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.

As Though We Are Being Saved

A summary of last night’s presbytery meeting:

The money’s nearly gone.

The Executive is gone.

Two churches are gone and three more are trying to get gone.

Two pastors are gone, one to a disciplinary action and the other to resignation forced by illness.

Gone, baby, gone.

The gathering diminished throughout the evening, an apparent microcosm of our life as a presbytery. Indeed, of Presbyterianism itself.


Those churches leaving for greener pastures may be kidding themselves, but it’s really easy on nights like this to understand the impulse.

Jump ship.


Screw this.

The best thing that’s ever happened at a NEXT Church gathering was Stacy Johnson’s address in Dallas (embedded below–and made into a clever NEXT promo video here). “There are two ways of living that we know of as Christians,” Johnson said, drawing on 1 Corinthians 1:18. “We can live as those who are perishing or as those who are being saved.”

As those who are perishing . . .

Signs of our perishing are everywhere, perhaps no more evident than at a presbytery meeting like last night’s. Those signs are intrusive and disruptive. They provoke an anxious response, perhaps even a hopeless one.

Yet the message of the gospel is that what looks like perishing can be God’s salvation in disguise. The challenge we face, Johnson said in Dallas, is not first and foremost a cultural or demographic or organizational challenge. As versed as church leaders have become in the language of “adaptive challenges,” the real challenge is the gospel. The real adaptive change we face comes from the good news of life and salvation emerging from death.

So we live as though we are being saved. We invest heavily in a partnership with Presbyterians in Peru. We build networks for collaborative youth ministry. We validate a church’s work with refugees and share it’s costs. All while every outward sign condemns those efforts as futile.

And we gather. Our being saved is evident in our gathering, though these days not as evident as our perishing. Clearly not.

This is how it’s supposed to be, though. Following Jesus is not a strategy for vitality and success. Look at the cross. The hope we have is that our salvation will never be as present as when all signs are pointing to perishing.

Monday Morning Quarterback, Presbytery Edition

Last night, at a called meeting, the Presbytery of San Gabriel adopted a Gracious Dismissal policy. This policy lays out the process that will be followed if one of our member churches ever seeks dismissal to another Reformed denomination. It was drafted at the urging of the 218th General Assembly that presbyteries create such policies in order to demonstrate how they will exercise their constitutional responsibility to “divide, dismiss, or dissolve congregations in consultation with their members.”

A few bullet points about the policy we adopted:

  • It’s a theological document. It sees gracious witness in times of conflict as a missional imperative for congregations and presbyteries alike.
  • It dislikes litigation. The process described seeks to avoid lawsuits over church property and expresses a commitment on the part of the presbytery to not react punitively towards churches seeking dismissal from the denomination
  • It’s a process. When a church seeks dismissal, a presbytery team is assembled to meet with the leadership and the congregation and first seek reconciliation; the congregation elects a special committee to negotiate terms of dismissal with that team, attending to all relevant property issues; those negotiated terms are presented to the congregation at a called meeting for a vote; a 75% or greater vote on the part of the congregation is “validated” by a vote of the presbytery at a stated meeting.

There were several amendments proposed to the policy, all of which made it better in my view and most of which were defeated. An amendment was proposed to strike a clause citing I Corinthians 6:1-11, as in, when churches take each other to court they “violate” said scripture. It was defeated. A subsequent amendment was proposed to truncate the last three verses of that citation, leaving off references to the “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” who won’t inherit the Kingdom of God. It was defeated. An amendment was proposed to add a paragraph guaranteeing a forum for a loyalist minority of whatever size to press its claim to the presbytery that it has the resources and vision to soldier on as a PC(USA) congregation. It was defeated.

Arguments against the policy seemed to be based on an a priori opposition to congregations leaving the PC (USA). I too oppose such situations, but my experience has been that when congregations and their leaders get up a head of steam to do that, it’s much better to have some process in place for the presbytery to respond than to have nothing at all. Whether it’s an Administrative Commission or a non-litigation policy, you’d better have something, because the orchestrations of dismissal typically plunge presbyteries into unchartered waters where the lack of a navigation plan can cause great harm.

I voted for this policy. There are things about it I don’t like, but I think that, for where we are, it’s a serviceable document. I can live with it because, for all of its aversion towards litigation, it does not restrict the right of the presbytery to seek that in a particular case if it deems it necessary.

Thanks to those who worked hard on it, and pray, God, we don’t actually have to use it.


The Fellowship Gathering: Third Thoughts

“It’s a mad mission/Under difficult conditions”

Patty Griffin (for Casey Wait)

My first thought was, “I’m not one of these evangelicals anymore.”

My second thought was, “We see the world’s needs very differently.”

My third thought is, “We see mission very differently.”

Uses of the term “missional” were more prevalent at the Fellowship Gathering in Minneapolis than the little butter discs that came with the bread basket. I suspect definitions of that term were just as abundant.

I’m not a progressive mainline despiser of missional-speak. I’ve read everything the Gospel and Our Culture Network has published. In seminary I chased Darrell Guder around like a puppy dog. I’ve served the church as a volunteer in mission twice. My current call has “mission” right in the title. What I notice, though, is that “missional” has become for evangelicals an orienting idea, the ramifications of which are not being fully grasped.

The big idea behind the missional turn is that North America is itself now a mission field. Indeed it always has been, but decades of a single-minded focus on foreign missions efforts obscured that reality. Today, people like Alan Roxburgh and Alan Hirsch are becoming household names in evangelical circles by forcing that issue, and even by asking, “Can The West be converted?”

All of this is a good thing. A very good thing.

Yet to hear the term “missional” employed in Minneapolis, one would think its application is limited to practices of evangelism and to a congregational polity. I noted that in almost every instance where a speaker urged a more “missional” church, they did so in connection with affirmations about unchurched people in an unchurched culture. And they did so with a clear and repeated application to congregations and not to presbyteries or the PC (USA).

[excursis: the irony of the polity observation is that, while many evangelicals in the PC (USA) express an earnest desire to be more missional than the denomination seemingly allows them to be, many of them have used the withholding of shared support for the denomination’s mission efforts as a means of protest against it.]

This equation of mission with evangelism and congregations troubles me because I owe much of my own sense of call to ordained ministry to an experience with a PC (USA) mission program, one that didn’t involve me in explicit evangelism, and one that can’t be sustained by a single congregation but depends on shared mission support.

Also, I belong to a presbytery that is being profoundly impacted by an experiment in shared mission.

[another excursis: The Presbytery of San Diego has intentionally started to call itself a “relational community” that strives to become a “mission agency.” That would seem to indicate a belief in the presbytery as a locus of Christian mission]

The mission of the church in a North American 21st Century context will probably be driven primarily by congregations, but those congregations will depend upon the support of larger networks of congregations called presbyteries and denominations. In that light, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the Fellowship of Presbyterians proposes sharing mission support with the PC (USA).

That mission will also require witness and action that includes explicit evangelism but is not limited to it. The church will need to speak in its common life and in written statements to the “powers and principalities” of our culture. That is as much mission as preaching the gospel.

In Minneapolis, that didn’t seem to be part of the “missional” emphasis.