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.

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To Have Lawsuits With One Another is Already a Defeat for You

courtroom

The relationship to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of a congregation can be severed only by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery (G-3.0303b). If there is a schism within the membership of a congregation and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate congregations within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the congregation at the time of the schism. ~ PC(USA) Book of Order, Section G-4.0207


Presbyterians understand there may be times when decisions have been made in the church and our conscience no longer allows us to remain a part of the body.  But we have shared an understanding since the 18th century that when we cannot either actively concur with or passively submit to a decision of the church we will peaceably withdraw without attempting to make any schism.

First and foremost that is how Presbyterians handle unconscionable objections to decisions that have been made – we peaceably withdraw without attempting to make any schism.

However, in an attempt to find a gracious alternative, many, if not all presbyteries have written and voted into practice dismissal policies that outline the process a congregation and presbytery will go through when discerning their ongoing relationship when they reach one of these unconscionable thresholds.

But when a congregation’s leaders who wish to leave the denomination decide to disregard these two options and instead make an end run through the civil court system to secure the church property they are flat out breaking their ordination vows to be governed by our church’s polity (Book of Order, section W-4.4003).

Moreover, they are also violating our trust clause which says,

“all property held by or for a congregation, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a congregation or of a higher council or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” ~Book of Order, section G-4.0203

When the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission made its ruling on the Tom Case in October 2012 it stated that our trust clause,

“reflects our understanding of the church as a communion of saints across time, with responsibilities both to those who came before and those who will follow. When a congregation seeks to leave the PC(USA), it is breaking what is often a significant historic relationship; it is also departing from a fellowship in which its officers have participated, by whose polity they have pledged to be governed, and with which many members may feel bonds of affection.”

But ordination vows and trust clauses are still not the only reasons a congregation’s leadership should keep the issue out of the civil court.  Taking church disputes to the state is not biblical, which is ironic considering those who want to leave the denomination say they are leaving because the denomination no longer upholds biblical standards.

Conservative, evangelical members of the denomination will likely be familiar with the teaching of R.C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier Ministries.  R.C. Sproul stated in his July 1, 2015 broadcast titled The Sword and The Keys, when the church and state meddle in each other’s affairs, they usurp the authority God has delegated to each body and the church errs when it looks to the state to settle its disputes.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXIII, Section 3 teaches,

“Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and Sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith.”

And in 1 Corinthians, one of Paul’s most important letters Paul writes in chapter 6:1-8,

“When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.”

R.C. Sproul, The Westminster Confession of Faith, and the word of God all agree; the church is not to go to the state to settle its disputes.  Going to the state to settle disputes is a reflection of the culture we live in, not the Christ we follow.

Members of a congregation where ordination vows are broken, trust is violated, and where church disputes are taken to the state to be settled, regardless of their position on dismissal, should not sit by idly and give into this leadership.

Barbara Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government reminds us that,

“Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.”

Leaders can’t lead if their followers don’t follow.

The key to successful leadership is influence, not authority, and there is always plenty of influence in a congregation outside of the titled leadership.  If the titled leadership in a congregation won’t guide the process of discernment through the polity set forth by the church government then the congregation itself can and should take it upon themselves to see that it happens.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Pennies on the Dollar

United_States_penny,_obverse,_2002-2One of the criticisms of the PC(USA) by members who want to leave the denomination (with the church property) is that the denomination is using the property to hold congregations hostage.  Terms like extortion and ransom are being thrown around.  And arguments over who owns the property are leading to contentious, and in some cases, even litigious battles.

Members who want to leave argue the congregation bought and paid for the property, they have maintained it, and the deed may even be in their name.  By their account it belongs to them.

As a member of the the PC(USA) whose congregation split from the denomination in 2014 I am very familiar with the conviction some people have that the property belongs to the congregation, not the denomination, and that they should be able to walk away with it all for nothing more than pennies on the dollar.  I just firmly disagree with them, for two reasons.

Reason 1: Our Constitution


Our denomination’s constitution is clear.  The Book of Order section G-4.0203 says all property, regardless of how legal title is lodged, is held in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination.

All property held by or for a congregation, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a congregation or of a higher council or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). ~ Section G-4.0203

Lawyers can research all of the congregation’s records and state laws they want looking for justification that the congregation owns the property but, in the end, our ordained leaders have all vowed to one another and before God that the church property was held in trust for the use and benefit of the entire denomination.

In a time such as this, when some members want to be dismissed with property to another denomination, the trust clause might seem punitive; it is however a reflection of our theological conviction that the PC(USA) is one connected church with multiple locations around the country. This understanding is fundamental to our doctrine of what it means to be the church and is reflected in our polity.

“Polity, at its best, is really the embodiment of ecclesiology.  The Book of Order is the manifestation of who we are as the Church, as we live it out together.” – The Reverend Forrest Claassen, Installation Service as State Clerk of The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Fall 2013

In early 2014 The Reverend Forrest Claassen, Stated Clerk of Los Ranchos Presbytery, gave a presentation where he explains the trust clause and its rationale which you can see here.

Reason 2: It’s a Small but Vocal Minority Who Really Want to Leave the PC(USA)


The trust clause settles the question ownership but even if we didn’t have the trust clause there is still a second reason why it is appropriate for congregations leaving the denomination with the property to be paying more than pennies on the dollar for it.

In many congregations, there is a small but vocal group of influential leaders who are leading the charge out of the denomination.  The Reverend Dr. Jim Singleton, one of the leaders who helped establish ECO, told the 2014 National Gathering of ECO that he had been “working with a lot of churches in the last two years and what it looks to me like, in most churches, is that you’ve got what I call a 20-65-15 kind of split.  In a lot of churches about 20% vitally want to stay, about 15% vitally want to leave, and about 65% really don’t care.  They’re ok whatever name is on the door.  And sometimes that 20 and that 15 are flipped in reverse numbers.”

Those percentages correspond pretty closely with what I always thought was true in the congregation where I belonged when we went through the discernment and dismissal process in 2014.

So if only 15-20% of the congregation vitally care about leaving why should they be allowed to take a turn key congregation to another denomination for pennies on the dollar?

What about the 15-20% who vitally want to stay?  What about the 65% in the middle?  What about the generations of members who have come and gone before?  What about the presbyteries and other congregations who planted the congregations who are leaving?

I understand the PC(USA) has made decisions that compel some members to want to separate.  But please do not think that by asking these members to pay more than pennies on the dollar the denomination is holding them hostage for ransom.  There are often 80-85% of the members, generations of others who have come and gone, and a relationship as part of a connectional church that the denomination has to think about as well.

Requiring more than pennies on the dollar for the property is not extortion, it’s faithful stewardship.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.