Given that we are all on the same team here, is there ANY WAY we can have a meeting of the minds - not to resolve the differences, but to work together to create two completely new denominations from what is now the PC(USA)?

    It’s a wild idea, I know, but what are the alternatives? We have already denomstrated that churches leaving piecemeal is not the ideal solution. If we remain as we are, attrition of individual members will continue (probably intensify), and we will remain in conflict over the same issues for years to come. That’s not good either.

    What if we developed two umbrella organizations within the PC(USA) and enabled representative leadership from each organization to work out a plan to allocate and/or share resources as each group moves toward its own new denominational identity? This would not be schism, but schism prevention. It would be the Reformed church always reforming. The end result would be two new, more functional denominations that would each be free to pursue its own vision of mission, without the constant distraction of political battles over docrine and ordination standards.

  3. Matt Ferguson Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 9:34 am


    These stories will prove more helpful for some of us than you might imagine. We pastor-types can start feeling as if we are the only ones to go through such things as you describe and we can start getting rather negative (about self, others, etc.). When we hear how other pastors, especially those most would readily look up to as “successful”, go through many of the same experiences and struggles it is a strong encouragment that maybe the stuff we go through is common things of ministry that happens.

    God’s blessings to you. (Maybe I till get to shake your hand and thank you personally for your blogs at Gathering XI next week.)

  4. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    This really starts to get at some of my concerns. I should be clear, whatever “pro-presbytery” comments I have made to other posts, I actually DO think that Presbyteries have, in many instances, reacted too harshly in these instances. Just because I think that they have certain legitimate needs to not just “let the church go” in every instance (even, that is, in every instance in which your 2/3rd terms are met) doesn’t mean that I think that legal battles are an acceptable (let alone preferable) response.

    This current post illustrates that there are indeed similar analogies that may be drawn when a key family chooses to leave a church. This is a good thing. However, I would argue that there is potential for a church that leaves a presbytery (to say nothing of the denomination as a whole) to cause far GREATER pain and damage to the presbytery it leaves than is most often the case when a single family or member leaves a church.

    I’m am increasingly (even as I read your well-considered posts) of the opinion that presbyteries should have SOME payback option that isn’t strictly optional for departing churches to provide as they leave. In fact, the “not a requirement” bit is perhaps my only serious point of disagreement from your proposed “solution” in Part 9. That’s not necessarily to say I think that a set monetary percentage should be required. I’m not sure how this should be worked out. Clearly, such a change would require a change to the Book of Order. I just think that the loss of significant resource to a presbytery (and therefore, to other churches that remain a part of it) should require some form of remuneration. This shouldn’t simply be left to the goodwill (which often simply is no longer present) of the departing church.

  5. Jim Berkley Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 3:28 pm


    Well said, as usual.

    While we’re keeping a ledger, it’s good to remember the many times in church life in which we BENEFIT from people moving into the life of our congregation. Such people have come to faith and then Christian maturity in some other setting. They have been taught, turned around, mentored, given opportunities to grow into leaders. And then WE get all that “capital” for free when they walk in our door and sit down in our pews and begin contributing to our congregation’s life.

    It goes both ways. We gain some; we lose some. We plant and water, and someone else harvests the crop. They plant and water, and we harvest the crop.

    It’s so easy to remember the losses–the dear friends and key members who depart for elsewhere. But we also must balance against those losses the serendipitous (actually providential!) gains of saints already prepared for service among us.

    In a healthy congregation and denomination, I would expect that the upshot would be a net gain. We would receive in others more than we lose in some. In a sick or struggling congregation or denomination, however, I would expect a net loss, as the best and brightest and most committed and capable seek better places to live out their commitment with integrity.

    A congregation or denomination that becomes possessive and self-centered in this commerce of talent probably is giving ample demonstration of its inherent weakness and would not be worthy of personal “investment” in its ministry anyway–it seems to me.

    Jim Berkley
    Bellevue, WA

  6. Linda Lee Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    It is sad to see people and churches go - God does like to position His people in the body as He wills and sometimes that means moving large groups.

    What if the Presbyteries took an opposite view
    and PAID the churches and their leaders to stay, and gave them an honored place to teach what makes them successful in growing their ministry. Take the leaders of the largest churches, they could pay them to stay and share their ideas. What if they respected their views and gave them a place to teach and preach to the whole Presbytery. Setting aside money as the GA did is back ward - They should have set aside money to learn from these churches just how to grow a church “deep and wide” by viewing the affect of a church that holds high the value of learning Scripture and leading people to Christ and discipling them first in repentance then in drawing close to a holy God. Instead they treat the evangelicals
    like they are wrong, miss guided, and bully them
    for their property. There isn’t any respect for
    the larger evangelical churches who love mission,
    love God’s word and are growing. (Though they are taking note of Presbyterian Global Fellowship)
    I just don’t see much spiritual LIFE coming out of our Presbyteries and the GAC. The Presbyteries are the real loosers in their attempt to just go after the property and not go after the values,
    ministry styles, leadership and Scriptural views of these churches that are taking a strong stand
    and in some cases leaving. It is really not about property - it is about a lack of respect for the essence of the Gospel these churches teach! They act like the only thing they will miss is the money. God only knows the future!

  7. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Linda Lee,
    What if the Presbyteries took an opposite view
    and PAID the churches and their leaders to stay…

    Just one question… out of what funds? Where would the Presbyteries get the money from?

  8. RevK Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    I’m still going with the “effectiveness of ministry.”

    In the small presbytery of which our fellowship is part, we had a church far removed from us geographically. They were, however, surrounded by 3 other churches of another Presbyterian denomination. They requested to affiliate with them. This prospect felt a bit like rejection, but it actually led to denominational conversations and cooperation for a successful transition — again I say that is “kingdom work,” especially when it can happen seamlessly.

    Now, I still struggle with Dr. Roberts dismissing a man to a Baptist church :) (as we should always discuss all the motivations for transitions); but we should decide on what is most effective for ministry!

    We need a lesson on Paul and Barnabas now!

  9. Linda Lee Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Good question. They (the General Assembly) came up with the 2 milllion to fight in the courts. They came up with a department to grow the church “deep and wide”. But to be fair,
    Presbyteries do have classes/seminars that include
    all points of view. I am just saying that the
    denomination at the National level doesn’t seem
    to want to acknowledge that the churches that are leaving and the churches that are growing have something that is working and that is the evangelical point of view of Scripture.
    The property and money they represent is nothing
    compared to this. Leaving the property issue aside,we lament the loss of the zeal, Spiritual power, Biblical insight they give to our Presbyteries and the church as a whole. But the
    national leaders, and this last GA and their representatives from the Presbyteries, do not value this - they only thought about property.
    So they want money as compensation for the property,
    instead of seeing how much they will loose
    (a value beyond compare) when these churches leave. If they did value what these churches
    could offer - they would find the money or anything else they could to keep the churches.
    They would for insteance make sure the Presbyteries representatives to the GA are representative of their Presbytery. But they do not do this - they don’t really value the right things and only think about property values.

  10. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Perhaps I simply misunderstood your original suggestion. When I heard you say that presbyteries could consider taking “an opposite view and (pay) the churches and their leaders to stay,” I’m thinking about that word “opposite” to include the idea that Presbyteries would not get their funds from the local churches that comprise it (as is the case now, at least in part). Money would flow FROM Presbyteries rather than TO them (to the extent that money DOES flow to them. Money flows in lots of directions, of course).

    A view that turns that payment structure on its head could have potential benefits, but the practical concerns of where the money to pay churches to stick around would come from would have to be answered (which is why I asked it).

    But I wonder if I simply misunderstood your original suggestion…. I’m just having trouble figuring out what that kind of “payment structure” would look like that didn’t make it look like a bribe. Not to mention the justice issues that come to mind if a Presbytery paid a church that already HAD a large sum of money (just to interest them in staying) when a smaller church (that arguably wasn’t interested in leaving) got no such payment.

    In the interests of keeping the discussion productive, I would in any event caution against the accusation that Presbyteries DON’T care about the loss of the resources of people, insight, zeal, etc (or other suggestions that Presbyteries care only about money and property values). Perhaps some Presbyteries DO have their priorities out of whack, but I would argue that it’s a matter of degree–not of absence of caring about these less-tangible resources altogether.

  11. Al Sandalow Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Let me add two real life examples to what Mark has listed:

    1. A pastor comes under investigation by Presbytery for sexual misconduct. The commission discovers five women he has been involved with, with the real possibility that there have been more who simply won’t come forward. They insist that he be removed from the church.
    However, the pastor goes before the congregation and convinces them he was trapped by a sexual addiction and is now getting help. He is much better now. There is a conspiracy in Presbytery against him and no one at Presbytery will listen to the congregation, who now wants to keep him.

    The Session starts to look at simply leaving the denomination (still UPCUSA at that point) to keep their pastor, but they stop cold when they run into to the property ramifications.

    2. A pastor has a series of affairs with one women (he was caught when an elder in the congregation hired a PI to follow him..weird). Presbytery acts to discipline the pastor, but he convinces the congregation that Presbytery simply wants him out and a new pastor more in tune with Presbytery causes in the pulpit. The church looks to leave the denomination, but runs into the property clause and stays.

    There are lots of things I don’t like about the way the property clause is enforced and think we need a more unified and fair process when congregations consider leaving.

    But, you and I know what enormous influence pastors have over their congregations. Please don’t think I am suggesting this was the case for the Kirk, but we all know example of warped and autocratic pastors who would have no problems simply convincing their church to leave the denomination for all the wrong reasons if all it took was a vote of the congregation.

    If you want to see some crazy, stupid, hurtful stuff, just look at some of the congregations that don’t have any rules that effectively bind them into a larger system of discipline and oversight.

  12. Mark Roberts Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    Al: Your examples are important. They explain why presbyteries need to determine that the process involved with a church’s leaving is appropriate. Neither of the situations you describe would have passed muster. I agree with you fully that “we need a more unified and fair process when congregations consider leaving.” This is lacking in our denomination, and these days that usually means that churches are being bound by the property issues as presbyteries hang onto property they don’t even need.

  13. RevK Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 1:38 am

    I think #11 Al’s comments are very important! That is why a church shouldn’t be able to leave a denomination on a single congregational vote, or without proper dialogue with the presbytery, or without an appropriate receiving body researching such potential problems. (It wouldn’t be right to allow a church to leave to become “independent” either — of course, I have more stories about that too…)

  14. Evan Says:
    October 9th, 2008 at 8:51 am

    It seems to me that there are two distinct situations being discussed here: First is a situation in which one prayerfully tries to consider what the Living God desires for the particular constituent parts of His church. Would Buddy be more effective at a Southern Baptist church, or indeed, would Mark Roberts be more effective at Laity Lodge than Irvine Pres? In these situations, there is a commonality on many levels, but most importantly, who God is and what He looks to accomplish. When a church seeks to leave a denomination in this situation, much of what is discussed makes sense, ie, “pay them to stay,” etc.

    But the second situation is when indeed, much if not virtually all commonality is missing. There is little doubt that on issues of gay ordination, abortion and a host of other issues that each side differs vastly from the other in outlook and most importantly in who God is. Indeed, it often revolves around whether God even has a personality or is an impersonal force.

    I suppose the question can be framed this way: when you have a body of “believers” who view the Resurrection as a fairy tale, or at best optional to being a Christian, how can you discern the Mind of Christ with them? Put another way, if they discard Paul’s admonition in 1Cor 15 that if Christ is not raised from the dead then your faith is in vain, is is any surprise that 1 Cor 6 is ignored and lawsuits are being filed?

    I hope I have not jumped the gun again, but that seems to be the salient question.


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