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Mark D. Roberts

Part 6 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
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This post is Part 6 of the series Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? It is also Part 1 of a new series called The PC(USA) and Church Property.
So far in this series I have given five reasons why I am not currently planning to leave the PC(USA). In my last post I explained one reason frequently given for not leaving that is not persuasive to me. In today’s post I want to explore one of the stronger reasons for not leaving the PC(USA), a reason that is fraught with complication and controversy.
If you are committed to your local Presbyterian church, whether as the church’s pastor or a member, then you’d tend not to want to leave the PC(USA) unless your church leaves with you. But, in many cases, it’s a very difficult and painful thing for a church to leave the PC(USA). There are two main reasons for this.
First, when churches vote to leave the PC(USA), they rarely do by a vote of 100% for leaving and 0% for staying. (In June of this year, Lancaster Presbyterian Church in New York did vote 243-0 to leave the denomination, but this sort of unanimity is unusual.) This means that when a congregation votes to leave the PC(USA), it is also voting to split itself into two different congregations. People who have worshipped together, prayed together, and served together will now be in separate churches. Friends may very well end up on different sides of the vote and therefore in different churches. From a relational and emotional perspective, therefore, it’s hard for a church to leave the denomination.
Second, when a church votes to leave the PC(USA), it is not entitled to keep its property. Unlike the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which allows congregations to leave the denomination with its property if two-thirds of the members vote to leave, the PC(USA) claims to own the church property even if 100% of the members vote to leave. This claim is ensconced in the PC(USA) Book of Order, which reads:

G-8.0201 Property Is Held in Trust
All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This means, in effect, that a particular church does not really own its own property. If it leaves the denomination, it leaves its property, or at least it surrenders the right to keep its property. This is true, in principle, even if, as is almost always the case, the property was purchased and developed by the members of the church, with relatively little assistance from denominational bodies.
The Book of Order does not address directly a situation when a church votes 100% to leave the PC(USA). It does speak of what should happen when a congregation has a split vote to leave.

G-8.0601 Property of Church in Schism
The relationship to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of a particular church can be severed only by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery. (G-11.0103i) If there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the particular church at the time of the schism.

What this means is that, in theory, the presbytery of which a church is a member has the right to dismiss that church to another denomination. (I say “in theory” because presbyteries that have voted to let churches leave with their property are being challenged by their synods.) In most cases, however, the presbytery will decide that the faction that has voted to remain in the PC(USA) is “the true church” within the PC(USA), and therefore entitled to the property. This has nothing to do with the percentage of the vote. Even if 95% of a church voted to leave the denomination, the presbytery could decide that the “true church” was the remaining 5%.
In fact, as more and more churches are voting to leave the PC(USA), presbyteries are responding quite diversely. Some have allowed churches to leave with their property without any payment. Other presbyteries have required churches to pay some relatively small amount of money to keep their property. Other presbyteries have required departing congregations to leave without their property. When congregations have refused, these presbyteries have taken them to court. So you end up with a situation where a presbytery and a former congregation of that presbytery are suing each other in civil court.
In my next post I’ll have a few things to say about this regrettable situation. For now I simply want to note, by way of summary, that it is not an easy thing for a church to leave the PC(USA). I’m not suggesting, by the way, that it should be easy. But sometimes you’ll hear people recommend that evangelical churches leave the denomination as if it was a simple and painless thing to do. In fact, it is neither simple nor painful.
This discussion will be continued in the series: The PC(USA) and Church Property.

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