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Leaving the Presbyterian Church: the Gracious Separation Policy

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on July 30, 2013 Category: Business Law & Transactions

Since 2008, several Presbyterian Church’s have left, or attempted to leave, the main denomination of Presbyterian Church (PC (USA)) over theological issues. While the Book of Order lays out some general ideas about the dissolution process, as well as what to make of church property, the Presbyterian Church has made known that it prefers local Presbyterys to formulate processes and procedures necessary for dissolution of a congregation. In line with the 2008 General Assembly resolution on dissolutions, many local Presbyterys established such policies and procedures for dissolutions of congregations called “Gracious Separation.” It is this non-adversarial process that will govern the attempts of our client in attempting to remove itself from PC (USA). The discussion below outlines the process in general – it is noted that in each Synod the process may be different. Therefore, it is important to review the local rules and procedures of “gracious separation” before taking any steps on the issue.

  • The Book of Order

The Book of Order holds that there must be a Presbytery in a state or region that oversees all of the local Presbyterian councils. The Presbytery is “serving as a corporate expression of the church within a certain district and is composed of all congregations and teaching elders within that district.” (G-3.0301). The Presbytery Council in each district “is responsible for the government of the church throughout its district, and for assisting and supporting the witness of congregations to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that all congregations become communities of faith, hope, love and witness.” Id. Among the first responsibilities and powers of the Presbytery is the responsibility of “organizing, receiving, merging, dismissing, and dissolving congregations in consultation with their members.” (G-3.0301(c)). In each district, the Presbytery “has a particular responsibility to coordinate, guide, encourage, support, and resource the work of its congregations for the most effective witness to the broader community.” (G-3.0303). As part of this duty, the Presbytery has the authority to “control the location of new congregations and of congregations desiring to move as well as to divide, dismiss, or dissolve congregations in consultation with their members.” (G-3.0303(b)). The duties of the Presbytery, including the dissolution of relationships and dismissal of members, may be delegated to designated entities that must later report any actions taken. (G-3.03)

  • Property

Separately, there are a number of provisions that govern ownership of church property. First, all property held by a congregation, “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.).” (G-4.0203). Additionally, the Book of Order has a specific rule concerning property that belongs to a church that is dissolved. “Whenever a congregation is formally dissolved by the presbytery, or has become extinct by reason of the dispersal of its members, the abandonment of its work, or other cause, such property as it may have shall be held, used, and applied for such uses, purposes, and trusts as the presbytery may direct, limit, and appoint, or such property may be sold or disposed of as the presbytery may direct, in conformity with the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). (G-4.0205). Several local Presbytery have since made available to lower congregations “a process that exercises the responsibility and power “to divide, dismiss, or dissolve congregations in consultation with their members” (Book of Order, G-3.0303b) with consistency, pastoral responsibility, accountability, gracious witness, openness, and transparency.” Notably, the policy of the Presbytery follows that of PC (USA) in that it focuses on “gracious witness” rather than “harsh legalism,” and encourages “open communication and transparency about principles and process of dismissal necessarily serve truth, order, and goodness.” To that end, the Presbytery generally “acknowledges its responsibility for care for all member congregations and the persons who worship there. This responsibility includes making provision for those members of dismissed congregations who wish to remain members of the PC(USA).” This includes the presbytery affirming that it will not use the Trust Clause of the Book or Order “to shackle churches to the institution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) if a church genuinely desires to depart,” or “as a weapon to threaten civil action against a congregation over issues of conscience.” In fact, the some Presbytery hopes to “resolve our disagreements and avoid the harm that is done to the Gospel and Christ’s body when Christians resort to civil litigation rather than love for neighbor.”

  • Step One: Initial Contact and Dialogue. The first step is to inform the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery that the congregation is in such disagreement with the church that is considering leaving the PC (USA). The presbytery will appoint a Presbytery Engagement Team (PET) to meet with the congregation. This process is meant to insure that the congregation is fully informed on the issues at hand, equipped with knowledge of this Presbytery’s process, as well as the processes and values that have guided other churches and presbyteries in their decision making. Second, the PET will engage the congregation and its members through discussion of possibilities for reconciliation and likely impacts in the case where dismissal is the course decided upon. The PET will outline the process and likely consequences of the congregation requesting dismissal from the Presbytery. These discussions will include whether all or part of the congregation wants to remain with PC (USA), as well as what to do with congregation resources when some members want to leave the church.

  • Step Two: Congregation Request for Dismissal. The PET will engage a Special Committee of the Congregation (SCC) that is elected by the congregation to negotiate the terms of the dismissal. A congregation’s SCC should be comprised to be comprised of a mixture of pastoral leadership and elders, with representatives from the congregation’s finance, property, and personnel committees, and should be selected with a goal of being representative of the congregation. The PET, in a pastoral capacity, will attend the congregation meeting when the SCC is elected. Once the SCC is elected, negotiations should be completed within 60 days. Notably, a congregation can only either be dismissed with its property to another Reformed body at the end of the dismissal process, or if the congregation seeks to leave PC (USA) without transferring to another Reformed body then it will be closed and immediately end the dismissal process. Among other things to be discussed at this stage, the parities will discuss property, any outstanding loans upon which the congregation owes, and what will be the result for the teaching elder members of the dismissed church. There are also specific notice provisions that must be complied with. As to the members of the congregation that seeks dismissal, those members shall be notified by mail after the vote by Presbytery to dismiss, and the presbytery shall inform them of the continuation of a portion of the previous membership as a congregation within the PC(USA) if such has been negotiated or of the process available to them to have their membership transferred to another PC(USA) church. Finally, it should be noted that some Presbytery recommends that the congregation plan on making per capita and mission contributions annually for the five years following dismissal, beginning with 80 % of the previous year’s contributions in year one and declining 20 % each year thereafter.

  • Step Three: Congregation and Presbytery Vote. Once the terms have been negotiated, the next step is to determine congregation’s desire to be dismissed from PC (USA). At least half of the congregation’s members should be in attendance for the meeting where the vote would take place. Such a meeting should be announced at least 30 days in advance. If the result of the vote to request dismissal and to accept the terms of the negotiated agreement is 75% of the active members present and voting or greater in favor, the dismissal request is considered validated and then will be scheduled for a vote at an upcoming Presbytery meeeting. Once the congregation has voted to be dismissed, the Presbytery will vote on whether to accept the terms of the negotiated agreement and dismiss the congregation to another Reformed body. There are extensive procedural rules that govern the manner in which the presbytery must vote. Notably, the end of the process as outlined in the Presbytery ends on a conciliatory note, even if the presbytery were to reject the negotiated terms. It should be assumed that if after following through the steps of this process the Presbytery votes down the proposal, the outcome would be the initiation of civil litigation to force a separation, with all that entails.

  • Appeal. Any complaint about the entire process that was used to reach the final dissolution agreement and terms would go to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod. From there, any appeal would go to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly (GAPJC), which serves as something equitable to the Presbyterian Supreme Court. Essentially, the point and purposes of such cases is for the commission’s to determine if the final resolution of a dismissal negotiation is “constitutional” under the Book of Order or other general principles of PC (USA). This process would seemingly be available for the church if its members feel the terms of the dissolution agreement are not fair to the departing church. At that point, the rules and procedures of the Book of Order that govern the synods would come into play. This would include the procedural rules on presenting witnesses, evidence, and other mjatters.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich plc are experienced in pursuing the gracious separation of congregations from the PC USA. Please contact one of our professionals should you have any questions concerning this issue.

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