This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who Owns It?

            The PCUSA General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission has rendered a ruling on a case originating from the Presbytery of San Francisco, about the terms under which a congregation was, at its request, dismissed from the denomination with its property.  The GAPJC was apparently unhappy that the presbytery took so little account of the value of the congregation’s property, and urged presbyteries to do a better job of assessing the financial impact on the denomination of a church’s departure with its property.  In fact, the decision appears to take issue with the idea that it is the congregation’s property at all, agreeing with the statement that “the church property in question was in fact unequivocally owned by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
            The GAPJC does not repeat this affirmation in its own words in the decision, but they don’t contradict it either.  So, does the PCUSA “own” all the property of local churches? 
            On the one hand, if they do, they are not functioning like any other landlord I ever heard of.  It is the people of the local church, not the landlord/denomination, that pays for everything, from utilities, improvements, and maintenance/repairs, to the salaries of pastor and staff, to the mortgage. 
            On the other hand, I suppose, the congregation is permitted to use the denomination’s property “rent free,” as it were.  The denomination does ask for congregations to support its administration and mission, but this is voluntary. 
            I could understand the logic here if the denomination started out with all the property and then graciously allowed churches to manage it for missional purposes.  But if a congregation has title to some property which it has purchased, and then pays 100% of the expenses in acquiring and keeping up that property, in what sense can a larger body of which that congregation is a constituent part claim to “own” it? 
            (I have interpreted the denomination’s interest in a local church’s property as more like a “lien” than outright ownership.)
            Of course, agreeing to the “Trust Clause” is part of being a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation.  To some, and apparently the GAPJC is among this group, this is a sign of our connectionalism.  We are not, after all, Congregationalists.  Our congregations are not independent.  We are all part of a larger body, and we express that mutual commitment by voluntarily adopting this language about all property being held “in trust for the denomination.”  It’s like the congregations choose to relinquish some of their own sovereignty for the sake of this witness to our unity.
            Or it’s just a somewhat cynical way for a denomination to bind congregations to it by claiming some right to their property, holding the threat of legal action over their heads.  I’m just saying.
            The church of Jesus Christ is not properly held together by either fear of litigation or a desire to retain real estate.  It is joyful faithfulness to a common mission in discipleship to a common Lord that ought to bind us.  Christianity existed for its first three centuries without owning property at all, and grew like kudzu the whole time.  It was the idea of the Roman Empire that we should worship in large buildings… held, no doubt, in trust for the Empire…. 
            I am not saying the denomination should relinquish all interest in the property of its congregations.  And some kind of due process is beneficial.  There are cases where people have joined unsuspecting churches with the purpose of gaining a majority and voting to take the church out of the denomination, thus acquiring the assets for their own purposes.  We need to protect against such shenanigans.  But that does not require an assertion of ownership on the part of the denomination.  The procedures we are now developing at the presbytery level, based on the understanding that the presbytery has a kind of lien, should suffice.  After all, if we can trust presbyteries to administer ordination standards locally, then why not trust them to make decisions about property locally?    
            We slew one sacred cow of Presbyterianism when we ditched the denominational ordination standards of the old G-6.0106b.  It is time to slay the other one: the “Trust Clause” has to be reimagined so it is clear that the denomination does not “own” the property of local congregations.  Rather, we are bound together in love to advise each other in how best to use our property in witnessing to Jesus Christ.  In the end, that’s who the real owner is!  (Psalm 24:1)
            Either that or Louisville can tell me where to mail my bill for 30 years of mowing “their” lawns and shoveling “their” driveways….

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