General Assembly retains PC(USA) property clause

July 6, 2012

Pittsburgh

The “property clause” of the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remains in the denomination’s constitution after the 220th General Assembly, by voice vote, upheld its Policy Committee’s recommendations, rejecting two overtures that would have placed property into the hands of congregations.

The overtures had called for all property controlled by a local session and used by an individual congregation be deemed to be the property of that congregation.

Under the PC(USA) constitution, all property held by or for a congregation is “held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit” of the denomination.

Overture advocates cited property issues as a cause of schism and the diversion of funds from mission. “Property is one of those things that’s tearing us apart,” said commissioner Ken Robbins, who supported the overtures.

Presenting the Polity Committee’s recommendation to the Assembly, commissioner Emily Anderson, committee moderator, first pointed out that a congregation’s borrowing capacity is increased by its relationship with a presbytery.

Anderson added, “More importantly … the church is more than a building,” and that it is part of a larger relational body.

Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly, ruled out of order a substitute motion that would have put control of property in the hands of congregations and that would have ultimately allowed congregations to dissolve their relationship with the PC(USA).

In presenting the substitute motion, Jeff Garrison, commissioner from Lake Michigan Presbytery, said the constitution’s property clause causes the expenditure of “money and energy that could have gone toward ministry and mission.” He said the Assembly should put away the “big stick.”

William Davnie, commissioner from Twin Cities Area Presbytery, pointed out that a “presbytery alone is empowered to dismiss congregations” and that individual congregations do not have that right.

After the substitute motion had been ruled out of order, Marianne Shine, commissioner from Tropical Florida Presbytery, spoke in favor of rejecting the overtures, adding, “We need to have more trust in our presbyteries. … The decision should be made at the presbytery level.”

In other action, the Assembly affirmed the vote of the Polity Committee to retain the language of groups protected within PC(USA)’s non-discrimination policy. Several overtures had sought to remove or make more general the list of protected groups.

 

  1. The issue regarding church property ownership is one of the distinctions between congregational churches and connectional churches. Particular churches in the PC(USA) are not really 'local' churches, though they obviously work and worship in different localities. Particular churches are bonded to the PC(USA) as a whole through the connected governing bodies--namely, the sessions, the presbyteries, the synods and the general assembly. There is a particular close partnership between particular churches (sessions) and their presbyteries. The selection of pastoral leadership, for instance, necessarily involves presbytery as well as the congregation, which is not a requirement in congregational churches. Example: the Evangelecal Presbyterian Church, in which a particular church can select and call its own pastor without any action on the part of presbytery. Regardless of the source of funds for the building of property for particular churches--funds which may include contributions from one or more of the three governing bodies more inclusive than the churches and their sessions--the congregations have 'beneficial' ownership, not legal ownership. Often the current membership of particular churches have 'inherited ' the buildings--so to speak-- from multiple generations before them, with their personal contributions to building and/or sustaining structures for their use limited only to minimal amounts. But the actual ownership of the property is entrusted to their presbyteries who make decisions regarding the disposition of property used by particular churches when they are dissolved or dismissed to other denominations.

    by Grantland Groves

    November 29, 2012

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