The Main Line

An experiment in news and analysis for Presbyterians

After a year and a half of negotiations with the Session of Crestwood Presbyterian Church (CPC) over its request to be dismissed to the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), an Administrative Commission of the Presbytery of The James is recommending this weekend that the presbytery’s trustees–and not the AC–pursue agreement with the church regarding its property.

CPC is bringing a motion to the same meeting for its dismissal to ECO. Both reports are in the packet for the meeting.

What’s going on here?

There are three aspects of this that reflect changes in the denomination that are worth understanding.

The Tom and McGee cases are forcing presbyteries to consider property value, but what “consider” means is fuzzy.

What these two General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission decisions have done almost immediately is make explicit the presbytery’s responsibility to “fulfill its fiduciary duty under the trust clause” and consider the value of property when dismissing churches to another denomination, as well as to consider each case on an individual basis (not applying a formula for all churches).

The AC for the Presbytery of The James clearly acted out of that duty when it proposed (not demanded) a settlement with CPC in excess of $5 million (later adjusted to $3.5 million). CPC is not disputing that appraisal.

CPC is instead disputing that the settlement terms should be dictated by the property value. Their motion reads, “Crestwood . . . could find no evidence nationally that dismissal settlements since the Tom decision have resulted in congregations paying amounts approaching the appraised value of church property.”

So the AC appraised the property accurately and proposed the church pay that amount to the presbytery upon its dismissal. CPC is disputing that the former necessitates the latter.

Churches seeking dismissal want to be treated identically. 

Despite the assertion of McGee that presbyteries cannot apply a uniform formula to all church dismissals, that’s what congregations want, regardless of size. CPC’s motion includes a chart showing the amounts that four churches previously dismissed by POJ were asked to pay. The highest amount is $400,000, which is probably why their counter offer to the AC is in that same amount. They’re characterizing the AC’s terms as “astronomical.” Their motion continues:

Seven of the approximately 450+ churches dismissed from the PC(USA) in the past 10+ years had settlement terms of $1 million or more, and only two churches – Menlo Park with 4,125 members and multiple sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Highland Park with 4,896 members in Dallas had settlements of greater than $2 million. These two mega-churches possess the financial resources to meet multi-million dollar terms; Crestwood does not.

The AC doubts CPC’s claim that the church lacks the financial resources to meet their proposed terms. But the comparison with other dismissals is the real problem. Their report to the presbytery describes their response to the Session’s counteroffer:

CPC continued to use ‘comparison’ as a metric, despite the AC’s prior explanation as to why comparisons with other settlement amounts was inherently flawed and unsound, and its statement that use of this factor was illegitimate in negotiations.

Neither what a presbytery has previously done nor what churches across the denomination have paid out in dismissal settlements can serve as a basis for determining the terms of a particular dismissal, according to the AC.

The old ways don’t always work. Neither do the new ones. 

This is the second case in a month in which a presbytery’s appointed process for dismissing churches failed. In January, The Presbytery of San Gabriel heard a recommendation from its Council that 18 months of work undertaken by a Pastoral Engagement Team per the presbytery’s Gracious Dismissal Policy be handed over to an Administrative Commission (that recommendation was postponed). This after their policy had been successfully implemented in four previous cases.

POJ has likewise dismissed four previous congregations with its “Guidelines for Churches Considering a Request to the Presbytery of the James to be Dismissed to another Denomination.” But CPC presents unique circumstances, including uncovered irregularities in membership reporting, the presbytery’s New Church Development Committee’s missional interest in the church’s location, and the unrestricted and fully saleable nature of undeveloped property owned by the congregation, in contrast to the Session’s assertions about restrictions placed on that property.

The AC is recommending that the presbytery’s trustees deal with all of these details, however, as their negotiations with the Session have stalled.

Trust is in the eye of the beholder

Both the San Gabriel case in January and the POJ case feature congregations casting doubt upon their presbyteries character. The final section of CPC’s motion is titled, “How presbytery exercises power will reveal its true character.”

This is despite both presbyteries’ documentation of misleading and inaccurate information provided by the congregations seeking dismissal regarding such things as their membership statistics and financial position.

Presbytery of The James will vote this Saturday, February 21st, on both the AC’s recommendations and CPC’s dismissal motion.