Part 10 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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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..