There are memories and deep emotions connected with our church property.
Many of us were married here, baptized our children here, and have said goodbye to loved ones here. We have grown up going to Sunday school, children’s programs and youth groups here. We maintain friendships here. We have sung in choirs and musicals here. Prayed here, worshiped here, come to faith here, grown in faith here, served here. It would be very hard to leave here.
Which is exactly why the church property never should have been used as leverage, the way it has been, in the process of discernment. Tying the church property to the decision to leave the denomination has severely clouded and compromised the discernment process.
Trinity’s straw poll taken this spring asked, “Should the Session engage the Presbytery in a joint process which could lead to the transfer of Trinity (with property) to another Reformed Presbyterian Denomination?“
The results were roughly 80% Yes, 15% No, and 5% Undecided.
But how much different would the outcome of the straw poll have been if the property had not been included?
If Trinity’s leadership had been willing to set the issue of property on the side, and designed the straw poll differently, they could have eliminated property as an undue influence and received a much truer indication of the congregation’s interest for staying or leaving the denomination.
The straw poll could have asked something like this:
Trinity’s session may engage the presbytery in a joint process which could lead to the transfer of Trinity to another Reformed Presbyterian denomination. If Trinity transfers to another Reformed Presbyterian denomination would you most likely…
- transfer your membership to another PC(USA) congregation, even if it means leaving the property?
- transfer your membership with Trinity and leave the PC(USA), even if it means leaving the property?
- stay with the property, regardless of Reformed Presbyterian denominational affiliation?
Aside from the memories and emotions there are financial interests tied to the property compromising the discernment process.
I was in King’s Class the weekend before the straw poll when a representative in the class, a local real estate professional, made an announcement about the upcoming straw poll, telling everyone Trinity would have a chance to own the property if it left the PC(USA). He went on to say the property could be worth as much as $15 to $18 million dollars and the congregation would probably be able to negotiate a purchase price with the presbytery of between $2 to $3 million. He told everyone to vote how they wanted, but he let us all know that if he had a chance to buy a $15 million dollar piece of property for $2 to $3 million dollars he would do it.
Another conversation I was a part of included a member of Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force saying the opportunity for the congregation to own the property was a large factor in their personal decision to recommend seeking dismissal from the PC(USA).
I am even aware of a conversation that took place six to eight years ago at a Los Ranchos Presbytery meeting when a pastor from another congregation, already scheming how to gain control of church property, recommended a strategy of starting a building project and financing it with debt, specifically to prevent the presbytery from being able to afford the property if/when the congregation decided to seek dismissal from the denomination in the future.
Memories, emotions, and financial interests regarding the church property are unquestionably compromising the discernment process, both for the congregation and those in leadership.
Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)
What’s often missed is that the property trust clause is a conscious polity decision. It is a recognition that when a Presbyterian church buys property it is not doing so indecently as a lone congregation, but as a local member of the much larger body of Presbyterians, for the larger church’s mission and witness.
This point becomes even clearer when you consider that witness and mission over generations. For the congregation now to think it owns the property (as has been asked, “why should we have to buy it again?”) neglects that the current membership did not buy it; it has been paid for over a period of over 150 years by Presbyterians for Presbyterian ministry.
Holding property in trust for PS(USA) isn’t holding a congregation hostage, as is frequently suggested, though it does hold a current body responsible to the larger mission and the intentions of saints gone before. If preceding generations had wanted an independent, congregationalist church, they could have done so, but they didn’t. Trinity is Presbyterian, by intention and commitment.
However, there are several Presbyterian denominations, and congregations do occasionally realign. This is acknowledged in the policies for dismissal to “another Reformed body.” The “with property” option allows for both a continuation with the ministry heritage and identity, and current issues which divide the body. Any cost is not properly thought of as buying at a bargain rate, but as sharing financial responsibilities of our shared mission, yet allowing a congregation to go forward aligned with another related body.