Why So Fast? Was it Really The “Louisville Papers”?

The session at First and Calvary Presbyterian Church unexpectedly called a rushed meeting of the congregation with the minimum two weeks notice at the end of summer to vote on the congregation’s continuing affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA).  At the same time they sought and received court protection of the church property.  When asked why they moved so fast they answered, the “Louisville Papers.”

That answer says a lot about First and Calvary’s current leadership.

If you are not familiar with the “Louisville Papers” they are actually two documents that were prepared in the denomination’s Louisville headquarters more than a decade ago to guide and advise presbyteries regarding property issues during a congregational schism or request for dismissal.

They are based, through and through, on our denomination’s constitution.  Nothing in the documents should come as a surprise to any elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who has studied our Book of Order and understands our polity.  And despite beliefs to the contrary they do not represent a secret nefarious plan of attack.  In fact they not only encourage a fair process but a process that also “must feel fair to those affected.”  They seek reconciliation and a win-win whenever possible and they allow for the release of the congregation with the church property.   

Of course I wish these documents were not necessary but there are factions within some congregations (it’s rarely the whole congregation) who are choosing to leave the denomination and the issue of what to do with the church property has to be decided. These documents help explain our constitution’s requirements.    

The first document is…

“Processes for use by presbyteries in responding to congregations seeking to withdraw,” it was prepared by the Office of the General Assembly’s Department of Constitutional Services in 2005.  This document discusses factors and strategies presbyteries should consider as church property matters arise within the governing bodies of the church and is sometimes referred to as the polity memorandum.  

The second document is…

“Church Property Disputes:  A Resource for Those Representing Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Presbyteries and True Churches in the Civil Courts,” it was prepared by the General Assembly Council’s Office of Legal Services, first published in 2001 with a final revision in 2005.  This document focuses on church property disputes within the civil courts and is sometimes referred to as the legal memorandum.

Mark Tammen, author of the polity memorandum and Eric Graninger, author of the legal memorandum, released a statement about these two documents that was published in The Presbyterian Outlook in 2007.  In that statement they wrote,

“The Polity Memorandum and the Legal Memorandum were created as resources enabling presbyteries to better understand and work with these processes. Presbyteries are in no manner compelled to use these documents. They are simply advisory and, hopefully, helpful.  While some may believe that the Legal Memo presents matters in rather stark terms, this simply reflects the legal process and terminology of secular litigation, where decisions are made by attorneys and judges (for whom Presbyterianism may be wholly foreign) under strict rules of evidence and procedure. The Legal Memo is a practical introduction to civil litigation, to assist presbyteries when they find themselves in such circumstances, but is by no means intended to encourage recourse to that forum.

You can read a copy of their full statement here.

In 2007 The Presbyterian Outlook published an article titled “20 minutes with Cliff Kirkpatrick.”  In that article Clifton Kirkpatrick, who was the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly and Chief Executive of the Office of the General Assembly at the time the “Louisville Papers” were published said,

“… we produce manuals for committees on ministry, manuals for everybody else, and that is a manual of how the legal issues play out in the life of the church, but the advice we give to presbyteries consistently is, again, pastorally to share accurate information with people, to seek to find wherever possible win-win solutions, to consider seriously whether or not a petition to withdraw with property is the correct one, to try to work on mutually agreed positions that will uphold that constitutional position, and only if those are violated, to look at the legal process. But we’ve got a process–which is part of why we have this thick Book of Order–with rules for discipline, administrative commissions, and the like–we do have a way to work that out in the church, and I think that’s the biblical way to approach this.”

In the same article Clifton Kirkpatrick specifically said,

… they (the “Louisville Papers”) are not fundamentally what we are advising the church [to do]. Part of it is our dilemma on how do we communicate effectively the advice we have sent to the church? Very directly from our office is this piece called, ‘Responding Pastorally to Troubled Churches’.  It is urging people to start at a very different place.”

You can read a copy of “Responding Pastorally to Troubled Churches” here.

The two documents are clear that…

  1. The first step is to see if there are simply misunderstandings about the denomination that can be cleared up.  
  2. The second step, if there are genuine irreconcilable differences between the congregation and the denomination, is for the presbytery to determine what will best advance the witness of the Presbyterian Church in that region – which may include dismissing the congregation.  
  3. The legal process is only recommended if all else fails and there is no other way to go. “But,” Clifton says, “we ought not to be, as Christians, bringing lawsuits against one another to solve problems in the church.”

Despite all of this there has been a successful pejorative campaign to frame the documents as a preemptive hardline, even draconian legal strategy prescribed by the headquarters in Louisville for presbyteries to follow when a congregation indicates they are interested in seeking dismissal from the denomination.   

For example one headline in The Layman about the “Louisville Papers” read, “PCUSA Lawyers Advise Hardline Tactics in Church Property Disputes.”

In another article, also published in The Laymen, it said, “Taken together, the two documents represent a punitive legal game plan to be followed by lawyers representing the PCUSA in the event that one or more churches seek to disaffiliate from the denomination. The content of The Louisville Papers demonstrate that a church that does not have a lawyer of its own is going into a knife fight unarmed.”  

While there have been a few cases that did end up in court – often initiated by the congregation like in First and Calvary’s case – hundreds of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations have been released with the church property since the “Louisville Papers” were published without any legal action.  

It is The Laymen, not the “Louisville Papers,” that suggest the Presbyterian Church (USA) is coming at congregations with lawyers and knifes.  

In fact John Calvin Presbytery sent a letter to the congregation at First and Calvary dated August 11, 2015 that specifically said, “The presbytery has not ever threatened to remove a congregation from its building or to tamper with its ministry, and never will do so.”  John Calvin Presbytery is currently working with several of its other congregations who are seeking dismissal without any threat of legal action.  

You can read a copy of John Calvin Presbytery’s letter to the congregation at First and Calvary here.

Nevertheless enough of the leadership at First and Calvary apparently believed they were going to be attacked by lawyers in a knife fight and decided to bypass the presbytery’s established discernment and dismissal procedure and to exit the denomination with the church property as fast as they could.  

Rather than go through the presbytery’s process which may have meant negotiating a modest financial settlement for the church property the majority of First and Calvary’s leadership decided that was not a price they were willing to pay.  However the cost of hiring attorneys, hurting many members, breaking the congregation’s long standing relationship with John Calvin Presbytery, and reneging on the ordination vows they had taken to uphold our denomination’s constitution apparently was a price they were willing to pay.  

And so with the decision made to pay that heavy price First and Calvary’s leadership hired an out of state attorney closely associated with The Layman to advise them and then quickly called for a vote of the congregation; a vote not recognized by the presbytery or our constitution and a vote at which no discussion from the floor was allowed.  

When the votes were counted fear and misunderstanding had won.

A perfect example of this can be found in the comment section of an article published in The Laymen following the vote by a member of First and Calvary who wrote that learning about the “Louisville Papers” was the final straw for him and “many other members” in the congregation in their decision to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).  This member went on to say  “If you should read them (referring to the “Louisville Papers”), you might get an idea of the extent of my outrage…The first notation is ‘#1 Anyone who might consider leaving the PC(USA) is a sinner.’ Wow, pretty strong words!

I would agree those are pretty strong words but contrary to what this member said you won’t actually find them anywhere in the “Louisville Papers.”  You will find them however – word for word –  in a very misleading article published by The Layman in 2007.  

What the “Louisville Papers” do say however is that the way some people are choosing to leave the PC(USA) is sinful, specifically those who “sinfully threaten the peace and unity of Christ’s Church.”  

I would say the answer to why First and Calvary’s leadership acted so fast this summer has much more to do with them than it does the with the “Louisville Papers.”  The kind of emotional, reactionary decision making First and Calvary’s leadership demonstrated in response to the “Louisville Papers” is a far cry from the steady, disciplined leadership First and Calvary has historically known and enjoyed.

Moreover, if First and Calvary’s leadership had done their due diligence they would have seen these papers a long time ago during their discernment process.  The “Louisville Papers” were referenced in the material the discernment committee said they studied last fall and posted online for the congregation to read earlier this year.  There is no reason why the papers should have come as a surprise to First and Calvary’s leadership late this summer.

If First and Calvary’s leadership really believes that the “Louisville Papers” were the reason they needed to act so fast this summer they are blind to their own crisis and ironically need the help John Calvin Presbytery could offer them now more than ever.