Part 14 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In recent posts I’ve argued that the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma should allow the Kirk of the Hills to keep its property even though it has left the PC(USA) and joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. I’m not just singling out this one presbytery, however. I have made the case for a presbytery allowing a church to leave the denomination with its property if the church’s process is appropriate and if the vote of the congregation is at least two-thirds in favor of leaving.
One might object that I’m not being fair to presbyteries and their leaders. After all, they believe, rightly, that the Constitution of the PC(USA) states that all church property is “held in trust . . . for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S. A.)” (G-8.0201). They interpret this to mean that presbyteries should seek to keep congregational property within the denomination, even if this requires costly court battles. Though I have argued that the Constitution of the PC(USA) actually gives plenty of room for dismissing congregations with their property to other denominations, my view isn’t dominant among presbytery leaders. So, for them, keeping property in the PC(USA), or making sure the presbytery is compensated financially when a departing church keeps its property, is a matter of Constitutional duty.
Moreover, one might also object that I am not seeing things from the perspective of the presbytery. After all, I have been a pastor of a congregation, not a presbytery official. I may not realize how discouraging it is for presbyteries to lose congregations, how contrary to a presbytery’s mission, and how costly in terms of mission dollars. Currently, the average PC(USA) church contributes about $20.00 per member to the presbytery, of which about $5.00 goes on to the General Assembly. This means if a church the size of Kirk of the Hills (2000+ members) leaves the denomination, the cost to the presbytery is would be more than $30,000 a year. (Note: in my suggested process for a congregation that leaves, I argued that a church should gradually wind down its contribution to the presbytery, and consider a special gift besides.)
It’s true that I have never been on presbytery staff, nor held a leading role in a presbytery (moderator, vice-moderator, etc.). But I have been active in two presbyteries, and have had close relationships with presbytery officials in Los Ranchos Presbytery. It isn’t hard for me to imagine how hard it might be, emotionally and practically, for presbytery leaders to lose churches to other denominations.
In fact, I’ve experienced something quite similar in my tenure as a parish pastor. Let me cite a few examples.
A Family Leaves Because of Their Teenagers
First, I think of times when leading members of Irvine Presbyterian Church chose to leave this congregation and join another. For example, early in my pastorate in Irvine, a couple from the church met with me. They were central leaders in the congregation, arguably the most influential. They were also major contributors to the church (though I never knew exactly what people gave). They explained that they loved Irvine Presbyterian Church, but their teenage children had not connected to the youth ministry (which, at the time, was pretty weak; it’s much different today). Their kids had gotten involved in the top-notch youth ministry of a large, independent church in Irvine. Reluctantly, they had decided to leave Irvine Pres and move their family to the other church.
As you might well imagine, I was terribly disappointed. I think to some small extent I took it personally, though I believed their reason for leaving had nothing to do with me. I also worried greatly about the budgetary impact from their leaving. Yet I could understand why they wanted their children to be in an excellent youth ministry, and why they were choosing to keep their family together. So, by God’s grace, I was able to bless them and their move. We maintained a caring friendship over the years. And, in time, God brought new leaders and contributors to the Irvine church.
A Man Leaves Because He Is Unhappy with My Leadership
On another occasion, another leader in the church met with me to announce that he and his family were leaving. This departure did have something with me and my leadership. He was frustrated that I was not moving the church more quickly ahead in areas of disciple and mission. Our conversation was a hard one. Not only were we about to lose a key family, but also the reason for leaving had to do with me. I found myself wanting to be defensive, even to get angry. But, somehow, I managed to glimpse a larger vision of the kingdom of God. This man was not my enemy, but my friend and brother. Our differences were significant, and we wouldn’t be able to be in the same congregation anymore, but we were still part of Christ’s mission together.
Years later, that man and I continue to be good friends. Neither of us burned the bridge when he left. Over the years, he would sometime join us for worship. At times he became a trusted advisor to me. I still wish he hadn’t left our church (and denomination), but God has greatly blessed him and his ministry as a lay person since his departure.
An Elder Leaves to Become a Southern Baptist
My final example concerns a man named Buddy. He was one of my closest friends in the Irvine congregation and a key elder on the church session (board of elders). Buddy’s partnership in ministry meant a great deal to me and to our church.
One day I received a phone call from Rick Warren. (Yes, the Rick Warren. He was a casual friend whose church was about ten miles away from mine.) Rick began by saying, “I have something to ask you that you’re not going to want to give me.”
“What is that?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine anything that I had to offer Rick Warren.
“I want to hire Buddy for my staff. He’ll become a key leader in our Purpose-Driven ministry. I need somebody with Buddy’s maturity and experience. Obviously he can’t stay our your elder board, which is why I’m calling you.”
“Ugh!” I said. “But if that’s what God wants, then I don’t want to stand in the way.”
“I owe you two draft choices and another player to be named later,” Rick added. Thanking me for my support.
As I got off the phone, I felt almost sick to my stomach. I hated the thought of losing Buddy . . . and to a Southern Baptist church, no less. But I had to remember that the kingdom of God is much bigger than my church or my ministry. So, with sadness, we sent Buddy off to Saddleback.
A few months later I participated in his ordination at Saddleback. I had never before helped ordain a PC(USA) elder to the role of a Southern Baptist minister. I had never before particpated in any Southern Baptist ordination, for that matter. Though I rejoiced in God’s new call for Buddy, I still felt sad about losing such a fine partner in ministry. (Photo: The worship center of Saddleback Church. Talk about church property! Sheesh!)
A couple of months ago I had supper with Buddy. We are still dear friends. It was great to hear of all the ways God is using him at Saddleback. Though Irvine Pres and I missed Buddy after he left, and though our ministry was hurt by his absence, nevertheless, his kingdom impact was much greater at Saddleback than anything he would have experienced at Irvine Pres. I can see so clearly that God moved Buddy to Saddleback.
I’ll stop with my stories. I could tell many more like these. My point is that I do have some idea how it feels to invest in something – in my case, in somebody – only to see that investment pay off in another ministry. In none of the examples I’ve given did those who left Irvine Presbyterian join a PC(USA) church. Yet in every instance, God used them mightily in their new ministries. My loss, and Irvine Presbyterian Church’s loss, was clearly a gain for the kingdom God. And that is what really matters, isn’t it?
I’m sure there are times when it’s not the best thing for a PC(USA) congregation to leave the PC(USA), and to leave with its property. I’ve discussed some of these situations earlier in this series. But surely there are times when God is, in fact, leading a PC(USA) to join another denomination. And, surely, in many of these cases the kingdom of God is best served by presbyteries allowing the churches to leave with their property.
No, I haven’t stood in the shoes of presbytery leaders going through this process. But I’ve worn similar shoes, and found that sometimes it’s right to walk the second mile in them as people leave my ministry for another. I wish more denominational leaders, including presbytery leaders, could have this perspective and experience.