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.]

12 thoughts on “The Diversity Of Dismissals From The PC(USA)

  1. Carmen Fowler LaBerge Post author

    Steve, thanks for this. Well done. I seems to me that some delving into the reasons for the contrast is important.

    FPC Houston: their financial deal was affected by the fact that the Houston-area presbytery’s AC had comparatively little bargaining strength in light of the ruling by the Texas Supreme Court that the denomination’s trust clause was unenforceable in the absence of a clear written trust instrument signed by the owner-in-title of the FPC Houston property.

    It is notable that options still exist for First Pres Houston. In Texas, they could disaffiliate. The desire of thousands of Presbyterians to align with ECO isn’t going to just disappear because the vote was 65% instead of 66%.

    As for MPPC, here’s my take on things: MPPC’s proposed terms of dismissal are a striking contrast with what was offered FPC Houston because of a difference in state property law and presbytery policy. The San Francisco presbytery is asking MPPC to pay about 15% of all assets, including those of an independent Foundation– and the MPPC leadership is encouraging the congregation to agree to do so. Why? What explains the difference? Unlike the Houston area presbytery’s AC, the San Francisco Presbytery’s AC is holding all the bargaining leverage.
    California state law, unlike Texas state law, applies hierarchical deference, not neutral principles. If MMPC does not agree to pay, the AC could assert original jurisdiction and take control of everything. If MPPC unilaterally disaffiliated and the presbytery filed suit to evict it from the premises the presbytery would win under CA law. The result would be just the opposite under TX law.
    Law isn’t everything, but it is also not nothing.

  2. Steve Salyards Post author

    Thanks for the small quibble – not sure how I missed that but clearly not something the spell check would find. Probably because my final proofing was done quickly over my afternoon coffee break. I have corrected that.

    I always appreciate the second set of eyes.

  3. Steve Salyards Post author

    Thanks for the detail Carmen.

    I am still digesting that latest Texas Supreme Court decision from September. An interesting read. Since it was sent back down to the trial court I will be interested to see how it plays out in the actual trial and likely appeals after there is a full decision and not just the summary judgement.

  4. Clay Brown Post author

    Actually, if I understand correctly, there were two church property cases the Texas Supreme Court decided upon last August. One case was remanded to the trial court. But the other case, Masterson v Diocese of Northwest Texas, regarding the property of an Episcopal church in San Angelo, was decided in favor of neutral principles rather than hierarchical deference. I’m not countering you, Steve, just adding more detail. If I’m in error, please let me know.

  5. Steve Salyards Post author

    Hi Clay,
    Thanks for the comments.

    The Masterson case is one of the ones I have been reading and personally I found it a very readable and good discussion of the legal theory involved. You are correct that it now forms the framework of Texas’ legal approach to Neutral Principals. But it does have these interesting lines:

    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.

    But as I look at both of the cases I have been reading, Masterson and the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, I thought in both cases the Texas Supreme Court overturned the summary judgement in the trial court and remanded the case back for further proceedings. But not being a lawyer I could be missing something critical in there. I was reading more for the legal theory and not the specific outcome.

  6. Jody Harrington Post author

    Another quibble: The presbytery in the First Houston case did not set up an AC under the BOO to bargain with the church. The gracious dismissal policy of the presbytery called for a Discernment Team made up equally of presbytery-appointed members and First Houston appointed members. The team facilitator had no vote and had to be agreed on both by presbytery and the church. The role of the Discernment Team was to facilitate and certify that the church followed the presbytery’s dismissal policy prior to and including the congregational vote and to report that to presbytery. They had no power to remove the session, pastors or attempt to seize property.

    If the 2/3 vote had been achieved, the payment from First Houston would have been determined by two formulas set out in the policy: one based on past contributions to presbytery and the other coming into play in the event loyalists certified to presbytery their desire to begin a new church development. In the latter case that formula would be based on the ratio of the loyalists signing up for the NCD and the insured value of the property of the church.

    As for the Episcopal church cases: The Texas Supreme Court remanded them with instructions to the lower court to revise its opinion in light of the new standard of neutral principles. That’s standard procedure when the court changes previous precedent.

  7. David Dawson Post author

    Has anyone researched the history of the property trust tradition of the Presbyterian Church? What was its original purpose and was that different than how it is being used today?

  8. Steve Salyards Post author

    I don’t know of a good reference to the ecclesiastical or theological traditions regarding property in the American Presbyterian tradition. That would be interesting to know.

    I do know from the civil case law that Presbyterians have been arguing over it for over 150 years. There are a number of landmark cases in church property law and roughly half of them come from Presbyterian churches that were arguing over property.

    The actual trust clause itself, as an explicit part of the constitution, is relatively modern. The earliest US Supreme Court decision I regularly see cited is Watson v. Jone, 1872. This came out of a property dispute over a Presbyterian church in Louisville and the court sided squarely with the denomination.

    Fast-forward 100 years and we have Jones v. Wolf, 1979. Again a Presbyterian church, but this is where the court introduced neutral principles. To highly simplify the decision, they said each state got to decide how church property cases would be handled but they did have to take into account denominational documents.

    The timing was convenient for the PC(USA) to introduce the explicit trust clause into the Book of Order with reunion in 1983.

    Both the PCUS and the UPCNA introduced the trust clause before reunion and it gets a bit sticky with churches that were originally PCUS because the Book of Church Order in one place talks about the trust clause and in another how the congregation owns the property. Not necessarily a contradiction in terms but 35 years later as courts have had to struggle with original documents it can get interesting.

    The civil side also gets complicated because the rules vary state by state even if the different states use neutral principles.

    I don’t know if that gets you started on this or helps in any way.

    There is a massive document online that covers the legal side but in looking at the history of the case law it also provides an insight into some of the historical background.

  9. Steve Salyards Post author

    Thanks for all the fine details.  As I indicated in the post, I have close ties to our presbytery’s dismissal process and it is interesting to see the similarities to what you outline (such as no AC and equal representation) as well as the differences (such as the neutral non-voting chair). I am particularly interested in the info you gave on how the NCD payment was handled. I wish we had a better process for that.

    This is great background – thanks for the info.

  10. David Dawson Post author

    I am also thinking about the purpose of the trust clause…other than to resolve a situation where a congregation is deeply divided.

    The following is part of a letter sent by the 1962 UPCUSA GA to the Cumberland Presbyterians:

    Fathers and Brethren:

    We are thankful that in these past several years we have begun to bridge the gulf that has existed between our churches, in the fellowship of the World Presbyterian Alliance and in less formal contacts and conversations, we believe that the Holy Spirit has been healing the wounds and pain caused by the original division of the Cumberland Presbytery in 1810, and by the only partially successful union of 1906.

    We are conscious of the fact that our fathers were responsible by their insensitivity to the needs of the frontier and by their provincialism, for a great share and the causes of the original schisms and we, their descendants, wish to express to you, the loyal descendants of the founders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, our sorrow for the part our Church played in this tragic division. We ask your forgiveness. We are conscious too that fifty-five years ago, and in the years immediately following, our church appeared to be more interested in church property and legal rights than in Christian love and witness. For this too, we ask forgiveness.

    We address you thus not in any immediate hope of reunion, but rather to encourage our two Churches to ever more intimate cooperation and common witness wherever our congregations are near each other. We would like to work with you as Christian brothers. We hope you will come to feel the same way towards us.

    Yours in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Marshall L. Scott, Moderator
    Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk

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