Mark D. Roberts

Part 2 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In my last post in this series, I offered some reasons why it is hard for a church, and therefore church members and pastors, to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA). One of the main problems for churches that might want to leave is that, according to PC(USA) polity, the particular church doesn’t actually have the rights to the property. Every bit of church property “is held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (Book of Order, G-8.0201). This means that if a church votes to leave the PC(USA), it might very well lose all of its property, unless the local presbytery allows the congregation to keep it. Sometimes presbyteries do; sometimes they don’t. And in some recent cases, when the presbytery does this, it gets in trouble with higher governing bodies. Most of the time, the PC(USA) wants to keep its property.
The legality of the “property held in trust for the denomination” clause is being challenged in a variety of state courts, as churches sue presbyteries to keep their property and presbyteries sue churches to evict them. Most recently, Kirk of the Hills, a large, formerly PC(USA) church in Oklahoma that is now an EPC congregation, lost its two-year legal battle to maintain its property. But the church will appeal the decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, so who knows how it will end? At any rate, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma has been victorious, so far, in its effort to oust the 2400 members of Kirk of the Hills, who, incidentally, paid the considerable expense of developing the property. But, as an attorney for the presbytery said:

“When a local church participates in, prospers from and enjoys the benefits afforded by the parent church, as has been the case here for more than 40 years, it cannot then disclaim affiliation when it disagrees with the parent body, so as to shield church property from the equitable or contractual interests of the parent church.”

No, I have no reason to believe that this attorney was being ironic.
As I begin to discuss the issue of church property ownership, I must lay my cards on the table. I feel a deep sadness concerning situations like this one. It might be because I was a pastor of a local church for sixteen years, a church that labored with great effort and faithfulness to build two buildings so that we might faithfully pursue our mission in Irvine, California. So I may very well be biased in this matter. But, whatever the reason, when I read about what has happened with Kirk of the Hills, my heart feels very heavy, with a good bit of anger mixed in. It seems incredible to me that we in the PC(USA), who also happen to be brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, would actually be fighting over property in this way. I just can’t imagine how it advances the cause of the kingdom of God for presbyteries to prohibit congregations from continuing to use the buildings they have, in most cases, worked so hard to build and maintain for ministry. Will the kingdom of God be better off if Kirk of the Hills is evicted? In most cases, it’s not as if presbyteries have thriving churches ready to use the vacated buildings. Moreover, I can’t believe that we Presbyterians think it’s edifying to the PC(USA) or helpful to our mission, not to mention the mission of God’s kingdom, to conduct our property fights in secular courts.
In conversations with Presbyterian leaders from various theological persuasions, I have sometimes said, “Why don’t we make it possible for churches to leave with their property if two-thirds of the members believe this is what’s right for their church? I don’t care if it’s a liberal church leaving a conservative presbytery, or a conservative church leaving a liberal presbytery, or some other situation. Why won’t we just let churches leave so they can continue their ministries?”
In my experience, most younger church leaders can envision the benefit of letting churches leave the denomination with their property. But most mature church leaders don’t think we should do this. Some point to our covenant connectionalism and shared ministry. Others say something like, “You can’t leave your family just because you want to.” Others point to the Book of Order as if it offered God’s Final Word on such matters. But other leaders have been more practical, responding with something like: “If we open up the door for churches to leave, hundreds will do so. This will devastate our denomination. Presbyteries won’t have the funding to continue operating, since many of the departing churches would be the larger, wealthier ones. Denominational finances would be in shambles. We’d have to lay off tons of presbytery and GA staff, and lots of missionaries. It would be terrible for the PC(USA).”
I don’t know if this fear is valid or not, though I think it probably is. If the PC(USA) changed the Book of Order to allow churches to leave with their property, I do expect that many (but certainly not all!) theologically conservative churches would leave. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the liberal churches in conservative presbyteries might follow suit, perhaps joining the United Church of Christ where they’d be free to pursue the mission they believe is right. And, yes, I expect that all of this would be very difficult for the PC(USA) in terms of denominational income.
But if this is true, what are we saying about our unity as a denomination? We can talk all we want about covenant communion and the missional benefit of unity, but it seems that, for tens of thousands of Presbyterians, what holds us together isn’t theology or shared mission or even a desire to be together, but property and money. Is mammon the glue that holds the PC(USA) together? Lord help us!
In my next post in this series I’ll explore further the implications of the PC(USA)’s claim to “own” all congregational property.

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