Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Church Trust Clause

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a clause in the Book of Order specifying that the congregation holds the property in trust for the whole denomination.

Every year some congregations want to leave the denomination. Naturally, they want to take their building with them. The denomination points to the trust clause. The civil courts almost invariably agree with the denomination.

I believe the legal issue is settled. Everyone should accept that. No more lawsuits gambling that some court will take the law into its own hands and decide differently.

However, I think it is also reasonable to let the departing congregation have their church building at some reasonable cost. This should be decided on a case-by-case basis. There might be some specific church buildings that the denomination will not part with at any price. That is a question for the presbytery, I believe.

As a rule of thumb, though, I think that if the congregation is willing to pay back to the denomination whatever funds were given or loaned to it by the denomination, plus some reasonable premium for years of good will - say, 10% more, to pick a number out of the air -- then the denomination should let them go, and godspeed.

I hate unilateral divorce, but at a certain point, if one party has already decided to leave, playing dog-in-the-manger with the stuff that remains does no one any good, and engenders further ill will.


Stushie said...

Good points. That is exactly what happened in East Tennessee when Signal Mountain left...with $25 million in building and assets.

James said...

There are several issues with your points. First - by all states trust law, the benefactor can not create a trust encumbering someone else's property, only the owner of the property can do that. So the PC(USA) trust clause is illegal. Second - Your statement that most cases have been found in favor of the denomination is incorrect. The courts in states that recognize "neutral principles" (38+) have found in favor of the individual churches. Only in states that insist on holding on to "heirarchical deference" have found in favor of the denomination. Third - Your suggestion says nothing about the churches that received nothing from the denomination or presbytery in the purchase of land, construction of buildings, everything contained in those buildings, and current cash on hand. A good example is Kirk of the Hills that received nothing, at no time, from the denomination or presbytery for any material items, yet they insist that the property, everything on it, and bank account balances belong to the presbytery. There is no valid justification for this position on the part of the presbytery and it is forcing the Kirk to take their case to the Oklahoma State Supreme Court to get Neutral Prinicles official made Oklahoma law. The PC(USA) is just plain wrong in taking the actions they have been taking.