Category Archives: ECO

Who Speaks For The Church – Or At Least The General Assembly?

In my time doing this blog and watching global Presbyterianism, one of the things that has caught my attention has been the variation between different traditions about who speaks for the denomination.

Now, it is first worth noting that when it comes to pronouncements, particularly social witness stands, many branches recognize that a governing body (judicatory, council – whatever term you use) speaks only for itself and can not bind the next meeting of that deliberative body to that statement or commit other levels of the denomination to it. This is not necessarily the case in all branches, particularly those with strong national infrastructure and definitive decision making at the highest level, but it is true for the polity of many branches that have placed the presbytery as the fundamental governing body and the authority of the other bodies derives from the presbyteries.

The question of who speaks for the church has been an active one recently in the PC(USA) as the Way Forward Commission has wrestled with this. (See the section on Communications in the Outlook article in the link) While not decided yet, something may come out in their final recommendations for consideration by the 223rd General Assembly in June 2018, particularly in the area of communications and the various agencies and offices speaking with one voice.

Globally Presbyterian branches fall into two categories as to who is the voice of the denomination. In general, American branches tend to hand that responsibility to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. However, elsewhere in the world the Moderator of the General Assembly or the General Synod tends to be the voice of that body.

I have been working with a semi-quantitative analysis of this over the last few months, but over the last couple weeks I realized there is a reasonable metric to do a quick sort on this. So here are the lists of who provided the official Christmas messages from different branches this year.

Moderators of the General Assembly or the General Synod

Stated Clerks of the General Assembly or the General Synod

Web sites checked where I did not find Christmas messages include the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, CCAP Zambia Synod, CCAP Blantyre Synod, CCAP Livingstonia Synod, Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (English site), Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago, Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), United Free Church of Scotland, Nonsubscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Presbyterian Church of Wales, Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, Free Presbyterian Church of North America, Presbyterian Church in America (but see below), Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Bible Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in Australia, Presbyterian Church in Australia in the State of New South Wales, Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, and the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. If I have missed any in this group, or other branches not listed please let me know and I will update.

So the obvious conclusion is that most Presbyterian branches don’t post a Christmas message on their web site. A number of explanations for this: A few of the branches still hold to the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God which has an Appendix against celebrating festivals or holy-days. For others, it is simply the expectation of the denomination – it is a nice idea but that is not what the GA or GS is really there for. And for others, the greetings are distributed in other forms and do not appear on the web site.

The other obvious conclusion is that while this quick analysis shows two obvious trends – Christmas messages are posted by the big institutional Presbyterian branches and they come from the Moderator unless you are an American branch – the other part is that a lot are left out. So back to the drawing board and maybe the semi-quantitative approach. (And this shift in focus to the stated clerk in American branches is an interesting phenomenon I am interested in reading more about, or tracking down more historical details if it has not been done yet.)

A few additional comments:

While the Presbyterian Church of Australia did not have a Christmas message, the web site does have a dedicated page for the Moderator’s comments.

The state branch, the Presbyterian Church of South Australia has begun functioning as a presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, but their Christmas message last year was written by the last Moderator, the Rev. Gary Ware.

The Presbyterian Church in America did not have a specific Christmas message, but their By Faith news arm does have a piece featuring one of their theology professors that does touch on Christmas theology.

And for the Church of Scotland, the advocacy and discussion of social witness policy is routinely delegated to the Convener of the Church and Society Council. Here are a couple recent examples of Kirk press releases related to “Church welcomes minimum pricing for alcohol ruling” and “Kirk hopes for a budget that will make Scotland a fairer and more equal society.”

Finally, something that was tracking with my other analysis but maybe is best considered an appendix here – a short case study on speaking for the denomination, in this case the PC(USA).

As the top continuing ecclesiastical officer the Stated Clerk speaks for the General Assembly, and not for him or herself, on matters related to policy of the PC(USA). This is covered in the Manual of the General Assembly.

Recently the Stated Clerk, The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, preached in South Korea as part of an ecumenical visit. The headline of the article said “Stated Clerk pledges repentance for No Gun Ri massacre: Nelson: ‘We’ll not let the silence continue’ about Korean War atrocity.” So the question is, as part of the sermon was he speaking for himself, or as the ecclesiastical officer of the PC(USA) was he speaking for the General Assembly?

Again, this was included as part of a sermon and the headline writer latched on to this for the article. Here is the full context of what the Stated Clerk said when he preached:

I cannot apologize for the government of the United States. However, we who are here today from the United States can pledge to not let the silence of this massacre continue. Just as the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse has called on the denomination to both acknowledge and repent of our silence as a denomination, we [the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)] must call upon the United States government to publicly repent of its actions at No Gun Ri.

He is clearly recounting the actions of the General Assembly, with an overture originating from the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse. The problem is that the 222nd General Assembly did not actually call for repentance on the part of any body or government, as the Stated Clerk implies. The final alternate resolution 1) Acknowledged the actions of the US military in the massacre, 2) Directs the Stated Clerk to ask the United States Government to acknowledge the actions, issue an apology and statement of regret as well as considering compensation, and include training for future military members.  And 3) work with the ecumenical partners for resources and additional statements of regret.

In the whole action the word repentance is used only once in the original rational from the Presbytery, which carries the weight of action only to the extent that the final resolution asks for its inclusion in communication about the action of the General Assembly.

So the polity question is: Based on the actions of the 222nd General Assembly, did the Stated Clerk faithfully represent it when he spoke for their action?

So I will leave it at that. I have a lot of other articles in the works so it may be a while before I return to this topic. And to a large degree, this is a topic of debate for us polity wonks and presbygeeks, but does appear to be an issue for the Way Forward Commission.

Your mileage may vary.

Info Related To Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief From American Presbyterian Branches

As the catastrophe of Hurricane, now Tropical Storm, Harvey continues to develop, American Presbyterian branches are responding with aid and prayers. Here are links to the latest information I am aware as well as a brief summary from each branch that I have found has posted online:  [Update with MSM links and some church info 8/30/17; more MSM links and church updates 8/31/17]

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
In a pre-landfall update they named the leaders and members of Good Shepherd ARPC in Houston, Hope Presbyterian ARPC in Pearland, and Faith Fellowship in Cypruss TX for prayer. A post-landfall report yesterday gives an update and a link to donate through their Good Samaritan Relief fund.

Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
Nothing obvious on the web site but an email/Twitter bulletin when out before landfall seeking prayers and updates. After landfall they have retweeted to help with relief through World Renew. You can get updates from World Renew on Twitter from @WorldRenew_net.

Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Information on donations is in both an EP Connections article as well as on their Emergency Relief page.

Orthodox Presbyterian Church
They have posted a number of resources for prayer and contributions including the article on the main site, the OPC Disaster Response Facebook page, and the OPC Short-Term Mission and Disaster Response web site. They ask us to keep in prayer the leaders and members of Cornerstone OPC in Houston and Providence OPC in Kingwood, TX. For updates keep an eye on the Facebook page.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is deployed on scene and beginning their work. There is PC(USA) coverage in a couple of articles posted on that site – Aug 27, and Aug 28. The Presbyterian Outlook has just posted a detailed article about PDA’s work there and options for supporting the efforts. The PDA site also includes worship resources for churches including a bulletin insert about the recovery work. Updates from PDA can be seen on their Twitter feed @PDAcares. Update: New article from PC(USA) on the work by PDA

Presbyterian Church in America
The PCA’s Mission to North America (MNA) Disaster Response team is also deploying to the area. There is a page with Disaster Updates that also has information for Prayer, Giving, Sending Supplies, and Preparing to Go to serve. Updates can be found on the Twitter feed @pcamna. Update: New update added to the Disaster Updates page.

That is the information I have found at this point. Let me know if you have additional resources and I will update as appropriate.

Our prayers and support go out to all those affected by this disaster.

UPDATE: Adding some links from the mainstream media that involve Presbyterians. Plenty that mention Presbyterian disaster relief organizations in where to give lists, but beyond that, some others I have seen:


Top Ten Presbyterian News Topics Of 2015

Once again, as I think back on the year and review what has happened I decided to make a list of the different themes that stood out to me from different Presbyterian branches. Here, in no particular order, is my list. Your list may vary.

Racial Reconciliation

One of the more dramatic moments in a Presbyterian General Assembly this year occurred at the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. A good narration of the action comes from Travis Hutchinson’s blog. He begins his post with this description of the personal resolution offered from the floor of the Assembly:

Mississippi Teaching Elders, Drs Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan entered a personal resolution at the beginning of the Assembly which acknowledged the involvement of our denomination (and our predecessor denomination) in promoting racism and failing to act to support the goals of the Civil Rights movement. It encouraged us to seek repentance and carry this message to our local churches. The resolution was referred to our Overtures Committee for a recommendation.

The Overtures Committee recommended referring it to the next GA to allow for it to be perfected but when it returned to the floor it was clear that many commissioners felt making the statement at the current Assembly was a more important action than waiting for refinement. But in that parallel universe that is Standing Rules and Parliamentary Procedure the choice before the Assembly was not to adopt the original motion but to refer it back to the Overtures Committee or refer it to the next GA. After much debate, a couple of votes and not a small amount of prayer the Assembly voted to send it to the next Assembly. Then a protest was filed “expressing [personal] confession of sin and hope for repentance.” Over 200 of the commissioners signed onto the protest according to the official news item. Another detailed description of the Assembly action on this item can be found on TE Timothy R. LeCroy’s blog.

Other news in this topic includes the continued work of the Reformed African American Network, the formation of the African American Presbyterian Fellowship within the PCA’s Mission to North America ministries, and the PC(USA) has launched an anti-racism campaign.

In the PC(USA) the presbyteries approved the addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions leaving only the final approval of the 222nd General Assembly in 2016.

Finally, in Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been working with the indigenous peoples and at the release of their final report the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada made a statement that acknowledged the pain of the past while expressing hope for the future.


Mass Shootings and Gun Violence

With several high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. this year it may be impossible to chronicle every Presbyterian connection. But two in particular caught my attention. The first was the shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June. Among many connections, the church has had a long and close connection to Second Presbyterian next door. I chronicled some of the many connections in a headlines piece at the time. The other tragedy was the recent San Bernardino shootings close to where I live and several friends were mentioned in local news stories about responses and pastoral care. The PC(USA) issued both a pastoral letter as well as an initial and then a follow-up news article.

In addition, the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia, issued her own personal statement about the situation and asking the denomination to seek ways to respond to gun violence in general. In addition, in light of all the shootings it was a year in which the PC(USA) film about gun violence, “Trigger“, was highlighted.

As I said above, there were multiple incidents world-wide and that same June Headlines piece also contained links to several stories about a terrorist attack in Tunisia that killed adherents from the Church of Scotland.


Presbyterian denominations and same-gender relationships

This was an issue across many Presbyterian branches this year with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada beginning a study process to consider making their standards more inclusive and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debating and sending to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act the proposed changes to their governing documents. For the Canadian church the study documents have been released. In the case of the Kirk the indication is the changes to the Acts and Proceedings have been approved by a majority of the presbyteries but the results will not be certified until next year.

In the American Presbyterian church, the PC(USA) presbyteries approved a change in the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. That change went into effect at the end of June and in early September the chapel at the PC(USA) national offices hosted its first same-gender wedding ceremony.


Reaction within the Presbyterian family to same-sex marriage decisions

The reaction to these decisions is worthy of its own item in the list with the reaction to the PC(USA) decision being swift and wide-spread. Within two weeks of the vote total being reached the National Black Church Initiative cut ties with the PC(USA) over the vote. A couple of months later the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) and the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Peru (IEPRP) ended mission partnerships on the national level. The PC(USA) has issued a news article acknowledging these breaks but also saying that other mission partners have decided to continue the partnerships.

Elsewhere, the decision by the Church of Scotland was a concern in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland which initially expressed “deep sorrow” at the decision and during their General Assembly decided that they would not send a representative to the Kirk’s 2016 General Assembly. Outside the Presbyterian family the Russian Orthodox Church has broken off ecumenical discussions with the Church of Scotland over this.


Shifting between Reformed branches

The movement of churches between different Presbyterian and Reformed branches continues unabated. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians announced that their membership had grown to over 240 churches, most are congregations that have departed the PC(USA). In Scotland the Free Church continues to see a few congregations and ministers wishing to move from the Church of Scotland. In addition, a few churches completed the process of transferring from the Reformed Church in America to the PCA.



With shifts in Reformed branches comes the question of taking or leaving property. Those moving from the Church of Scotland to the Free Church typically do not get to take it. University Reformed Church was assessed about $300,000 to take their campus to the PCA.

But bigger and more plentiful property disputes came from churches departing the PC(USA) including congregations that walked away, were graciously dismissed with a payment, kept their property in civil suits, lost their property in civil suits, and one of the more unusual cases where the court awarded the property to the PC(USA) faction of the congregation but not on behalf of the presbytery.

Other interesting property cases include a very convoluted property case in California with the KAPC and a case in Malawi where the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) “sued itself” over property.


Presbyterian branches working together

Particularly in light of very recent developments this might qualify as the most interesting topic of the year.

Let me begin with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America whose Unification Task Force is on track to bring a proposed set of bylaws to the 2016 General Assembly. This would put the two denominations on track to make final approvals in 2017 and unite in a single general assembly in 2018.

While not a move with unification in sight, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held their General Synods jointly in a move to strengthen the ties between these two streams of American Presbyterianism. For those not aware, each of these branches traces their heritage back to Scotland separately and apart from the mainstream branch of American Presbyterianism.

Finally, in a move that is not between two Presbyterian branches but between two national churches, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England just formally announced their intent to be more intentional in their joint work in what they are calling the Columba Declaration. This was followed by the Church of England’s Anglican partner in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, issuing something of a “what about us” statement.



In putting this list together it seemed at times that I could have filled it with humanitarian crises. But if there is one that that Presbyterians world-wide seemed not just outspoken about but responsive to it would be the Middle East refugee crisis.

Regarding statements, these came from all quarters including the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the PC(USA), and many others.

In terms of action, there are accounts of relief and resettlement efforts all over the news. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is partnering with the Hungarian Reformed Church. Presbyterian churches are among those across Canada ready to help resettle refugees. Similar things can be said for the U.S. where, among many towns and churches, Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta is ready to sponsor two families. And in Princeton, NJ, Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Seminary are working together to help resettle a family.

And we also have the account of a PC(USA) group traveling to Turkey and seeing relief efforts first hand as they worked in a local soup kitchen and food pantry to help feed Syrian refugees.

In another refugee story, the final Central American individual who found sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson was able to go home after 15 months under a confidential agreement. However, with an announced round of deportations coming up the church, with others, has responded that they are ready to offer sanctuary to more refugees who fear for their lives if they are deported.


Membership trends continue

Not much new to say here. As with all the mainstream churches in the U.S., the PC(USA) membership decline continues with a loss of 2.1% in the number of congregations and a 5.3% decline in the total membership. What is interesting, at least to me, is that when normalized and compared the membership decline in the PC(USA) over the last decade is very similar to the decline in the Church of Scotland.


Publications and Media

Not sure what it was this year but publications and media, particularly those recognized with awards and honors, seemed to catch my attention more than most years.

Let me begin with the Learn resources from the Church of Scotland, particularly the Learn Eldership book that I reviewed last spring. It has been joined by two additional pieces – hard to call the relatively short How Will Our Children Have Faith? a book – that I might get time to review in the future.

But the series in general, and the Learn Eldership in particular, have been recognized by different organizations. In addition to being a best seller, Eldership was a finalist in the Publications category of the Scottish Creative Awards. It was also recognized in the Innovation category as being among the crème-de-la crème of Scottish magazines in the Scottish Magazine Awards.

From Westminster John Knox Press we have a winner of the 2015 Christianity Today Book Awards in the Theology/Ethics category. It is Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. (Yes, technically announced in 2014 but awarded in 2015)

I would also include in this topic the just-released book by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is described as the “first full scholarly account of the theological and social forces that brought about [the PCA’s] creation.”

Finally, two films directed by PC(USA) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance agency photojournalist David Barnhart have been invited to the Beaufort International Film Festival in February. The films are “Kepulihan: When the Waters Recede” about the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and “Locked in a Box” about immigration detention facilities.


So there you have my list of what caught my attention.

Some of you may be wondering where all the issues that were happening in Louisville are? In my list above I tried to capture more broad themes and those are more denomination specific. But, to add them here the news out of Louisville included: an outside audit of cost overruns at the last Presbyterian Youth Triennium; continued investigation, dismissals and lawsuits related to the New Church Initiative fiscal management; the departure of Linda Valentine and hiring of Tony de la Rosa in the Executive Director position; the search for a new Stated Clerk and Gradye Parsons announcing he would not apply again; and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s own budget crisis.

For more information specific to the PC(USA) you can check out the Presbyterian Outlook’s list of top stories. For that matter, the Free Church of Scotland has their own year in review, and the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship agency has one as well.

And so I hope that 2015 was a good year for you and my prayers for all of you for a good 2016. My year will start out on a very high note, so stay tuned for that. Until then

Happy New Year and a Joyful Hogmanay

A Closer Look At Denominations And Twitter

My musing about Twitter accounts that I posted a week ago started a bunch of conversations and got me looking at it a bit more closely. Now fair warning – that post was the beginning of a look at the diversity of a denomination by thinking about how many different “voices” there are coming from that branch. Ultimately I want to find a way to categorize those voices on a diversity spectrum but a  couple of metrics I have tried already did not pan out. However, in casting the net a bit wider, that is in bringing more denominations into the data set, an interesting relationship appeared.

As we drill into that data a brief reminder about the data set. I was looking for official Twitter accounts from a denomination. My original list from the PC(USA) included the primary account, agencies, committees, periodicals and news sources. It did not include what I characterized as commercial project-specific accounts – like the Glory to God Hymnal and the Feasting on the Word series – as well as not counting seminaries and conference centers. As I move on to other denominations I will stick to these same parameters even though some have seminaries and conference centers with much closer oversight by their highest governing bodies. In addition, I am choosing at the onset of this analysis to include the inactive, duplicate and periodical accounts.

In this search for denominational Twitter accounts I found one more for the PC(USA) and have added that to the list in the original post and annotated it as an update. For the rest of the usual American Presbyterian branches I have these that I found:

ARPC – 32,000 members (from current issue of The ARP)

RPCNA – 7,000 members (from current issue of The ARP)

OPC – 31,122 (from Statistician’s report to 2015 GA)

No official Twitter accounts found

PCA – 358,516 members (from Clerk’s summary of 2015 GA)

EPC – 149,527 reported (from statistical report to 2015 GA)

BPC – 3500 members (Wikipedia)

No official Twitter accounts found

ECO – 60,000 members (report from 2014 Synod meeting)

Cumberland – 72,370 members (2015 GA Minutes Statistical Reports for 2014)

CPCA – 7676 members (2014 GA Minutes Statistical Reports for 2013)

No official Twitter accounts found

So if we take these and plot Twitter accounts versus membership what do we get? Here is the graph.


That’s a pretty nice trend line there — all the data give a correlation of 0.990. Tough to beat that. But those who regularly deal with statistics will notice a couple of issues.

First and foremost the trend line is highly leveraged. That is to say that you have a lot of data on the left and then a really, really long space until you get to the PC(USA) on the right. When calculating the trend that isolated data point can dominate and pull the trend line to itself. Compared to the actual number of 39 Twitter accounts the trend line predicts 39.06 accounts. Yes, there is the clear possibility of leveraging.

Second, even the data point for the PCA is a bit isolated there away from the cluster. In a sense, we have the statistics of small numbers with three meaningful populations: the PC(USA) point on the right, the PCA point in the middle and the cluster containing everyone else on the left.

However, looking at the data and the trend line it still seems to be a decent fit. Yes, the PC(USA) has leveraged it but the predicted 9.11 accounts for the PCA is still reasonably close to the actual 10 accounts. So let’s test the leveraging.

Dropping the PC(USA) point from the linear regression and fitting only on the lower nine points, including the PCA, the correlation drops to 0.827. So there is a correlation drop indicating some leveraging but that is still a respectably strong number. But have a look at the plot…


So if the trend line is only based on the lower nine data points and then extrapolated out four times that distance to predict the PC(USA) value, it only over-estimates by 1.54. This is starting to look like a more robust relationship.

Having now had a look at the data let me tell you that what I found is significantly different than my expected outcome. You might have noticed that a bit of my bias crept into the last post regarding the PC(USA) having a high number of Twitter accounts. As I was compiling that list it seemed to me that the church had gone wild in creating accounts.  Well, when viewed from the perspective of number of accounts per thousand members (that would be 0.024 accounts/member for the trend line if you care) the number is right in line with everyone else. They just happen to be four times larger than the next largest branch so the number of accounts is four times larger.

From a statistical point of view I went into this expecting that I would never be able to plot this on a linear line. I was expecting to have to fit it to a log scale on the number of accounts axis. Furthermore, from past experience I also expected the leveraging to be more dramatic and the extrapolated line to miss by a wider margin. So I share this little experiment to document something that truly surprised me when I took a close look at it. And furthermore, the decision of which accounts to include and which to exclude from the count was made at the beginning and carried through the analysis. It would of course be interesting to try this again with other subsets but I have not tried those and will leave that for another day.

Now, what we can say is that the number of accounts that the PCA and the PC(USA) have are completely in line with each other and generally with the smaller churches as well. While the smaller branches scatter a bit more around the line the trend is generally evident in that cluster.

What we can not say is whether, from an administrative and social media point of view, the PC(USA) and maybe the PCA have too many Twitter accounts. There is a statistical relationship here but that does not tell us whether the number of accounts per member helps or does not help get the message out. Furthermore, this relationship does not answer any questions about the consistency or coherence of the message in social media or the diversity of the branch as a whole.

Some of my preliminary thoughts are what this might mean for scaling relationships of institutional structure and self-similarity as a means of probing institutional development. In particular, it might be an interesting on-going study to see how accounts might be added as ECO becomes larger and how accounts might go dormant as the PC(USA) scales back its operations.

But it is a very interesting relationship and I put it out there for any social media theorists or practitioners who might be interested in this sort of thing. As I said, I was surprised by the proportionality, robustness and consistency of the relationship. I welcome any of you that are interested to continue pondering with me what possible implications there might be.

A Brief, Preliminary Comment On An Interesting Church Property Decision

As regular readers know I tend to wait until I have a full court decision to break down a court ruling. In this case, This is a preliminary ruling, technically a memorandum decision, and both sides have 10 days to file responses before it is final, so I am going to trust a news article. Risky thing to do but 1) the ruling as reported seems straight forward and logical even if a bit different than usual, and 2) from the full reading the article seems fair and balanced so it seems reasonable.

From the Kansas City area KCTV 5 News reports that Judge Kevin Moriarty has reached a preliminary decision in the case of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley and Heartland Presbytery. I have discussed this church before concerning some of the nuances with the divided congregation with the two groups, an ECO group and a PC(USA) group, sharing a building until this gets straightened out.

The article begins with a very nice discussion of the situation with quotes from all sides in the matter. Good on-the-ground reporting. It is not until towards the end that it mentions the court ruling late yesterday and how Judge Moriarty diverged from the traditional legal approach in Kansas, that of hierarchical deference, and instead used neutral principles in rendering his decision. To quote the article:

Moriarty said in his ruling that church law claiming the property was held “in trust” for the regional branch wasn’t relevant. The deed names the local church, not the Presbytery. The mortgages name the local church, not the Presbytery. If the presbytery wanted a claim, the judge said, they could have placed a provision on those legal documents when they signed over the deed to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley decades ago.

The building and property, he said, belonged to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, not Heartland Presbytery, which had filed the suit.

Now, in a “be careful what you wish for” twist, the decision continues. The property may belong to the church and not the presbytery, but with two groups claiming ownership to which does the property belong? To this the judge invoked ecclesiastical deference and said it was a church doctrine dispute and the civil courts should not get involved. Therefore, since the property was established by the PC(USA) and one group was recognized by the PC(USA) as the True Church then it gets the property.

A most interesting twist where the property does not belong to the PC(USA) in spite of the Trust Clause, but belongs to the PC(USA) congregation because of history.

As stated, this is the draft trial decision and it may change on final and is subject to possible appeal. When I have more details, and if worth another post at this time, I will probably just note at the top that this post has been superseded and point you at a new one.

In my reading of these property cases this is new legal ground. We shall see where this goes…

A Brief Note On Texas Church Property Court Cases

There was a brief ripple on the church property legal front this past week as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Texas Supreme Court Decision regarding the Episcopal Church cases. Personally I found this to be an expected outcome and frankly a non-event for reasons I will explain in a minute, but it occasioned a look at another Presbyterian case that has some related characteristics.

The Texas case is the one I discussed recently where the Texas Supreme Court overturned the summary judgement granted to the mainline Episcopal Church in the lower courts based on it being a hierarchical denomination. The Texas decision then sent it back down to the trial court for a full hearing on neutral principals but The Episcopal Church appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court which this past week included it in a summary order of the cases that they declined to hear.

As I said in the lede, nothing in this struck me as unusual as the high courts prefer to weigh in after a case has run its course in the lower courts. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has, to my knowledge, yet to accept any of the recent church property cases for review. As a more experienced observer of the Episcopal church property cases, Allan Haley who writes at the Anglican Curmudgeon, says in his analysis of this order:

The order was expected, because neither decision by the Texas Supreme Court was final. The U. S. Supreme Court almost never agrees to review lower court decisions until they are final. In these two cases, the Fort Worth matter was sent back to Judge Chupp’s court for a trial, and the Church of the Good Shepherd case was likewise sent back to the trial court in San Angelo for further proceedings.

The action by SCOTUS now frees both of those cases to move ahead.

Reading further in his analysis I was interested to see that the parties who have left the mainline Episcopal church have filed for summary judgement and how, in his view of the cases, now it all comes down to one specific question:

In Fort Worth, Bishop Iker’s attorneys have filed a motion for summary judgment which is scheduled for a hearing in December. Given the decision by the Texas Supreme Court, the only question remaining for the trial court to decide is whether or not ECUSA managed to create a valid trust in the Diocese’s property which the Diocese did not revoke when it decided to withdraw in 2008. In Texas all trusts are deemed to be fully revocable at any time, unless the language creating the trust states otherwise.

I am not sure that is the only issue to be resolved but I don’t follow these with the focus or knowledge Mr. Haley does. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

This news has brought to the forefront another Presbyterian case that I have not previously included in these discussions, that of Windwood Presbyterian Church in Houston. As a Christian Post article details the history, they began the process of getting clear title to their property back in 2008 and departed for ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians this past May with the property issue still unresolved. As in the Episcopal cases they initially lost on summary judgement in the Texas courts because of the hierarchical church argument but the August 2013 Texas Supreme Court decision caused the Appellate Court to vacate their earlier decision and send the case back to the trial court for a full hearing.

But Mr. Haley’s comment above about whether a valid trust was created caught my eye because that will clearly play a role in this case. Windwood was a member of the PCUS at the time of the union creating the PC(USA) and the PCUS churches had the option of avoiding the trust clause.  I quote from the fourth page of the Appellate decision (emphasis mine):

The Book of Order also contains a provision permitting a local church, with in eight years of the formation of the PCUSA, to opt out of the trust provision if it had not been subject to a similar provision before the formation of the PCUSA. Windwood never exercised this right.

While Windwood has multiple arguments for it’s clear ownership of the property under a neutral principles approach, it seems that their not having exercised this option is a significant hurdle they have to cross. This would appear to be an acknowledgement by the church back in 1991 (eight years after the union) that they are subject to the trust clause in a hierarchical church. I am curious to see how all this balances out as the courts see it.

As a side note, I would point out the case of Timberridge Church in Georgia where Atlanta Presbytery successfully argued that the opt-out was only one of several tests of whether the trust clause was in place and that the congregation was still subject to it in spite of exercising the option. But to my knowledge, that case is unique regarding the interpretation of the opt-out option.

So, as usual, each case carries its own nuances. And, based upon past history on these cases, whichever side prevails in the trial court appeals can be expected. We will see where all this leads.

A Property Settlement In Texas

My most recent post was on “A Matter of Perspective.” Well, as I read the news from Texas yesterday there were certainly multiple perspectives, some might go as far as to call it spin, in the different accounts of a recent property settlement.

The news was that Highland Park Presbyterian Church and Grace Presbytery had reached a mediated settlement in a civil suit brought by the church that allows Highland Park to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians with its property. The headline in the press is that the monetary portion of the agreement has Highland Park paying the Presbytery $7.8 million in the settlement.

What initially caught my attention were the statements from each side with each one having a favorable spin. The church’s statement begins:

After much deliberation and prayer, last night HPPC’s elders, trustees and pastors unanimously approved the settlement agreement previously approved by Grace Presbytery over the ongoing property litigation. This resolves once and for all that the congregation of Highland Park Presbyterian Church owns and controls the assets of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, free and clear of any claims by the PC(USA). This result achieves HPPC’s goal in the litigation of clarifying its exclusive ownership and control of its property.

The Presbytery statement (which is reproduced on the PC(USA) news page) lede is:

Highland Park Presbyterian Church will pay $7.8 million to Grace Presbytery in order to obtain both a release of its obligations under the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s trust clause and ecclesiastical dismissal from the denomination.

And as you might expect you will not find the term “trust clause” in the church’s statement although it is mentioned by the pastor in his video on that page.

The other wording that caught my attention was how the monetary settlement was presented, or spun if you will. There is no question that it is $7.8 million and we are not told whether there is a breakdown for real estate, other assets and past or future per capita or mission giving. But the Presbytery describes the amount as “The $7.8 million settlement figure represents 26% of Highland Park’s “approximately thirty million dollars” of property, as alleged in Paragraph 18 of Highland Park’s amended petition filed in the lawsuit.” By contrast the church statement says “In the settlement, HPPC has agreed to pay Grace Presbytery $7.8 million, or 11% of the fair market value of the approximately $70 million of assets that were at issue in the litigation.”

And both sides cite their experts about the strength of their claims. In an April update the church says “Based on a review of HPPC records from 1925 through the most recent Texas Supreme Court rulings, Prof. Johanson states without a doubt that HPPC holds title to all of its church property and that none of it is subject to any trust agreement with the PC(USA) or Grace Presbytery.” Similarly, the presbytery settlement announcement has the line “Ultimately, three experts in Texas trust law retained by Grace Presbytery agreed that Highland Park’s agreement to hold its property in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination was enforceable under neutral principles of Texas law. ”

Since Highland Park initiated the lawsuit it is interesting to consider their reasons for settling at this time. The stated purpose of the lawsuit was to clarify the nature of the trust clause and ownership of their property under Texas law – something that is not clear at this time as I will discuss in a minute. A follow-up letter from the session provides some additional reasons including that the legal filing will provide a shield and time for the church to look at its options.

In the video statement from the Pastor and Head of Staff TE Bryan Dunagan regarding the settlement he does talk about the witness of the legal proceedings saying:

“We believe that it would not be a good witness to the community of Dallas to allow this litigation to run its course in the court system. Moving forward with a prolonged court battle would jeopardize our mission, our outreach efforts and our ongoing ministry for years to come.”

While I accept and respect that statement, for those of us that have been through this we know there are also plenty of practical reasons to settle. In particular it allows the church to put the case behind them and move on. It is also a matter of counting the cost: What are the chances of prevailing in the courts a couple of years from now versus what can we settle for now.

In the end each side seems to have gotten an important result. The church has gotten their dismissal with property from the PC(USA) and in the $7.8 million payment the presbytery – and by extension the denomination – has gotten a tacit acknowledgement of the trust clause.

Which brings us to the future of the trust clause in Texas…

The most advanced case regarding the trust clause and the application of Texas’ neutral principles test is a case in The Episcopal Church – Masterson and others v. Diocese of Northwest Texas and others. In the trial court the Diocese, representing The Episcopal Church, was granted summary judgement and on appeal it was affirmed. However, the Texas Supreme Court in their decision considered the issue in light of neutral principles, overturned the summary judgement and sent it back down to the trial court for a full hearing.

While Highland Park mentions this decision as a favorable sign for them in their early communication, I don’t think a particular church in a hierarchical denomination in Texas should jump to conclusions too quickly.

Let me begin by saying that I found the court decision, written by Justice Johnson, an interesting read and actually a great primer on the legal theories of church property law and their development.

When the decision gets to its final summary of Texas law, it says this (pg. 18-19, emphasis added):

The method by which this Court addressed the issues in [ a previous Texas case Brown v. Clark, 1909, ] remains the appropriate method for Texas courts to address such issues. Courts do not have jurisdiction to decide questions of an ecclesiastical or inherently religious nature, so as to those questions they must defer to decisions of appropriate ecclesiastical decision makers. But Texas courts are bound to exercise jurisdiction vested in them by the Texas Constitution and cannot delegate their judicial prerogative where jurisdiction exists. Properly exercising jurisdiction requires courts to apply neutral principles of law to non-ecclesiastical issues involving religious entities in the same manner as they apply those principles to other entities and issues. Thus, courts are to apply neutral principles of law to issues such as land titles, trusts, and corporate formation, governance, and dissolution, even when religious entities are involved.

We recognize that differences between ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical issues will not always be distinct, and that many disputes of the type before us will require courts to analyze church documents and organizational structures to some degree. Further, deferring to decisions of ecclesiastical bodies in matters reserved to them by the First Amendment may, in some instances, effectively determine the property rights in question. See Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 709-10; Brown,116 S.W. at 364-65. Nevertheless, in our view the neutral principles methodology simply requires courts to conform to fundamental principles: they fulfill their constitutional obligation to exercise jurisdiction where it exists, yet refrain from exercising jurisdiction where it does not exist. The neutral principles methodology also respects and enforces the manner in which religious entities and their adherents choose to structure their organizations and their property rights in the same manner as those structures and rights are respected and enforced for other persons and entities.

As I read this decision, and particularly the highlighted section of the second paragraph, the high court seems to be leaving open the possibility that in a hierarchical denomination the ecclesiastical structure could be considered off limits to the courts and as such may  “…effectively determine the property rights in question.” This will of course have to go to trial in the Masterson case and then most likely be tested and interpreted on multiple rounds of appeal. But the hole the Texas Supreme Court decision seems to leave for ecclesiastical independence might be large enough that this decision is not a simple win for neutral principles but could be much more complicated.

So with Highland Park out of the legal mix that won’t be a Presbyterian test case for Texas, but it will be interesting to see how the Masterson case ends up as it winds its way back through the courts over the next couple of years.

So as each party in this dispute finds something positive in the settlement and the case is ultimately kept from going to trial, we wish them all well and we will see how the legal landscape in Texas develops.

UPDATE: After publishing this two other items were published that relate to this:

An article in the Christian Post has quotes from the church’s communications director and says that the $7.8 million figure was arrived at by taking the $70 million fair market value of the assets and taking 11% of that based on the percentage of members who voted “no”.

On the Layman website Carmen Fowler Laberge asks “Why did Highland Park settle?” and has an analysis much like mine above, although she reaches slightly different conclusions.

PC(USA) 2013 Membership Summary — A Look At The Categories

I have to admit to being caught a bit off guard when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released their membership numbers a couple of weeks ago. The summary numbers are typically released right around the time of the start of General Assembly in years that it meets. As for whether the early release was because they were ready or they wanted to get bad news out well before the GA I will leave to others to speculate.

Once again, I took a look at the numbers and wondered “what can I possibly say about them that is not being said by others and is worth my time?” Well, in thinking about it a bit I decided to drill down and look specifically at the categories of membership gain and loss and see if there was interesting information if we picked them apart a bit.

For the data set I use the Summary Statistics released by the Office of the Stated Clerk. While for many things the Comparative Statistics from Research Services are more detailed, for the gains and losses categories the Summary works better. Rummaging around on the web site I got summaries from 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2013 taking the data back to 2005.

I decided not to deal in absolute numbers but to look at gains and losses as percentages of the total membership relative to the previous year’s total membership. This will help filter out the trend and allow a better year-to-year comparison.

First let’s look at where the gains have come from for the last nine years. Gains are reported in four categories – Profession of Faith, Reaffirmation, and Restoration for those 17 and younger, the same for those 18 and over, Certificate (i.e. documented transfers) and Other.

 Year  Profess <17 Profess >18 Certificate Other Total
2005  1.04%  2.10%  1.54% 0.62% 5.29%
 2006  1.05%  2.07% 1.46% 0.53% 5.10%
 2007  0.97%  2.00%  1.33% 0.51% 4.81%
 2008  0.95%  1.98%  1.30% 0.46% 4.68%
 2009  0.96% 1.97% 1.17%  0.48% 4.57%
 2010  0.91% 1.93%  1.04% 0.45% 4.33%
 2011  0.90%  1.81% 1.00% 0.59%  4.30%
 2012  0.84%  1.61% 0.99% 0.57%  4.00%
 2013  0.81%  1.49% 0.97% 0.68% 3.95%

Here is the data in graphical terms. This is a stacked graph so for any given component its value is the distance between that symbol and the one below it. The plotted value of the top symbol (for Certificate gains) is the number in the Total column in the table above.

It is interesting that the Other category has held relatively constant – there was a bit of a dip but some recovery in recent years. The Profession of Faith for 17 and under has a bit of a drop, significant in its own right but smaller than the remaining two in both an absolute and proportional comparison. The real decreases are seen in the Profession of Faith for 18 and over and the Transfer by Certificate. So we have not just a problem retaining the youth as they grow up but getting them back to church as adults.

Turning to the categories of losses, here is the breakdown shown in corresponding table and graph form. This table also includes the percentage net change to the total membership number.

 Year Death Certificate Other Total Total Net Change
2005  1.53%  1.21% 4.60%  7.34% -2.05%
 2006  1.50% 1.21% 4.41%  7.12%  -2.01%
 2007  1.48%  1.34% 4.53%  7.35%  -2.54%
 2008  1.54%  1.55% 4.73%  7.82% -3.14%
 2009  1.53% 1.30%  4.68% 7.52% -2.94%
 2010  1.56%  1.44% 4.27% 7.27%  -2.94%
 2011  1.58% 1.14% 4.74% 7.46% -3.16%
 2012  1.53% 2.67% 5.07% 9.27% -5.27%
 2013  1.55% 2.71% 4.47%  8.73% -4.79%

It is interesting here that losses from Death are fairly stable and the losses by Other show some greater variability but do seem to fall into a bit of a range. To no surprise the spike is in losses by Certificate from churches being dismissed and their membership being transferred to the new denomination. And, as usual, the largest source of loss is the Other category – members walking out the door.

Bottom Line? Not only is the PC(USA) losing members – accelerated in the last couple of years by dismissals – but the gains are decreasing on a percentage basis each year as well. Without an increase in gains there is no way to offset the losses.

So how do we explain this? While a number of explanations come to mind let me discuss four possibilities. And let me emphasize that these explanations are not exclusive from one another and that this data set alone is probably not sufficient to clearly distinguish between them – more work would have to be done.

1. The departing churches were the biggest contributors to growth. For many this is a temping explanation and there is a hint that this may be a contributor. It does appear that as the dismissals have accelerated over the last two or three years that the gains in membership by profession of faith have an accelerated decrease. A quick plot, not shown here, did show a suggestive correlation, but the data are clustered to the point that interpolating between the clusters would be problematic.

This is an easy explanation to fall back on since building churches and making disciples are part of the mission statement of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians and so you could argue that churches drawn to ECO would be more growth-focused. The problem is that the trend has persisted for longer than ECO has been in existence so this could be only a partial and recent contributor, recognizing that there was an earlier exodus to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

2. Fatigue or Distraction: Another thing that comes to mind is that the PC(USA) is falling behind in making disciples because it is tired or it is distracted. Maybe we are tired out or distracted by our internal discussions about various issues (fill in the blank yourself or see what bubbles to the surface at GA next week). Or maybe, with an aging population we are losing the energy and drive to reach out to bring others into the church or distracted by the work of keeping the church, both people and building, going.

3. Public Relations Problems: In a similar vain, rather than our internal discussions only distracting us, maybe it presents a public relations problem for the church. Are we presenting to those that we are tying to reach an image that is not appealing, one that does not resonate with the culture today? And this may not be just a result of the ongoing discussions in the church but could include those other issues that are brought up like worship style and music as well as building style or conditions.

4. Counting the Wrong Thing: Maybe, just maybe, we are counting the wrong thing. We are frequently told that younger generations are not joiners. We have an ecclesiastical theology of the Body of Christ and a covenant body that sees joining as a statement about being called by God belonging to Christ. That may work in our theology but does not necessarily work with current culture. I would not advocate giving up that ecclesiology, but for statistical purposes recognize that our worshiping communities may not all reflect that view. There is the drive to form 1001 New Worshiping Communities and at the present time their structure and activity is not reflected in the annual statistics as they are currently collected and reported. So can we hold onto our covenant theology but for statistical purposes recognize some who are part of us but see the joining through the eyes of modern culture and our outreach?

Just a few thoughts I have, you probably have a few of your own.

The take-away for me from this exercise is that our losses are just one part of the equation and that our decreasing gains are a significant issue that also must be addressed if the PC(USA) is to consider itself a vital denomination.

The Diversity Of Dismissals From The PC(USA)

As regular readers know I have not just been following the many twists and turns of the dismissals of churches from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as an outside observer but at the level of my own presbytery I have found myself deeply involved in the process. And so it is with a great deal of interest that I have been following the recent news about dismissals of churches elsewhere. And while I have been seeing the mainstream media focusing on the “stay or go” side of the story, because of my level of involvement locally I have a great deal of interest in the fine details of the terms under which the churches are considering dismissal. My intent today is to drill down a bit into that aspect of the story with regards to two recent cases.

First, I did want to reflect for a moment on how dismissals have changed over the last two or three years. I have always been intrigued that before about three years ago the largest churches in the PC(USA) seemed to be staying with the denomination even if they were expressing concern about the direction that the church was headed. From my discussions with others the reasons seem to be two-fold. The first is that they did not see a good place to go. The only destination similar enough to the PC(USA) for most to even consider was the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and over the years there were a good number of churches that headed in that direction to the extent that now the EPC has more than doubled in size based on the number of congregations. But as the EPC was working through these growing pains it was generally not seen as a good destination for what passes as a mega-church in the PC(USA). With the founding of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians in 2012 a more suitable destination was available.

To be completely accurate, one of the churches on the list, First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, did transfer to the EPC. But while it was the first on the list of largest churches to depart it was at about the same time that ECO was founded and another church, First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, began their dismissal process soon after.

The second reason is that the PC(USA) was trying to work out what was meant by Gracious Dismissal. As I will talk about in a minute, it looks like we still are. So while the motion was passed by the 218th General Assembly in 2008 it appears we have reached a point where a number of the kinks have been worked out and there is some greater understanding of what might be involved. This was aided by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s decision in Tom, et al. v. Presbytery of San Francisco (Tom decision) that somewhat clarified the application of the Trust Clause in these matters.

So, we have transitioned from a point where none of the 15 largest churches in the denomination were actively moving towards departure just a few years ago to the point today where several have or are considering it. If we consider the 2011 list of the 15 largest churches in the PC(USA) there are two churches that have now been formally dismissed ( including FPC Orlando to the EPC ) and three more that are in the dismissal process, at least at the beginning of this month…

Which brings us to one of those churches that voted this past Sunday and in doing so decided to stay with the  PC(USA) – First Presbyterian Church of Houston.

As I mentioned above, the media story here has been “stay or go” and while there was a strong majority of the membership that voted to transfer to ECO they fell 36 votes short of the 2/3 supermajority required in the dismissal agreement with Presbytery of New Covenant. This was out of a total of 1,681 members who voted.

One article from the Houston Chronicle gave these thoughts from pastor and head of staff, Teaching Elder Jim Birchfield:

“This is the toughest possible outcome in many people’s minds,” Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield
said. “To fall a few votes short will be very tough for them. I’m a
little bit disappointed. I came out very strongly and passionately in
favor of (the move).”

Birchfield said it was too early to assess the long-term
repercussions of the attempt to switch denominations, and he declined to
predict whether some members will leave the church as a result. He said
his immediate task is to begin smoothing over the differences for the
sake of keeping the 3,100 member church intact.
“We have to begin reconciling the two sides, and that will begin
immediately,” he said. “We’ll also begin reconciling among the
leadership. For the most part, we have had a very gracious debate.”

I would note that there is a longer article from the Chronicle available to digital subscribers.

Other news sources covered similar aspects of the meeting with the Texas Tribune providing this description of the debate:

For more than an hour on Sunday, church members provided testimony for and against leaving PCUSA, some of it tearful.

Those in favor of leaving PCUSA spoke of the national organization’s
“theological drift” and called for a more “Christ-centered theology.”


Opponents of the switch argued for theological diversity. PCUSA does
not require churches to ordain openly gay pastors if they choose not to.
They bemoaned what they saw as inevitable fallout from the decision,
and said that appealing to stricter evangelist views would only further
isolate young members from the church.

In particularly fiery testimony, one opposing member said she feared
the switch would make her “a member of a congregation that distinguishes
itself by its homophobia.”

For a more nuanced look at the meeting I would refer you to the article from the Presbyterian Outlook which has a bit more on the process and procedure.

But returning to the Texas Tribune article, one paragraph caught my attention and I want to use it as the starting point to drill down a bit. They describe the property of the church like this:

First Presbyterian of Houston was an obvious target for the fledgling
denomination. The Houston church has roughly 3,100 members, owns
property valued at more than $100 million and boasts an $18 million
endowment. The church is 175 years old.

Now consider the material that was provided by the church from a link that was on it’s Season of Decision web page. The link has now been removed but as of this writing the document with the details of the terms for possible departure is still available. (But could disappear soon.) Besides the rationale for the departure the document has some legal notes, the report of the presbytery team and the details of payments the church would have had to make to the presbytery. I have not figured out which of the two listed options would be used but the larger of the two would have been payments to the presbytery on a five year declining scale totaling $343,236. The rationale for the amount is not given and based upon negotiations in my own presbytery I would not expect it to be so. But for a $100 million property and $18 million endowment it seems like a pretty good deal. This will become more apparent in a minute.

One other item on that page caught my attention, particularly in light of the actual vote tallies, and this could have changed this picture dramatically. While no specifics or formulas are given there is this paragraph about additional payments:

There are two additional payments that might be made to Presbytery. The amounts are not known at this time. If the required majority votes to be dismissed and more than 10% of our congregation vote to remain in PCUSA, and a petition to start a new church is signed by more than 25 members, and Presbytery approves the new church start, we will owe a payment to start a new church. In addition we will likely be required to make a voluntary gift to the Presbytery’s New Church Development Fund.

It is interesting to wonder about the what-ifs had those extra 36 members been there and the vote had gone the other way, but just barely, what the magnitude of these payments would have been. (And I had to smile at the language about being “required to make a voluntary gift…” Probably a required gift of a voluntary amount.)

Let us now turn our attention to another vote, this time at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in San Francisco Presbytery scheduled for this coming weekend. When I started hearing details of this church dismissal I had to think that the presbytery was taking the instructions in the Tom decision very seriously:

When a congregation seeks dismissal under G-11.0103i (now G-3.0301a), it is the responsibility of the presbytery to fulfill its fiduciary duty under the Trust Clause. This fiduciary duty requires that the presbytery exercise due diligence regarding the value of the property of the congregation seeking dismissal. Due diligence, of necessity, includes not only an evaluation of the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances but also financial analysis of the value of the property at stake. Payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for the separate evaluation of the value of the property held in trust.

According to the information on the church web site the payment to the presbytery will be $8.89 million if the congregation votes to accept the terms and request dismissal. Yes, it is 1.5 orders of magnitude larger than the terms that FPC Houston got. In addition, for FPC Houston the quorum requirement was 30% of the membership, it is 50% for Menlo Park. And the required supermajority is 3/4 for Menlo Park while it was the 2/3 for FPC Houston. The differences due to presbytery policy are striking for two churches of very similar size (3,567 members for FPC Houston and 3,382 members for Menlo Park according to the 2012 list). As my title says – The Diversity of Dismissals.

The PC(USA)’s polity places dismissals firmly in the authority of the presbytery and each church was obliged to deal with their presbytery in coming to an agreement about the terms of dismissal. One of the places that Menlo Park discusses the terms of the agreement is in Pastor John Ortberg’s February 2nd sermon. In there he talks about the process of arriving at these numbers saying:

Where did this figure come from, and why is it so high? Sorry for the complexity around this, but we want to be as transparent as we can. From the perspective of our church, part of what is suboptimal in our current denominational system is that there are no clear objective guidelines to arrive at a financial figure in a process like this one.

But regarding this financial number, in looking at a lot of the material on their web site I have not seen a breakdown of where this number actually comes from, if there is per capita, mission, property and new church development built into it.

For more details about the voting process there is a short video clip online from February 16th where Ruling Elder Ken Perez discusses what is coming up. In that discussion he also announces that a 5 year reversionary clause on the main property has been added by the presbytery to the terms of the agreement. The church’s main web page about the dismissal has a lot of information and there is another page devoted to this weekend’s vote.

Let me return to TE Ortberg’s February 2nd sermon for a moment and highlight a couple of the comments he made. In his discussion he talks about the various options the congregation has relative to the large cost of departure. Besides paying the millions of dollars, one option is that they could turn down the offer and stay. Another is that they could walk away from their property. He discusses how neither of these fits the missional vision of the church. The fourth option is litigation and he responds to that option this way:

We could say, “We’ll go to court.” However, we think public litigation would be a bad witness for the church. It’s not good for the bride of Jesus. It’s not what God is calling us to do, and nobody wanted to do that.

While not doubting that this is their rationale in avoiding this path, and respecting them greatly for it, it is also worth noting that based on case law in the State of California, specifically the Episcopal Church Cases decided by the State Supreme Court, they would have an uphill battle in retaining control of the property through civil court.

I want to make two final comments about Menlo Park PC’s missional vision as expressed in a couple of different places. In the church’s online material the argument that is regularly presented for transferring is that the necessity of working with the presbytery is burdensome and getting in the way of their missional vision. As TE Ortberg says in that February 2nd sermon:

As you all know, we have a vision. We believe we have a mission. We want to reach thousands of people for Jesus Christ around this Bay Area that needs him so much. We want to launch new sites to help us do that.

We believe we simply cannot do that effectively if we remain in the denomination.

And this is a sentiment that is echoed in the comments by RE Perez where he talks about the issues they have had with the presbytery. Instead of emphasizing what may be a mismatch in the visions of the two governing bodies it sounds to my listening that he is leaning to a more congregational form of government and he wants to get the presbytery out of the way so the church can have more autonomy and flexibility.

Taking this one step further, as I look at all this material throughout it there is a tendency to speak of problems with the denomination when some of the issues are specifically with the presbytery. Picky polity point I know, but we do work on hierarchical structure where presbyteries do have identities and some autonomy from the synods and the General Assembly. It strikes me that the PC(USA) is getting painted with too broad a brush.

The second item I wanted to mention is a good article from The Almanac titled Changes Ahead for Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. In some ways I think the article does a better job of in explaining the church’s vision than the church’s own online material does. For example, it does discuss the issue of the church wanting to expand as a multi-site church while running up against the limitations of geographic presbyteries. It says:

MPPC Communications Director Nicole Laubscher
said ECO’s 110 churches are organized into nine presbyteries by both
geography and similarity, such as size, as opposed to geography alone as
done by the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“For us it’s about the pace of change,” she
said. ECO offers more flexibility, whereas PCUSA is designed for small
churches in a single location. “It creates tremendous barriers.”

When MPPC first sought to expand outside Menlo
Park, she said, “It was really hard. At the time, we didn’t know if we
would just get a no. Instead of being supported, encouraged and helped,
it was another barrier to hurdle. … it’s just not the right framework
to support a larger, multi-site church.”

In PCUSA, the presbytery, or regional
governing body, is responsible for planning and placing new churches.
Tom Conrad, chair of the PCUSA team selected to deal with the proposed
departure of the Menlo Park church, agreed the concept of opening
multiple sites doesn’t fit well with that organization’s system; as a
result, there are “precious few” multi-site churches.

The article also does a good job of exploring the downside to the dismissal agreement.

Some former and current members of MPPC said
they think the theological differences are influencing the church’s
desire to change organizations.

Debra Holvick, who stopped attending several years ago, got re-involved to be able to participate in the upcoming vote.

“This was the church I was baptized in, I went
to Sunday school there, I was married there, my father’s memorial was
held there, my mother remarried there and my children were raised
there,” she told the Almanac. “That church has been a huge part of my
life, so I felt responsible for it and I don’t want them to take it in
an unchristian-like direction and say this is part of who I am.”

Ms. Holvick said taking a stance against gay
clergy and same-sex marriage may not be a major motivation for changing
denominations, but it does come with the package.

Later on there are comments about whether the almost $9 million buy-out price could be “better spent funding scholarships and buying food for those in need in the local community…”

So we wait for the meeting this Sunday to see how the congregation as a whole discerns the will of God regarding its future affiliations. Stay tuned…

[Ed. note: For the record, I did resist using the cliché “Houston we have a problem” as a subtitle to this post. But yes, another post and its correction did use a variation on it.]

Church Membership And Affinity In The PC(USA)

In the spirit of my tag line – “I never met a data set I didn’t like” – I was thinking about how to drill down a bit further into the statistical results related to the size of churches being dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In an ideal world there would either be statistical information about the theological leanings of every church in the PC(USA) or I could go to all their web sites and figure that out. Well, I don’t have the time to visit 10,000-plus web sites (and not every church has one) to divine their theological positions and I am not aware of a publicly available statistical study of all the PC(USA) churches. So I had to find something else.

What I will analyze as a related data set is the membership list of the Fellowship of Presbyterians that is posted on their web site. For the record, since this is a bit of a dynamic list, the version I will be using was copied on October 14, 2013.

The list has their member churches in two categories, those that are Fellowship members and those that are members of the related body, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. It also lists individuals who are members and on this pass that was not used but I will probably come back to that in a later post. For each of the churches in the list I searched a couple of sources for their 2012 membership. The primary source was the church directory for the PC(USA). For churches dismissed to ECO this source usually did not have the membership numbers so I turned instead to the presbytery statistics.

Problems arose for those dismissed before the 2012 numbers were recorded. In some cases I had their 2011 membership numbers. In other cases I had to use the 2007 number listed in the presbytery statistics. Out of 72 ECO congregations that are counted there were 16 that I used the 2007 number and 7 that I had the 2011 membership number. In addition, three congregations are fellowships with no data, one had no reported data and two are churches that divided with one group going to ECO and a continuing congregation in the PC(USA). None of these were counted. All of this and notes about naming differences are documented with the summary statistics in the comments on the spreadsheet.

So what are the summary statistics? Well, for all 256 churches counted the mean membership is 568.0 and the median is 301.5. For the subset of churches in ECO it is a mean of 417.9 members and a median of 170 for those 72 churches. For the 184 churches in the Fellowship only, the mean is 626.7 and the median is 343 members. We should consider the ECO numbers qualitative, or at best an upper limit, because of the heterogeneous nature of the data set, but even considering that the numbers are high.

For comparison, the numbers for all of the PC(USA) are a mean of 180 and a median of 89 members for 10,262 congregations. If you want to roll the statistics back, in 2007 the mean was 204 and the median was 103, still well below the statistics for the mixed data set.

Now, it would be nice to extrapolate these numbers to all of the churches that might be considered theologically conservative since, for example, the three churches in my presbytery that have requested dismissal to ECO, while statistically larger than the average PC(USA) congregation, are not now members of the Fellowship. While tempting, that does have its statistical pitfalls. What we can say is that these sub-groups which have self-identified together around particular tenets of conservative theology are statically larger, and apparently significantly larger, than average PC(USA) congregations and so there is at least the suggestion that this could hold true for conservative churches in the denomination as a whole.  We will come back to this after a bit more explanation.

I wanted to drill down into this idea a bit more so I found a couple of other data sets to test this against. The first is the membership of the More Light Presbyterians and the second is the membership of the Covenant Network. Here More Light chapters were removed from the data set as were fellowships and NCD’s. For a church that appears on both lists and was recently dismissed from the PC(USA) the 2007 membership numbers were used and the same for a church which did not report a number in 2012. There were seven churches who reported no data at all, one more I could not find but found what appears to be the continuing congregation in the same town, and one church that I could find no trace of it having existed outside this list. The two organizations are separate entities so in addition to their individual statistics I calculated the stats for the intersection of the data sets (i.e. those that are in both) as well as the union of the sets (i.e. for every church on both lists I had numbers for). The lists were copied from the internet on October 16, 2013. As with the other data set the numbers, comments and summary statistics are available on my spreadsheet

So, the 179 More Light churches have a mean membership of 213.7 and a median of 116. Close to, but still above the stats for the denomination as a whole. The Covenant Network churches have significantly higher numbers for their 359 churches – a mean of 322.6 and a median membership of 190. The group of 102 churches that are in both organizations has a mean membership of 217.1 and a median of 138. For all 436 churches the mean is 302.6 and the median is 172 members.

So it appears that having a leaning towards liberal theology is also good for membership. In fact the ECO data set and the MLP/Covenant combined data sets have similar numbers with ECO having a median of 170 and the MLP+Covenant having a median of 172.

Now, how well is the PC(USA) represented? These are groups that we have been and are hearing about all the time in the PC(USA). However, there are 256 congregations on the Fellowship list representing about 2.5% of the total congregations in the PC(USA). (Counting only the Fellowship exclusive congregations it is 184 or 1.8% of the congregations.) Similarly, on the combined MLP and Covenant Network list it is 436 congregations or 4.2%. As for membership the Fellowship list would represent 7.9% of the PC(USA) membership and the MLP+Covenant list is 7.1% of the total PC(USA) membership. In other words, this analysis covers 15% of the membership of the PC(USA) leaving 85% not represented. And if the congregations in these data sets are statistically larger it means the the remainder are on average smaller.

So far I have only discussed the summary statistics. To take this one step further let’s look at the distribution of congregation sizes using the binning that Research Services uses in its annual report.

PC(USA) ECO Fellowship MLP  Covenant
Number of
Number % Number % Number % Number % Number %
1-50 3112 30.4 7 9.7 3 1.6 31 17.3 38 10.6
51-100 2394 23.4 15 20.8 17 9.2 50 27.9 68 18.9
101-150 1384 13.5 11 15.3 22 12.0 21 11.7 42 11.7
151-200 876 8.6 6 8.3 16 8.7 18 10.1 35 9.8
201-300 922 9.0 6 8.3 25 13.6 24 13.4 54 15.0
301-500 811 7.9 9 12.5 40 21.7 19 10.6 65 18.1
501-800 400 3.9 11 15.3 21 11.4 10 5.6 33 9.2
801-1200 186 1.8 4 5.6 20 10.9 4 2.2 12 3.3
1201-1600 71 0.7 0 0.0 7 3.8 1 0.6 5 1.4
>1600 78 0.8 3 4.2 13 7.1 1 0.6 7 2.0

And in graphical form (you can right click and view image for a better view).

It can be seen that for the PC(USA) as a whole the peak of the distribution is in the range for the smallest congregations. Interestingly, the four data sets considered here have, to varying degrees, a double peaked distribution. The most even of these peaks can be seen in the Covenant Network distribution with one peak in the 51-100 range and the second in the 301-500 range. For the More Light Presbyterians and ECO the lower peak in the 51-100 range is higher while for the Fellowship of Presbyterians the peak in the 301-500 range is higher. (I would note that I suspect that the double peak effect is artificially enhanced by the choice of ranges for the bins and that is something I might investigate more in the future.)

Remembering that correlation does not imply causation, there are three approaches to interpreting these results that shows there is something about having an association with  these affinity groups with theological leanings that is
good for church membership.

The first possibility is that churches with these declared affinity associations and therefore explicit theological leanings tend to attract people and so have larger memberships.

The second possibility is that when churches have larger memberships it provides something – possibility the resources of members’ time, talents, gifts and service – to be able to expand their ministry beyond just Word and Sacrament in that location so as to join and participate with various affinity groups.

The third possibility is to consider neither of these factors as the specific cause but to think of both of these as components of a larger picture. What I personally suspect is going on is that each of
these is simply one facet of a dynamic and defined church ministry with many different aspects that also probably includes living into a
mission statement (explicit or implicit), outreach and some form of
activism reflecting the church’s theological leaning and chosen affinity with a group.

In other words, these churches have higher membership because they are visible and
active and the affinity group membership is just one part of that
activity. So it is the sum total of this activity would tend to attract members to that church.

Based on my experience and observations I personally think the best interpretation is the third one, but there is nothing I see in the data itself to distinguish here. And yes, I am looking at a general trend in all of these churches and circumstances and therefore explanation will vary from one specific church to the next.

One tie-in here is the study from two years ago done by the PC(USA) Research Services called Fastest Growing Presbyterian Churches. My data above does not come anywhere close to testing all of the components listed in that report, but there are a couple of interesting points of correspondence. The first is with size and the report found, based on worship attendance not membership, that the median size of fast-growing congregations is 150 as opposed to a median worship size of 78 for the PC(USA) as a whole. The study also found that theologically liberal churches have a slight tendency to be faster-growing churches but the largest difference between the fast-growing churches and the rest of the PC(USA) was in the theologically moderate range. On the theologically conservative end the fastest-growing churches were not as well represented. While not specific to my data, the study does support the third interpretation above showing that the fastest-growing churches have more programs both within the church and for the community. (And yes, in this discussion there is an implicit association of “fastest-growing” with church size.)

One thing that should be noted, and may be reflected in the study of fastest-growing churches, is another study that showed that churches dismissed to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church actually had steeper membership declines than the average for the PC(USA). This study is by the Rev. Mike Cole titled “The Statistical Grass Is Not Greener on the Other Side“. In my own data gathering for this piece in looking at the presbytery reports I qualitatively noticed that before dismissal many of the churches that went to ECO had above average membership declines. It will be interesting to see longer-term if dismissal is better or worse for membership numbers.

Well that is enough geekiness for right now – I’ve got a bunch of other writing to get finished in the next couple of days. But there is plenty here to think about and plenty of jumping off points for future investigations as well as revisiting this list as the situation evolves. Stay tuned.