Mark D. Roberts

Part 12 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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I ended yesterday’s post by promising to discuss another stunning move by the General Assembly in relationship to the church property issue. I will fulfill this promise on Tuesday. Today and Monday I want to focus on a breaking story from Oklahoma. (If you’re new to my blog, I should say that my weekend blogging is lighter and more inspirational. I get back to heavy lifting when the week starts.)
According to the Tulsa World, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma has offered to sell the property where the Kirk of the Hills had been meeting for forty years to Kirk of the Hills for $1.75 million. Here’s a bit of history: Two years ago, Kirk of the Hills, a 2500+ member congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, voted almost unanimously to leave the PC(USA) and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The congregation intended to keep its well-developed property, which it had built at its own expense. Apparently, the presbytery had helped Kirk of the Hills get off the ground financially forty years ago, but these costs had been repaid over the years. Nevertheless, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma demanded that the congregation vacate the property, even though the presbytery had no congregation that needed the property, and Kirk of the Hills had no other property to use for ministry. An extensive court battle ensued, and in August, an Oklahoma judge ruled that the presbytery did own the property. Kirk of the Hills promised to appeal the decision. (I have no idea how much of Jesus’ money got burned up in this litigation, but I bet it was plenty.)
The presbytery’s offer to sell the property to Kirk of the Hills was not without strings attached, even in addition to one and three-quarters million financial strings. If Kirk of the Hills buys the property, the congregation must also drop its legal appeal. But if the church appeals and wins, it owns the property without having to pay the presbytery. If the church does not appeal and pays what the presbytery demands, it owns the property and the presbytery has a whole lot of money. Moreover, the legal precedent would help to intimidate most other churches who might think about challenging the financial empire of the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma.
The Rev. Greg Coulter, the leader of the presbytery, said that the $1.75 figure was “a very fair and reasonable settlement” since the property was worth more than this figure. He didn’t mention that it was worth so much because the congregation built the buildings at their own expense. But it could be that Coulter is speaking truly here. If, for example, the property, with its buildings, is worth $17.5 million, then the presbytery is asking for a tithe of its value, which impresses me as a fair request. If the property is worth more, the fairness increases; if less, it decreases, as far as I’m concerned.
Rev. Coulter went on to explain what he and the presbytery were trying to accomplish:

“We’re trying to find an appropriate balance between our constitutional responsibilities as members of the Presbyterian Church USA and our pastoral responsibilities toward our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been partners in ministry for more than 40 years with us.

I want to parse this statement carefully, since it helps us to understand the presbytery’s motivation. Rev. Coulter says that the presbytery is “trying to find an appropriate balance between our constitutional responsibilities . . . and our pastoral responsibilities.” He assumes that constitutional responsibilities go on one side of the scale and pastoral responsibilities go on the other. That creates the balance. In the way Rev. Coulter and the presbytery see things, their constitutional responsibilities are opposed to their pastoral responsibilities. They seem to know that their actions are not helpful to the church, but they defend these actions as being demanded by the PC(USA) Constitution.
If this is true, doesn’t it call into question the rightness of the PC(USA) Constitution? If loyalty to the Constitution means that presbyteries have to do what which is not pastoral, that which is not best for congregations, then shouldn’t the Constitution be changed? Do we want to have a church Constitution that puts institutional loyalty ahead of pastoral care?
Frankly, I think Rev. Coulter and his colleagues should re-read the PC(USA) Constitution, and not just the part about church property held in trust for the denomination (G-8.0201). Consider what is said in our Book of Order about the responsibilities of a presbytery (G-11.0103, italics added):

b. to coordinate the work of its member churches, guiding them and mobilizing their strength for the most effective witness to the broader community for which it has responsibility; . . .
f. to provide encouragement, guidance, and resources to its member churches in the areas of leadership development, church officer training, worship, nurture, witness, service, stewardship, equitable compensation, personnel policies, and fair employment practices; . . .
g. to provide pastoral care for the churches and members of presbytery, visiting sessions and ministers on a regular basis; . . .
i. to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches in consultation with their members; . . .
j. to control the location of new churches and of churches desiring to move; . . .

Also, through its Committee on Ministry, the presbytery offers special care for churches in hard times (G-11.0502, italics added):

i. It shall serve as an instrument of presbytery for promoting the peace and harmony of the churches, especially in regard to matters arising out of the relations between ministers and churches. Its purpose shall be to mediate differences and reconcile persons, to the end that the difficulties may be corrected by the session of the church if possible, that the welfare of the particular church may be strengthened, that the unity of the body of Christ may be made manifest.

From these passages, it’s clear that pastoral care for churches is not something to be pitted against constitution responsibilities. Indeed, caring for congregations, wanting their best, and even sending them to other denominations is an explicit constitutional responsibility of the presbytery. The presbytery is expected by our Constitution to do far more than make sure church property stays in the PC(USA).
Furthermore, I would encourage Rev. Coulter and his colleagues to read, not just the chapter in the Book of Order on presbyteries, but also the first four chapters of the Book of Order. These chapters place our whole ministry as a denomination within the larger work of God in the world. We’re not in the business of building a denomination, but serving God by participating in his mission in the world. Therefore, if it’s in the best interest of a congregation and its mission to keep its property when it moves to another denomination, then it could be completely constitutional for the presbytery to release that congregation, property and all. There is no demand in the Constitution that a presbytery must hang onto the property when a church leaves, though there could be situations when this would be best (as in a close vote of a congregation, or in a case where another church could use the vacated property, etc.).
Moreover, as I’ve explained earlier in this series, the PC(USA) exists under the authority of and for the mission of Jesus Christ. All church property belongs truly and ultimately to him, to be used for his purposes. So Rev. Coulter and his colleagues in the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma are not in any way bound or encouraged by our Constitution to kick Kirk of the Hills out of the property they themselves developed, if that property would be well used for that congregation and its mission, even when it is an EPC church. Surely the leaders of the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma would acknowledge that the EPC is part of the kingdom of God, and that an EPC church belongs to Jesus Christ. If a church were trying to sell its property to a commercial enterprise or to a pagan cult, then the presbytery would do well to prevent it. But, when I last checked, the EPC is pretty much like the PC(USA) in the basics of faith and mission. In fact, to my knowledge, no denomination is closer to the PC(USA) than the EPC.
For many reasons, I would argue that a balanced reading of our Constitution makes it clear that there is no need to pit constitutional concerns against pastoral concerns for a congregation. The presbytery is constitutionally compelled to do what’s best for its congregations and their mission, and I don’t see where this responsibility ends just because a congregation moves to another limb of Christ’s body. If a presbytery has another congregation that needs and can use well the property of a departing church, then it might have a good argument for hanging onto the property. But if a presbytery doesn’t have such a congregation, if it’s planning to rent or sell the property, and if the departing congregation will be able to use the property in the mission of Christ, then, I believe, the Constitution of the PC(USA) directs the presbytery to let the church go with its property.
I’ll finish up my response to this story on Monday.

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