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.]