Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

The PC(USA) and Church Property, Part 13

Part 13 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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On Friday I summarized a breaking story from the Tulsa World. After two years of litigation, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma has offered to sell the property that was used by Kirk of the Hills for forty years to Kirk of the Hills for $1.75 million. Two years ago, Kirk of the Hills voted almost unanimously to leave the PC(USA) and join the EPC. They tried to keep their property, but the presbytery sought to evict them. This led to extensive litigation, and a judge’s ruling in August that the presbytery owns the property. Kirk of the Hills promised to appeal, so the presbytery countered by offering to sell them the property if they would forever end their appeal.
In Friday’s post I began to examine in detail the explanation of the presbytery’s action given by its leader, Rev. Greg Coulter. I tried to show that his way of opposing the constitutional duties of the presbytery with the presbytery’s pastoral concern was a significant misreading of the PC(USA)’s Constitution. In fact, pastoral concern for a congregation is a constitutional duty of a presbytery. The presbytery exists for far more than making sure the PC(USA) hands onto its property (or, more accurately, Jesus’ property entrusted to the presbytery).
Rev. Coulter had a bit more to say about his presbytery’s offer:


“We believe this is a grace-filled offer, and we hope for a grace-filled response.
“We believe this would allow them to worship, to continue their community programs, and to move on in their mission. We believe this helps them move forward.”

A grace-filled offer? When I last checked, grace meant giving something underserved, something for nothing. When we’re saved by grace, we don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to pay $1.75 million for our salvation, or even $1, or even one good work, because God paid it all through Christ. It cheapens the language of grace to use it in this context. Besides, it’s hardly gracious to sell to a congregation the property it developed with its own money. No, this isn’t grace-filled. It’s much more about law than grace.
In what Rev. Coulter said, he actually admitted that letting Kirk of the Hills keep its property would “allow them to worship, to continue their community programs, and to move on in their mission.” So what he is saying, in effect, is that if Kirk of the Hills doesn’t cough up the money, then the presbytery is ready to do that which will impede the worship, community programs, and mission of Kirk of the Hills. Rev. Coulter is openly admitting that the presbytery is ready to do that which will squelch worship, ministry, and mission, unless they get their money. And who loses if the presbytery does this? Kirk of the Hills? Yes. It has to find and build a new campus, and that takes a lot of money and effort. The people in the community for whom the church exists? Yes. The programs that utilized the church buildings are gone. The kingdom of God? Yes, because the work of the kingdom is hampered. The triune God? Yes. Because God’s worship and mission will be impaired.
If Rev. Coulter really believes what he said about helping to move Kirk of the Hills forward in worship, ministry, and mission, then I can’t believe he’d be willing to evict them from their property under any reasonable circumstances. If keeping the property will help Kirk of the Hills in worship, ministry, and mission, then how could the presbytery think it’s right to evict them? It wouldn’t be gracious to let them keep the property. It would be good stewardship of Jesus’ resources. It would be an obvious contribution to the kingdom of God.
According to the Tulsa World, Rev. Coulter said he hopes the church would accept the offer. “That’s the only way healing starts,” he said. Hmmm. So healing starts when the church pays the presbytery $1.75 million for the property it developed with its own money. Hmmm. That doesn’t sound too much like healing to me, at least not the healing that has anything to do with grace. I can’t seem to remember too many times in the Gospels when Jesus healed people only when they paid him first. Hmmm.
Rev. Coulter seems to like the idea of a grace-filled action by the presbytery and a grace-filled response by the church. I’m with him on this 100%. But I don’t think what the presbytery is proposing has much to do with grace. The presbytery can do much better than that, and so can the church.
farewell party Irvine Presbyterian Mark D. RobertsWhat would a grace-filled presbytery action look like? How about this: The presbytery extends grace to the Kirk of the Hills by allowing it to retain its property at no cost. Moreover, the presbytery throws a giant party for Kirk of the Hills, thanking God for their forty years of shared ministry, and blessing Kirk of the Hills as it enters a new season of its service to Christ through the EPC. (Photo: My farewell party at Irvine Presbyterian Church a year ago. When a church leaves one denomination for another, it’s rather like when a pastor leaves one church for another ministry. Sometimes the church being left gets hurt and mad, making the pastor’s transition painful. Sometimes the church throws a party to celebrate God’s grace and sovereignty. Parties are so much better!)
What would a grace-filled response from the church look like? Try this: The church accepts the gracious offer of the presbytery and the party to celebrate their shared ministry. At that party, church leaders present the presbytery with a check (or I.O.U.) for $1.75 million, in thanks for forty years of partnership, and to help the presbytery plant a new church.
How’s that for grace-filled? Or is it too idealistic, too impractical? It reminds me a little of that impractical parable Jesus told of the Prodigal Son and his Prodigal Father. That Jesus, he always had crazy ideas, like turning the other cheek and walking the second mile and giving up your life for others. I wonder what he’d do with his property in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

  • http://none Matt Ferguson

    And the cool thing is there have churches and presbyteries do this sort of thing. Rev. Coulter would know about these cases (where grace actually occured) so his reference to the presbytery’s offer being “grace-filled” is misleading, put nicely.
    What I would like to know is where are the other orthodox believing ordained leaders in this particular presbytery? Where is their voice?

  • Jim

    Shaking in their Boots!

  • Mark Baker-Wright

    I’m sure you’ll disagree, but I’m convinced that this entry does a disservice to the Presbytery’s legitimate claim to the property. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be more open to helping the departing church fulfill its mission (with its property) in another denomination, but any offer to sell them the property at less than its established value (which does seem to me to be the case here) is a grace-filled response. One can debate about how much grace it’s filled with if one wants to, but any amount that the church is not required to pay that it would have been required to pay under the law (this will obviously depend on the legal actions and appeals still in progress) is still grace.

  • Dion Houston Sr

    I understand your point, and had the church taken out loans from the Presybtery, or the Presbytery secured loans on behalf of the church I might tend to agree.
    But the facts as I understand them is that this is not the case. So the end result is that an organization took 100% possession of property they did not pay for due simply to the laws of the state.
    To an extent I empathize with the Presbytery. Like it or not, the trust clause is in the Book of Order. Feelings aside, churches should come to an agreement with their respective Presbyteries about property. But I agree with Mark Roberts that now that the Presbytery won, a truly gracious response would be to sell the property back for next to nothing, and hopefully the Kirk would respond gracefully in kind.

  • Don

    I am part of a denomination (United Methodist) that also has “trust clauses” in deeds for local church property. That means the local church doesn’t really “own” its property — it holds it “in trust” for the annual conference.
    Is this a matter of stewardship. Just as I don’t really “own” anything, but I “manage” it on behalf of God who gave it to me, the local church is really a steward, not an owner, of its property. I know it’s hard for church members to realize this because it feels like we own our church property in so many ways.
    And did this church develop the property 100% with its own money or did the presbytery/denomination help in any way during those 40 years? If so, doesn’t the presbytery have a financial stake in it? For example, one church I served had a loan forgiven by the denomination a long time ago because they couldn’t pay.
    I like the “grace-filled” story of the Prodigal Son, but remember that the younger son didn’t really have a claim to his portion of the inheritance — at least not as long as the father was still alive. Until then, it all belonged to the father.
    This is a tough issue that many more churches will have to struggle through as denominations are more and more divided and as some congregations feel they have no choice but to “depart for the far country.”

  • David

    Unfortunately, once one party sues another party it is pretty much impossible to move it back into the realm of grace. I don’t personally have a problem with churches paying something to the Presbytery for their property. It is one way to test the resolve of the departing membership if they know it is going to cost them something. And $1.75M probably represents about 1/2 of a tithe for the year in a church of 2,400, so it is not out of reason. But this is something that should have been agreed to in advance in a friendly manner without any lawyers involved. And the money should not just go into general Presbytery funds. Ideally, the Presbytery would agree to let the church depart, and the church would freely give $1.75m to the Presbytery in order to plant a new church.

  • Mark Roberts

    David: You’re right, sadly enough. The idea of the money supporting a church plant is a fine one.

  • Mark Roberts

    Don: You make a great point about church ownership of property. We’d all be better off by really and truly believing that Jesus owns the property, and we’re just his managers.

  • Linda Lee

    I am so sorry to see the Kirk leave and other evangelical churches that represent the growing
    churches in this deomination. It would be wonderful if they decided that they had a third option – to stay and to be a witness in this denomination. I was rooting for them in their
    stand against the apostacy of the PCUSA, but now as they are deciding to leave – deciding about their property and ministry – there is sadness
    that this denomination will not be the same
    without them.
    The PCUSA should pay them 1.7 million dollars to have the Kirk teach them how to grow this denominaiton
    “deep and wide” because they have the formula.
    They are a spirit filled, growing, church with
    vital ministries and are adding to their number
    daily. Wake up PCUSA leaders and realize the great loss to our resources in growing and doing
    God’s work – God’s way. Churches that are thinking of leaving should be used as examples
    of how to have a vital ministry in this denomination instead of examples of the “power”
    the denominaiton has in the courts.

  • Don

    Things also get complicated when the church is really split over whether or not to leave. In this case it sounds like it is almost unanimous, but what about situations where a sizeable number want to remain in the original denomination? Who gets “custody” (Solomon, anyone?) of the church property? A simple majority?
    As far as I know, there is not an alternative denomination (or diocese/judicatory, as with the Episcopal Church) for United Methodists to depart to if/when they become disaffected with the parent denomination, as you have with the PC(USA) and the PCA or EPC. I am aware that there have been UMCs in California that would like to withdraw from their pretty liberal annual conference, and there may be some more liberal UMCs that will eventually want to leave the denomination if we don’t change our policy on ordination of homosexuals. I’m not sure where they’d go.

  • Mark Baker-Wright

    I have to protest the use of the word “apostasy” in these comments. Whether or not the PC(USA) is following a theological path one agrees with or not, this is essentially accusing them of not even being *Christians* anymore (see this page for an excellent discussion of this problem:
    Let’s at least try to discuss these matters without calling names!

  • Mark Roberts

    Mark B-W: Yes, “apostasy” is way too strong. I agree. The word means rejecting the faith altogether. An apostate says: “I’m not a Christian any longer.” “Heresy” is also too strong, since it means rejecting core beliefs about God, Christ, and salvation. These are not being debated or denied at this time, thanks be to God. There are a whole list of words that, in my opinion, don’t help our conversation: “apostasy,” “heresy,” “heretics,” “fundamentalist,” “schism,” “schismatic,” “bigot,” etc.
    By the way, you have a fine website, Mark B-W, bots and all!

  • Paul Becker

    How about a simple and sensible approach? In the business world, banks make daily decision as to what businesses will be funded with loans and which businesses won’t. The tool? A business plan. Correspondingly, let the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma and Kirk of the Hills each submit a ministry plan to a third party for a decision. The party who can demonstrate the most cogent and plausible demonstration of property stewardship should get the property. Period.

  • Robert Campbell

    What I find truly amazing in this and other stories is what will happen at the end. Kirk of the Hills is much to large a building and property to establish a new congregation on the site. If the congregation rejects the presbytery’s offer ultimately the presbytery will sell the property to a growing independent or Pentecostal congregation. There will be no Presbyterian presence there.
    That means that the presbytery will only get money either way in this situation. I would hope that we want more than money.

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