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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Trust Clause.

            Rick Ufford-Chase has talked about how we in the gathering of Jesus’ disciples need to be joined together in community by “cohesion,” not “coercion.”  I think by cohesion he means voluntarily, by sharing a common vision, mission, purpose, and approach.  Coercion, on the other hand, would have to do with forcing a false togetherness by threats, extortion, hostage-taking, and parliamentary technicalities.
            In the Presbyterian Church (USA) we have something in our Form of Government called the Trust Clause.  It basically requires presbytery approval before a church can buy, sell, or encumber its real estate (G-4.0203).  The Trust Clause is an example of how something originally intended to be an expression of cohesion, can be twisted into a tactic of coercion.
            As far as I can tell, the Trust Clause as we now know it did not exist prior to 1983, when it was invented and added to the new Book of Order.  The polities of both the former denominations – the PCUS (Southern) and the UPCUSA (Northern) – included provisions requiring presbytery approval for congregations to buy, sell, or encumber property.  But the whole “all property is held in trust for the denomination” thing was not there.  I don’t know if, prior to reunion, many Presbyterians were afflicted with the misunderstanding that the denomination or the presbytery “owns” all of congregations’ property.  I do know that since the Trust Clause was added this view became so widespread that a GAPJC explicitly stated as much a couple of years ago.  Did the presbyteries voting on the Plan of Reunion back then understand themselves to be handing all congregational property over to the denomination?  (My recollection is that many members of UPCUSA presbyteries didn’t even read the Plan of Reunion before voting for it….)
            I understand the thinking behind having presbyteries approve congregational property transactions.  It is prudent and responsible for presbyteries to aid individual churches over issues of buying and selling property.  There have been historical examples of gross abuses.  Property/real estate is often a church’s most valuable asset.  By far.  In our polity, the local session is remarkably powerful.  Under malignant leadership, a session could easily clear the rolls of certain members, and use the remaining congregational majority to sell or reallocate the church’s property according to some agenda not reflecting the will of the actual, original members.  So giving the presbytery some oversight and authority over what churches do with their property makes sense.  It is an expression of our mutual looking out for each other.  I get that.
            However, when the Trust Clause is used to prevent responsible and missional decisions from being made by a faithful, legitimate, and historical congregation, or to basically extort money from a congregation as the price of letting them do the mission they feel called to do, or when it is used to arbitrarily dissolve a congregation simply because the presbytery wants to use its assets for something else, then the Trust Clause enables an abuse of a presbytery’s power.  It is one thing when brothers and sisters gather to support each other; it is quite another when a group of siblings murder one of their own in order to collect the life insurance.
            The wording of the Trust Clause is legally unclear: all property is “held in trust” for the denomination.  What does that even mean?  Some, including that recent GAPJC decision, think this means that the denomination “owns” all church property.  I don’t see how this is true in any meaningful sense.  Most local churches hold the legal title to their property.  And the denomination does not act in any way like a landlord or an owner.  It is the members of the church who pay 100% of a church’s property upkeep, maintenance, improvements, utilities, insurance, etc.  At most, the interest the presbytery and denomination have in a local church’s property is more like a lien.  The presbytery must sign off on the sale or encumbrance of a church’s property.
            The Trust Clause also creates an artificial division between churches whose assets are in the form of property, and churches whose assets include large amounts of cash.  Under the Trust Clause, a cash-poor church that wants to support its mission by liquidating a manse, or selling an acre of real estate, is subject to the withering scrutiny of a presbytery. 
            Churches, however, that have significant cash reserves, may do as they please with their resources, no matter how counter-missional.  Indeed, a large church may even be positively hemorrhaging members and money, but if they still have sufficient cash they need no presbytery approval to do anything not liable to invoke the Rules of Discipline.  Buying steeples, pipe-organs, stained-glass windows, not to mention paying the Head of Staff a 6-figure salary, that’s all fine. 
            Furthermore, to say that a presbytery has a conflict of interest when it makes decisions about dissolving a church, knowing that it will receive all the assets of any church it dissolves, is an understatement.  (Presbyterians are usually highly allergic to conflicts of interest; in this area it somehow simply doesn’t occur to us.)  The Trust Clause thus incentivizes the closing of churches, irrespective of the quality of the churches’ ministry.
            The Trust Clause is a throwback to a time when the denomination mistook itself for a centralized business corporation, with churches as franchises reporting up to the home office.  But now, in a time when we have increasing numbers of cash-poor churches, we need to figure out a better and fairer tool for making decisions about church property.  Most importantly, we have to place the mission of Jesus Christ ahead of concerns to protect and preserve churches’ assets.  God gives us resources to spend on mission, not to hoard in a portfolio.
            The Form of Government stresses the congregation as the basic form of ecclesial life (G-1.0101).  It says that the main concern of presbyteries is to support the mission of their constituent congregations (G-3.0301).  Surely a way can be found by which we continue to protect churches from abuses, and at the same time open up avenues for churches that are doing effective mission to use their own assets in supporting their mission.   

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