In the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) case, Tom v. Presbytery of San Francisco, the GAPJC authoritatively interpreted how the Trust Clause found in the Book of Order at G-4.0203 interacts with Gracious Dismissal Policies. The GAPJC held that while a presbytery has broad discretionary authority under the Book of Order to determine property rights [within the context of determining the mission of Jesus Christ in the world (G-4.0201) and in its district (G-3.0303a) to dismiss a particular congregation within its geographic region (G-3.0301a)], the presbytery must fulfill its fiduciary duty under the Trust Clause (G-4.0203) to consider the interest of the PC(USA) as a beneficiary of the property.
The preliminary terms of the Joint Solution for Trinity to be dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) were announced to the congregation on Sunday, April 27, 2014. They had been presented to the presbytery for a first reading three days earlier and will be discussed and voted on by the presbytery in late May or early June.
THE CURRENT JOINT SOLUTION
$257,000 five years of local/global mission giving (designated funds)
$171,250 three years of per capita giving
$500,000 for new church/struggling church development in the presbytery
Requires 60% vote in favor of dismissal
One of the early questions asked by a member of the congregation was if an appraisal had been conducted of the property. The answer was yes, and the value was placed at $14,000,000!
It did not take the congregation long to realize this was a very good deal for Trinity.
And then it got even better. Members began standing up and pointing out the $257,000 was a figure already in our mission budget and therefore did not represent anything above and beyond what the congregation was committed to continue giving anyway! Subtract that from the $928,250 and suddenly the amount of additional expense is reduced to $671,250. At $14,000,000 that represents less than $0.05 on the dollar.
And then it got even better, again. Trinity has five years to make this payment to the presbytery. If Trinity decides to leave ECO for another denomination while there is still a balance due, the property would revert to the presbytery. However, as soon as the balance is paid, even if it is paid in less than the five years, Trinity is under no obligation to remain in ECO. In other words, if Trinity were to have a check in hand for the full amount on day one following the dismissal, the presbytery would have no recourse if Trinity wanted to then leave ECO for yet another denomination.
At this point it seemed Trinity’s leadership was getting a little nervous at the congregation’s enthusiasm for these terms and tried to quell the excitement by asking everyone to focus on the whole $928,250.
If I was leadership I’d be trying to keep enthusiasm in check as well. The terms are not settled until the presbytery has discussed and voted on them. Any indication of how generous the terms are, and how eager the congregation is to accept them, could cause the presbytery to recognize the terms may not be a win-win for everyone involved.
Keeping the focus on the larger number distracts everyone from the reality of how little this Joint Solution is asking Trinity to pay and how vulnerable the presbytery is to not meeting its fiduciary duty under the Trust Clause (G-4.0203) to consider the interest of the PC(USA) as a beneficiary of the property.
The Joint Discernment Team’s guiding mantra in developing its Joint Solution has been to do no undue harm to either Trinity or the presbytery. Their guiding mantra is surprising since it was exactly this kind of thinking that resulted in the Tom case when the presbytery did not consider its fiduciary responsibility to the denomination. The $14,000,000 property belongs to the PC(USA) as a whole, and it is the presbytery’s fiduciary duty to be sure no undue harm is done to the denomination, not just the presbytery.
It would be difficult to argue the current Joint Solution will cause any undue harm to Trinity. But what about to the denomination? That is a different story.
The PC(USA) will be hard pressed to use the funds provided in this Joint Solution to ever replace the hole Trinity will leave if it is dismissed with property from the denomination.
A BETTER WAY
It is clear to me that there are many at Trinity who desperately want out of the PC(USA), and while I still believe the best solution is for everyone wanting to be dismissed to peacefully withdraw without creating a schism, it is also clear to me this is not going to happen. So we need to find a way to separate, without doing undue harm to each other, but there has to be a better Joint Solution than the one on the table.
First, as it stands now, I do not see any apparent relationship between the Joint Solution and the property belonging to the denomination in this arrangement. If the $14,000,000 property is held in trust for the “use and benefit” of the denomination as tool for the accomplishment of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, how does $671,250, or even $928,250 for that matter, begin to provide for this continued mission of the denomination?
Whatever amount is finally decided should meet the reasonable person standard, meaning an average person in the PC(USA) can look at the agreement and say yes, I can see a connection between the “use and benefit” of the denomination and the Joint Solution. It seems to me it would require at least $5 to $7 million undesignated dollars, paid over a period of five to fifteen years, to meet this standard.
Everyone has to recognize that in order to meet the presbytery’s fiduciary responsibility to the denomination as a whole, the value of the property may end up being either unaffordable, or unattractive, to the congregation at Trinity.
No one at Trinity, including the leadership, is under any obligation to stay in the denomination if their conscious does not permit. That would constitute undue harm. Everyone is free to come and go as they choose. But choosing to leave the denomination may mean having to leave the property as well if it is not affordable, or a price they are willing to pay. This would be unwelcomed but would not rise to the level of undue harm in my opinion.
People leave congregations and denominations all the time without taking the property with them. Just because a majority of the current congregation and leaders in power want to leave does not mean they have a right to the property at any price.
In Trinity’s case, affording the property will not be as much of an issue as being willing to pay for it. It was not that long ago Trinity raised millions of dollars for the new Fellowship Hall. And already the congregation is talking about starting a capital campaign, following dismissal from the PC(USA), for a new multi-million dollar children’s ministry center. Like Doug tells us, Trinity has all the money it needs, it is just in the members’ pockets.
Of course, without any debt on the property, Trinity also has the option of mortgaging the property.
If Trinity’s campus is not affordable another consideration could be approaching any of the nearby PC(USA) congregations to see if there is any interest in merging with those of us at Trinity who wish to remain in the PC(USA). The merged congregation would remain on the Trinity campus and the presbytery would negotiate a Joint Solution to provide the nearby PC(USA) campus to those at Trinity who are seeking dismissal. Any of the nearby campuses should be of considerable less value, making it easier to reach an agreement that meets both the presbytery’s fiduciary responsibility to the denomination and Trinity’s budget.
Maybe the presbytery would even want to consider moving its office to the campus.
Second, the presbytery should require a congregational vote of at least two-thirds majority in favor of dismissal. Dismissal with property should require a bar higher than 60%. Even 75% is not an unreasonable threshold, but since two-thirds majority is equal to the vote which would be required for Trinity to be dismissed from ECO, under the terms of ECO’s polity, this threshold, at a minimum, should not be met with any objection.
And finally, the property should revert to the presbytery, at no cost, if Trinity is dismissed from ECO, regardless of whether the financial payments have been made, for a period of at least ten years. The presbytery has a responsibility and a right to know the property will stay with the denomination it is being dismissed to for a reasonable period of time. Since Trinity’s leadership says dismissal from ECO is a mute point they should have no problem agreeing to this either.
Along the same lines, the presbytery should also be given a right of first refusal to purchase the property at fair market value, less whatever difference the denomination forfeits in the final Joint Solution. The PC(USA) should retain the opportunity to reestablish a presence on such a prominent piece of property in central Orange County. Property like this is rare and getting more rare all the time.
I think any reasonable person in the PC(USA) can see there is still work to do on a Joint Solution that adequately meets the presbytery’s fiduciary duty to consider the PC(USA) as a beneficiary of the property.
Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)