Mark D. Roberts

Part 9 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
In my last several posts I’ve been proposing a basic process for a congregation that believes God might be calling it to leave the PC(USA). This process includes the following steps:

1. Put on the whole armor of God.
2. Congregation leaders should communicate with leaders from other churches that have considered leaving the PC(USA), or have left, to learn about what was good and not good in their process.
3. Congregation leaders should communicate with the presbytery.
4. The congregation should engage in a discernment process that is prayerful, biblical, humble, open, truthful, loving, respectful, fair, and timely.

So what should happen next if a congregation goes through a process like what I’ve proposed and votes to leave the PC(USA). What should the congregation do? What should the presbytery do?
Let me add a couple of technical notes. In my opinion, a church vote to leave the PC(USA) should be at least two-thirds in favor for the church to take action. Moreover, the actual motion that a church would be voting on would not to be leave the PC(USA), but rather to ask their presbytery to dismiss them to another denomination. According to the Book of Order, an individual congregation does not have the authority to leave the denomination. Only a vote of presbytery can make this happen.
So let’s suppose that a congregation has gone through an appropriate process and has voted by a strong margin (more than two-thirds) to ask the presbytery to dismiss it to another denomination. Further, suppose the congregation asks the presbytery to allow the church to keep its property.
What should the presbytery do?
In fact, presbyteries have been all over the map in their responses. Some presbyteries have allowed churches to leave with their property, with no further financial obligation. Other presbyteries have required departing churches to pay a certain amount for the property, with the amount varying from a small percentage of assessed value of the property to the whole assessed amount. Other presbyteries have acted swiftly to oust congregations from their property, and have filed suit in secular courts to secure title to the property.
I believe that the ousting and suing option is inconsistent with Scripture, with PC(USA) polity, with the PC(USA)’s commitment to ecumenism, with our missional purpose, with the biblical call to grace, and with Jesus’ command to walk the second mile. I’ll have more to say about this later. So I am clearly in the “allow a church to keep its property” camp. But I don’t think its always right for a church to leave with its property and not give anything back to the presbytery.
For one thing, when a church leaves the denomination, this will cost the presbytery the loss of the church’s per capita contribution to the presbytery. In the case of a large church, this could amount to a substantial amount of money, perhaps the salary of a full-time presbytery worker. Moreover, many churches contribute mission money to their presbyteries. This too would dry up when a church leaves. Thus it may be appropriate for a departing church to continue supporting the ministry of the presbytery for a period of time to allow the presbytery to recover the loss of income.
For another, most Presbyterian churches began as mission projects of their presbyteries. In many cases, presbyteries invested money in the church property and/or initial buildings. Often these investments were repaid by the church to the presbytery. Even so, it seems to me that it would be right, at least in some cases, for churches to compensate their presbyteries financially if they leave with their property.
How should this be worked out? In a spirit of mutual love, grace, and charity. Specifically, here’s what I see as a truly Christ-like response when a congregation asks a presbytery to dismiss it with its property:

If the congregational process was appropriate, and if the vote was at least two-thirds in favor of leaving the PC(USA), the presbytery should vote to dismiss the church with its property. Plus:

• If the church owes money to the presbytery for loans, these should be paid off in a timely fashion.
• The presbytery should ask the church to continue to pay its per capita for a period of time, perhaps by a decreasing percentage. This should not be a requirement, but a request.
• The presbytery should ask the church to consider making some sort of gift to the presbytery to help it with its ongoing mission. The size of the gift should be determined by the church and should not be a requirement. (If a church has sufficient resources, I’d think of a gift that’s perhaps a tithe of the value of the church’s property. Obviously this would not always be possible.)
• The presbytery should reach out to the members of the congregation that did not vote to leave the denomination, helping them to find a new church home if they wish. Some will stay with their churches, or course, even though they’d prefer to remain in the PC(USA).

I can imagine that some people would not like my suggestion because it means the PC(USA) loses title to church property. But, in light of our denomination’s commitment to Christ and the kingdom of God, such a loss isn’t a big deal. It’s not as if a church is being dismissed into the Church of Satan, after all. A congregation that joins the EPC or the UCC or the RCA is still engaged in the ministry of Christ, and in a way largely consistent with our own mission in the PC(USA). We’re still fighting in the same battle, only on different fronts.
You might wonder why I think a particular church should be able to keep its property, especially if there are some members of that church who vote to remain in the PC(USA). Shouldn’t these members retain the property? Why can’t the departing members build new church facilities? Wouldn’t this be a win-win solution?
In some cases it might be. But in most cases of which I am aware, votes to leave the denomination, while not unanimous, are strongly on one side or the other. If at least two-thirds of a congregation votes to leave the denomination, the remaining group often does not have the resources (or the will) to keep the existing church afloat. Even if it stays together as a congregation and remains in its buildings, the remnant is not able to remain healthy.
Moreover, the departing congregation, if it must start from scratch when it comes to buildings, will have to spend a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money to develop new church property. During my sixteen years at Irvine Presbyterian, we had four capital campaigns and built two major buildings. This meant we had fewer resources to devote to ministry and mission. (Photo: The Sanctuary and Activity Center of Irvine Presbyterian Church, built in 1995-6).
So, though there may be situations when the kingdom of God is well-served by a departing congregation building a new church campus and a remaining congregation keeping the property, in most cases the mission of Christ would be enhanced by allowing the departing congregation to keep its property and helping those who are left in the PC(USA) find other churches to join. This might even give these other churches a helpful shot in the arm, financially and otherwise. So perhaps a win-win-win situation.
Ironically, or perhaps providentially, as I was working on this blog post today, I received an email from someone in the Presbytery of the Mid-South (covering parts of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri). He sent to me a statement that was recently approved by the presbytery: “Proposed Procedures, Guidelines, and Standards for Dismissing Congregations.” You can download a PDF of this statement here. It lays out in much detail a process very much like the one I have envisioned here, though with much more wisdom and attention to specifics.
In my next post in this series, I’ll look at two actions taken by the last General Assembly that relate to the issue of church property.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus