Cloud of Witnesses

Memorial Presbyterian PC(USA)The Trust Clause reflects our understanding of the church as a communion of saints across time, with responsibilities both to those who came before and those who will follow. When a congregation seeks to leave the PC(USA), it is breaking what is often a significant historic relationship; it is also departing from a fellowship in which its officers have participated, by whose polity they have pledged to be governed, and with which many members may feel bonds of affection.
– GAPJC Decision and Order in the Tom Case


As I have said several times before, I still believe the best solution for everyone wanting to be dismissed from the denomination is to peacefully withdraw without creating a schism, it is also clear to me this is not going to happen.

This has left us in the unfortunate position of having to create a Joint Solution to determine the terms of separation for those who want to leave the denomination with property.

First and Calvary ImageOn the one side is the fact that the property is held in trust by the presbytery for the denomination as a whole.  This means the property belongs to the PC(USA) congregation where I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and the to the PC(USA) congregation where I served as an associate pastor in Napa, California, and to the 10,000 other PC(USA) congregations across the country, just as much as it belongs to the congregation at Trinity.First Presbyterian Napa Image

When we think about a Joint Solution we have to keep all of these congregations in mind.  The PC(USA) is one connected church with multiple locations around the country. This understanding is fundamental to Presbyterian church doctrine of what it means to be the church and is reflected in the PC(USA)’s Trust Clause.

Trinity PropertyOn the other side are members who want to leave the denomination and feel a strong sense of congregational ownership to the property.  It is clear the property is a central issue at Trinity, if not THE central issue. Many, many more questions and concerns about the property have been raised by the congregation in our congregational meetings and Town Hall forums than questions about theology, the PC(USA) or ECO.

And over and over the same concern has been raised, “Why do we have to pay for the property to leave the denomination?  It’s already ours, we paid for it.”

Trinity’s leadership has rarely corrected this thinking, and at least once even encouraged it by telling the congregation it was a good point and said they would mention it to the presbytery representatives on the Joint Discernment Team.

Each side in this Joint Solution process has a very different competing interest.  But our polity, which is shaped by our theology, is very clear, the property is held in trust for the “use and benefit” of the denomination, including all 10,000 PC(USA) congregations and the communion of saints across time, with responsibilities both to those who came before and those who will follow.

This is why the Joint Discernment Team’s guiding mantra of only considering the presbytery and congregation has misguided them in their work, leaving the Joint Solution vulnerable to a challenge in the church courts.  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 as a whole.

But there is also a second problem which leaves the Joint Solution vulnerable to a challenge.  Per the Tom case, to comply with the Trust Clause, payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for valuations of the property held in trust.

And yet, the current Joint Solution is based on per capita and mission obligations ($428,250), with an additional component to be used by the presbytery for new church/struggling church development ($500,000).

It almost seems like the current Joint Solution was written as direct challenge to the Tom case.  

The Joint Discernment Team has left the presbytery in a very difficult and awkward position.  If the presbytery accepts the extraordinarily low terms in Joint Solution as it is written it will have to ignore the theological underpinnings of our polity and risk a challenge in the church courts.  On the other hand, if it rejects the Joint Solution as it is written it will be made to look ungracious and money-grubbing.

There is no easy choice but it boils down to settling the matter locally or risking national attention and ugly exposure if we have to settle it in the church courts.  I hope we choose to settle it locally, but this will mean the presbytery will need to reject the current Joint Solution, with rationale and wording changes needed to make it acceptable.

Here is what I hope they will consider…

In addition to the ideas I suggested in Less Than $0.05 On The Dollar, the presbytery needs to keep in mind that failure to consider the property value and the PC(USA)’s beneficial interest in the property was a fatal omission of the trustee’s duty to the PC(USA) in the Tom case.  Currently I do not see any consideration of the PC(USA)’s beneficial interest in the $14,000,000 value of the property in the current Joint Solution, and yet, the potential future use and benefit of the property to the PC(USA) in accomplishing the ministry of Jesus Christ is phenomenal.

And second, the presbytery needs to keep in mind that payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for valuations of the property held in trust.

The PC(USA) is one church with many congregations, many expressions, making up a cloud of witnesses, including many of us at Trinity, who are ready to continue making the best use and benefit of the property for the denomination in accomplishing the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.

It is up to the presbytery now to make that possible.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

 

 

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