PC(USA) Synod PJC Decisions -- Per Capita And Property
For us Presbyterian Polity Wonks this past weekend was a good weekend for interesting PJC decisions. I will say at the onset that both were decided as I expected, but that does not make them any less interesting. And of course the interest and importance is enhanced by the fact that they deal with two of the hot-topics in the PC(USA) today — per capita and property. And the obvious reminder, these are synod PJC decisions so there is no broad application at this stage and as I will discuss I think they both rely on and reinforce current precedent.
If you want an executive summary of these two remedial cases here you go: The SPJC of the Synod of the Trinity found that changes to the new Form of Government were not substantial in the area of per capita and that Pittsburgh Presbytery could not make a new policy to avoid paying per capita it did not collect. In the second case, the SPJC of the Synod of the Pacific found that San Francisco Presbytery did have the authority under the Book of Order and acted in good faith when it dismissed a church with its property.
Now the details...
Last December Pittsburgh Presbytery adopted as part of its Manual of Presbytery the line "Presbytery shall only remit to the General Assembly the per capita assessment it receives from the particular churches that is designated by those councils." In their decision in the trial of this remedial case - David C. Green, Complainant, vs. The Presbytery of Pittsburgh, Respondent - the SPJC of the Synod of the Trinity boils down the argument of the Presbytery and the SPJC's disagreement with that argument nicely into two paragraphs:
Pittsburgh Presbytery argues that the adoption of the New Form of Government by the 219th (2010) General Assembly set aside the applicable previous decisions of General Assembly, Permanent Judicial Commission and Authoritative Interpretations since the General Assembly “chose not to include the strict construction language from the 1999 Authoritative Interpretation (Request 99-1)”.So, at this point the opinion is that the language in the Book of Order has not changed to a substantial degree and previous General Assembly Interpretations still stand. This decision is in agreement with the Report of the Special Committee on Existing Authoritative Interpretations of the Book of Order, released a few days after the SPJC decision, which recommends that Authoritative Interpretation 99-1 be retained. The SPJC decision also discusses GAPJC cases where the same conclusion was reached. They wrap this up by saying "We fully agree with the previous authoritative interpretations." They then conclude the formal decision itself by noting that not passing on per capita is a "serious breach of trust and love" (Minihan v. Presbytery of Scioto Valley, 216-01) and then applying it to themselves:
We disagree with this argument. The substance of the previous relevant language, now found in G-3.0106, was adopted except for the addition of the clause, “but in no case shall the authority of the Session to direct its benevolences be compromised.” We do not believe the addition of this clause has changed the obligation of presbyteries to remit per capita to synods and General Assembly.
If this form of congregational protest were to be passed on to synod and General Assembly by our judicial action, then we would be unconstitutionally encouraging a form of protest that is outside of our understanding of how change can and should be effected within our denomination.The decision concludes with a Comment that first points out that the constitutional obligation to pay per capita can only be changed by the General Assembly and that for the realities of the current circumstances "The time has come for the General Assembly to provide more guidance on this point." They then take this a step further and conclude the narrative with this observation:
The loss of per capita funds from financially strapped congregations is another issue altogether, and is addressed, in our opinion inadequately, by the vague standards relating to whether funds are available within presbyteries. Further, we would be remiss in not noting that reality of declining funding is a symptom, not the disease. The underlying causes must be prayerfully addressed at local, presbytery, synod and General Assembly levels, not in the denominational courts or in unconstitutional actions.
The second decision comes in a remedial case filed against San Francisco Presbytery related to its process in dismissing Community Presbyterian Church of Danville, California. In September of 2009 the Presbytery adopted a Gracious Dismissal Policy (version from Summer 2010 with corrections). In November 2010, after a ten month process that included a special informational presbytery meeting, the Presbytery dismissed the church with an agreement for payments to help offset the loss of per capita and mission funding, but no payments required for the congregation to keep the property. Three presbyters filed the remedial complaint charging that the Presbytery had not properly handled the case considering that property was involved. In their unanimous decision - Rev. Wilbert Tom, HR, Rev. David Hawbecker, HR, and Thomas Conrad, Complainants, v. The Presbytery of San Francisco, Respondent - the SPJC of the Synod of the Pacific did not sustain any of the charges, but for a variety of reasons.
As we delve into this we first need to pull that previous version of the Book of Order off the shelf since that was the constitution in effect at the time of the contested process and all citations are to that version. Two sections were front and center in this case and I am sure that you know what they are.
G-8.0201 Al l property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).and one of the responsibilities and powers of a presbytery
G-11.0103i . to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches in consultation with their members;I want to add two more notes at this point which were not in the forefront of this case but which were kept in mind. The first is the continuation of the section on property:
G-8.0301 Whenever property of, or held for, a particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ceases to be used by that church as a particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in accordance with this Constitution, such property shall be held, used, applied, transferred, or sold as provided by the presbytery.The second is a paragraph from the 1993 Nature of the Church Report to General Assembly (pg. 16)
The American tradition was being formed. In the Scottish church, all ultimate authority rested in and came from the assembly. But in the American church, the presbytery was the originating authority, relating particular churches into a larger whole. The 1788 Form of Government declared that ". ..no act of a General Assembly could become a standing rule without first being referred to the presbyteries, and securing the consent of at least a majority of them." The presbytery is the very heart of the Presbyterian system.The core thesis of the charges in the remedial case were that at worst the presbytery did not have the authority to dismiss a church with property because property "is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)" [i.e. the whole church must be involved]. At best, the case charged that the presbytery did not fulfill its duties as the trustee for the wider church by letting the property go without payment.
In the amended charges there were 13 specifications of error two of which were withdrawn by the Complainants during trial. I won't go through all of them since most were not sustained either because no relief could be granted or Complainants failed to meet the burden of proof. Three charges form the core of the complaint and the rational of the decision:
Specification of Error No. 1. Complainants contend that the Presbytery’s vote of November 9, 2010, to approve dismissal of the CPCD under terms which included Presbytery’s relinquishment of any and all interests of the PCUSA in the Property without compensation in favor of the EPC is an action which is based on an error in Constitutional interpretation, in that the Presbytery does not own the Property but holds the Property in trust for the use and benefit of the PCUSA (G-8.0201).The rational from the SPJC is remarkably brief in not sustaining these charges. They note that all parties agree the Trust Clause means the property is held for the benefit of the wider church. They then reiterate "Under G-11.0103i, Presbytery has the authority to dismiss a church in consultation with its members to another reformed body" and note that the Presbytery had a process in place and that process was faithfully followed. Having followed the process and in consistency with its policy, they note that the Presbytery exercised its discretion granted under G-8.0301. They then conclude:
Specification of Error No. 2. The Presbytery failed to meet its Constitutional responsibility as trustee in accordance with the Form of Government Part G, Chapter VIII of the Book of Order. As trustee, the Presbytery is obligated to act on behalf of the greater church, to ensure that all property held or used by its particular churches and their respective congregations is held, used and applied in a manner that faithfully advances and serves the ministry and witness of the PCUSA.
Specification of Error No. 4. The Presbytery acted against the Constitution of the PCUSA in that it failed to hold, use, apply, transfer or sell the Property for the benefit of the PCUSA. G-8.0301 provides: [quoted above]
...Taken together, the provisions of Part G Chapter VIII require the Presbytery to act as a faithful trustee on behalf of the PCUSA in exercising its responsibility and power under the above-referenced Chapter and at Part G Chapter XI, to “divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches in consultation with their members” (G-11.0103i). By its vote on November 9, 2010, the Presbytery failed to act as a faithful trustee under the Constitution.
In good faith, Presbytery determined that acceptance of the PET [Presbytery Engagement Team] recommendations for dismissal would best serve the overall witness and ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ, thus benefitting [sic] the PC(USA).Other charges not sustained because no admissible evidence was supplied or the burden of proof was not met include a couple financial ones - the small ratio of payments to Presbytery versus the value of the property and the cost of starting new ministries in the Presbytery. There were charges concerning the flawed nature of the Gracious Dismissal Policy and consideration of state law in the process which were not sustained because no relief could be granted. And two charges, one withdrawn and one not meeting the burden of proof/could not grant relief, questioned the qualifications of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as a Reformed body a church could be dismissed to.
In summary, the Presbytery did have the authority and did act faithfully and in good faith in dismissing the congregation with their property.
And now, the rest of the story...
This decision also contains a comment which notes the limited applicability of this decision not just because it was decided at the Synod level but because the Gracious Dismissal Policy has been suspended. In light of this first application of the policy the Presbytery decided to suspend the policy and review it and you can read the review team's September 2011 report. Regarding revisions specific to property and the Trust Clause, here is the relevant portion of the report's rational (edited slightly for length):
Moreover, San Francisco Presbytery’s original dismissal policy has been challenged in our church courts because of Presbytery’s responsibility for enforcing the property trust clause. It is simply not an option for a presbytery to opt out of a required constitutional responsibility for its enforcement.This revised policy, and proposed amendments to it, are still under discussion by the Presbytery and will probably be influenced by this SPJC decision.
We believe that the revised dismissal policy needs to address not only the requirements of the property trust clause, but also the importance of every church in fulfilling Presbytery’s mission (as it becomes clearly defined) within our geographic area. When a congregation seeks to withdraw, Presbytery should consider whether it needs to establish a replacement church in that community and the cost of such action. If a congregation walks away from our denomination without consideration for the injury suffered by the whole, by that departure, it will remind us of every congregation’s sinful tendency to be separate and self-sufficient. We all belong to one another and together constitute the risen Body of Christ.
We have therefore proposed that, ordinarily, a departing church will pay to Presbytery a minimum 10% of the value of the church property. This guidance is based, in part, on the Biblical concept of tithing. However, our policy provides flexibility for the teams negotiating on behalf of Presbytery and the congregation to adjust the recommended amount of compensation depending upon the particular circumstances of the congregation in question... In addition to the property issues, Presbytery will also have to discern in each situation its past, present and future mission with respect to the number of members withdrawing and those wishing to remain with PCUSA, the presence of other Presbyterian congregations in that vicinity, and ongoing mission and outreach efforts in the area.
So we have one decision that affirms presbytery obligations under our connectionalism, admittedly as interpreted as by the GA and its PJC. And we have another decision that affirms the presbytery as the basic unit to deal with congregational and presbytery property under the Trust Clause.
What next? Good question. Both decisions strike me as sound and consistent with current constitutional interpretations so I would be skeptical of the success of an appeal to the GAPJC. That does not mean that there won't be one. For the San Francisco case in particular, with the revision of the policy underway and the limited number of specifications of error that were considered to be in order and could be dealt with, I could see an appeal not being accepted because the case would be considered moot. We will see if any of the parties in these cases consider it beneficial to appeal.