01 July 2009

THE PC(USA)’S NUMBERS GAME: A CASE STUDY IN DECEIT

This is a long post because I could not find a logical break point. I won't do it again in the near future.

“I believe in . . . the holy catholic Church . . ..” Apostles Creed.

And I do. Thus, I had planned to stay away from the latest PC(USA) attempt to gloss over its continued loss of members, especially after reading some great blog comments by Quotidian Grace and Reverend Kim, just to mention two. I think it matters not who can claim the most members, because we are all brothers and sisters in the one catholic or universal Church, the bride of Christ. So, if people are called by God to move from one construct, i.e., a man-made denomination, to another, it is unimportant by what name they call themselves.

But when a denomination strays from orthodoxy, losses huge numbers of members, and then attempts to suggest that those losses are not in response to the denomination’s departure from the norms of the historic Reformed faith, and to paint those who leave as people who have turned their backs on Jesus Christ, an answer is required. The intentional misinterpretation (through omission and misstatement) of the numbers by the spin-meisters in Louisville must be answered. Consider the following:

1. The report acknowledges that 25 congregations have been dismissed to “other denominations.” Now, 23 of that 25 have come to the EPC, but as interested as the PC(USA) is in asserting EPC recruiting, they refuse to acknowledge that PC(USA) presbyteries have dismissed churches to the EPC, usually after extorting obscene ransoms to do so.

2. The report includes only those churches that asked permission for their departure. It ignores churches that disaffiliated, as they are permitted to do under Chapter 7 of the PC(USA)’s Book of Order. Instead, the leaders of the PC(USA) suggest that most of the rest of their losses are people who turned their backs on the Christ in favor of the world and, for the PC(USA), that is at best unproven and at worst simply untrue.

3. Many congregations have simply walked away from the PC(USA), abandoning their property to small “loyal remnants” and forming new vibrant congregations. For instance, New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, Fla. Was formed when 1,300 members formed a new EPC church. Another is Lighthouse Presbyterian Church in Paola, Kansas where over 300 members left the First Presbyterian Church in the hands of a small remnant. In that case, Heartland Presbytery refused an offer from the departing congregation of a cash payment and assumption by the church of a nearly $1,000,000 mortgage that had been guaranteed by the presbytery. At the very least, the statistical reports for those two churches reflect some departures. Others still claim their previous totals.
A case in point is Londonderry Presbyterian Church in New Hampshire. In order to justify actions that led to the loss of the second largest congregation in the presbytery, the expenditure of over $650,000 by the presbytery to coerce the congregation to remain in the PC(USA), including paying the costs to enable the so-called “loyal remnant” to sue the members of their former session personally, and a result that can only be described as a phyrric for both the remnant congregation and the presbytery, the PNNE helps support the gross misstatements now emanating from Louisville.

Londonderry Presbyterian Church: A Study in Deception

CORRECTION: Thanks to GA Junkie via Reformed Catholic in the PCUSA, I got to read a recent newspaper article appearing in the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, Massachusetts about both Londonderry Presbyterian Church (the PC(USA) remnant) and Orchard Christian Fellowship. The news for both churches is good. LPC now has some 225 members (although their presbytery continues to state a membership of 534), up from the original remnant of 39. Why their recent congregational photos are so small, I cannot say.

OCF now has 475 members, up from the 212 who voted to leave the PC(USA) and to move to the EPC. Increases like this are good news for the holy catholic Church, and I'm glad to hear of the good work being done by both churches.

I was intrigued to read in the newspaper that a recent three-year grant to LPC from their Synod for evangelism is being used to pay staff salaries, but you have to have evangelists to evangelize.

In 2007, in response to departures from orthodox Reformed theology by the PC(USA), capped by the General Assembly’s 2006 reception of the “Trinity Paper” and the adoption of the “Report of the Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity in the Church,” the leadership and congregation of Londonderry Presbyterian Church in Londonderry, New Hampshire voted overwhelmingly to disaffiliate from the PC(USA) and to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. At that time, the pulpit at LPC had been vacant for nearly three years. As the PNNE states on its current website (as of July 1, 2009).
In late summer of 2007, it was clear [to the Presbytery] that there was a schism within the congregation. A mail vote (sic) of the congregation was conducted by the session concerning the issue of leaving the denomination. A majority of the votes (sic) were to stay in the denomination. Only 29% voted (sic) to leave.
Notwithstanding this vote (sic), the session of the LPC voted to recommend leaving the denomination, and began a campaign to reverse the mail vote (sic). It was then apparent that a formal process of dealing with the schism was necessary. The COM decided that the search for a pastor could not proceed until the issue of leaving the denomination had been settled.
In fact, as early as four weeks prior to the departure of the vast majority of the membership from the PC(USA), the session had decided that it must wait until it could call a pastor to guide them in decisions regarding their continued membership in the PC(USA). It was only when the Committee on Ministry made it clear to LPC that no action would be taken to approve its Church Information Form [a document that had to be approved by the presbytery before the pastor search process could continue, a document upon which the COM had been sitting for months], and that unless LPC would guarantee in writing that it would never leave the PC(USA), the COM would not let them search for a pastor.

And because of the need to justify the results of its action, PNNE has made many different and contradictory statements about the “history” of the crisis. For instance, in a report the presbytery at its September 13, 2008 meeting, PNNE admitted
The work with Londonderry Presbyterian Church (LPC) began several years ago with the connectional work normally done by a General Presbyter. The LPC Session expressed concern over several actions of the General Assembly. The pastoral conversations became more intense during the past three years. Elder Ingrid Cyros and Rev. Jim Stuart were assigned as liaisons to LPC by the Committee on Ministry. They worked with the LPC Session and PNC for a couple years.

During the Spring and Summer of 2007, Presbytery officers and other leaders met with LPC session members for a series of informal lunch meetings to build relationships and to talk about matters of concern of LPC with PNNE and GA. [ In] June 2007, the LPC Session brought a resolution to PNNE in response to PUP report. This failed to pass.

The Presbytery leadership had discussions about whether an administrative commission (AC) was needed to help settle the LPC issues. The general thinking was that an AC would be a tripping point to incite further action by the LPC Session. (Emphasis added.)
In other words, the PNNE decided to “incite” the session to protect itself by preparing to form an administrative commission. This occurred about a week after the session had decided to stay in the PC(USA) until it had a pastor to lead its deliberations. However, upon learning that PNNE intended to form an Administrative Commission to remove the elected session of the church and to replace it with pastors and elders from other churches whose sole loyalty would be to the presbytery and the PC(USA), the session called a congregational meeting to consider leaving the PC(USA).

PNNE’s action fully comported with the plan of action that had been secretly prepared by the legal department of the PC(USA) some two years before and which had only come to light when it was leaked to the press. The plan was in the form of two documents which came to be known as the “Louisville Papers.” Among other things, the plan counseled presbyteries and their attorneys to tell judges that the PC(USA) was a “hierarchical” church, just like the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and other such denominations. Sadly, that advice contained the qualifying admission that the argument should be made even though the PC(USA) was not hierarchical.

Presbyteries were counseled to seize and freeze bank accounts, change locks on churches, cloud the title to property, fire pastors and take over the governance of the congregations.

It must be remembered that LPC was a 270 year old congregation whose establishment pre-dated the Revolutionary War and the subsequent establishment of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a predecessor to the PC(USA). It had owned most of its property since the 1700s and none of the deeds mentioned any ownership interest in the denomination or the presbytery. It was only the 1981 unilateral addition by the PC(USA) to its constitution of a claim that churches held their property in trust for the national denomination that put the title to PLC’s property in question. LPC had never affirmatively taken any action to create such a trust.

In 1979, the United States Supreme Court had adopted a standard for deciding church property cases known as the “neutral principles” doctrine. In other words, cases not related to church doctrine or theology, church corporations could be treated just like any other corporation. Property decisions could be based solely on deeds, articles of incorporation and corporate by-laws.

The Louisville papers counseled churches to ignore this legal doctrine and to argue that the decision as to whom owned the property ought to be made by the very presbytery that the Book of Order claimed was the owner!

In that light, when PNNE tried to form an Administrative Commission, the session (board of elders) of LPC retained counsel to file what is known as a suit to quiet title. In such an action, the court examines the conflicting ownership claims under the neutral principles and then decides the sole issue of title. The same rules of law would apply whether the claimants were Londonderry Presbyterian Church and Presbytery of Northern New England or Londonderry Petroleum Company and Petroleum Nitraters of New England.

Additionally, because the Louisville Papers counseled the presbytery to attempt to change the status quo with respect to property, the session sought and obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the presbytery from taking over the congregation’s property and assets. Once again, such action by a court to maintain the status quo is the norm.

So, in September of 2007, a simple issue of disputed ownership of property was before the court. Such narrow issues are usually decided without the necessity of trial and at fairly low cost to the parties by way of cross motions for summary judgment.

But that was not what the PNNE told its members that it spent $650,000 on. Instead, on its website, it claims that
The primary issue in the law suit brought by this session of the Presbytery which later became an Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation, against the Presbytery of Northern New England is whether the trial judge can replace the PCUSA Constitution with civil court procedures and substitute the judge’s decision for that of the Presbytery.
In fact, that question has already been answered by the United States Supreme Court and a large majority of the states, including New Hampshire. Under New Hampshire law, neutral principles would still allow a member church of PNNE today to initiate the same action against PNNE for resolution of the property issues under state law. As late as last week, the Ohio Supreme Court, in ruling for Hudson Presbyterian Church, affirmed that the so-called property trust provision of the PC(USA) Book of Order is not enforceable.

In other words, the PNNE’s stated reason for spending $650,000 means that they spent all that money for nothing. Had they been truthful, they would have admitted that at the behest of Louisville, they spent that money to intimidate any other congregations that might put faithfulness to the call of God above the polity of the PC(USA). And if there is any doubt that that is the case, consider the following from the website of the loyal remnant’s July 2008 newsletter. In describing what it means to be a member of a PC(USA) congregation, it says:
We even reaffirm through our vows, at that juncture, to uphold everything that we stand for as a connectional church, and to uphold The Book of Order; a document that is, in addition to Holy Scripture and The Book of Confessions, at the very core of our structure and existence as a denomination.
For the PC(USA), the Book of Order is, at the very least, a 67th book of the cannon, and that was what PNNE was fighting for! But, you might ask, if the PNNE was fighting for the PC(USA), how could it incur such costs?
We requested financial assistance from the Office of General Assembly and from the Synod,and eventually from the 218th General Assembly, with the costs of this law suit because the issues at stake are much more than property. The connectional nature of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was on trial. Website, July 1, 2009 (emphasis added).
Sadly, this statement is, apparently, a correct statement of the PC(USA)’s view of connectionalism. When the Presbytery of South Louisiana entered into a stipulated judgment, conceding that it had no legal or moral right to the property of First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge, its synod convened a commission to examine the presbytery’s action. The presbytery established that it would have lost the property case based on neutral principles. It made the decision to be good stewards of its limited resources and ended a suit it would have ultimately lost.

The commission could not reverse the action, but, in its report, it castigated the presbytery for failing to protect the property trust clause of the Book of Order. It asserted that by so acting, the presbytery had destroyed Presbyterian connectionalism. In other words, in its view, the only thing that connects the PC(USA) is the ability of Louisville and the presbyteries to terrorize churches into maintaining PC(USA) membership under pain of losing their property.

PNNE justifies its actions thusly:

Because the Presbytery has successfully defended this attack, the PCUSA now has a successful strategy for defending any such suits in the future, making such suits much less likely.
What were those actions? To explain that requires another correction of PNNE’s warped view of history. You will recall that, even today, its website says
In late summer of 2007, it was clear [to the Presbytery] that there was a schism within the congregation. A mail vote (sic) of the congregation was conducted by the session concerning the issue of leaving the denomination. A majority of the votes (sic) were to stay in the denomination. Only 29% voted (sic) to leave.

Notwithstanding this vote (sic), the session of the LPC voted to recommend leaving the denomination, and began a campaign to reverse the mail vote (sic).
What actually took place is this. As part of the process of discerning the views of the congregation, in the summer of 2007, the session conducted a written confidential straw poll, asking the congregation “Shall we stay or go?” The raw answers were about as the PNNE states: 29% checked “Go,” and 71% checked “Stay.” Those numbers were leaked to PNNE.

What did not get to PNNE was the results of the “Comments” also solicited in the straw poll.

And it must be clear that this was merely a poll. No one suggests that the PC(USA) Book of Order permits absentee voting or any voting outside of a congregational meeting. So the attempt by the PNNE to describe this poll as a vote which decided the issue is yet another attempt to justify its later action.

The comments to the straw poll indicated that if there was a good chance that the congregation could both leave and keep its property, the numbers reversed. So, at the congregational meeting called to vote on disaffiliation, the vote was 71% for disaffiliation and 29% for staying in the PC(USA). And the presbytery was stunned into momentary silence.

Nonetheless, PNNE then spent $650,000 to try to punish nearly three-quarters of a congregation that no longer understood God to call them to membership in the PC(USA). And what was the result for the PNNE and the loyal remnant? The PNNE website states

The PNNE’s lawyers’ fees totaled approximately $650,000 by trial’s end. PNNE has paid approximately $200,000 and still owes approximately $300,000.

The General Assembly has contributed $27, 351 to our 2007 expenses, and arranged pro bono assistance from a national law firm to advise our legal team, all of which we greatly appreciate. The Synod of the Northeast through the New England Partnership Group has contributed $2,000. The 218th General Assembly provided no relief (although it did establish an Extra Commitment Opportunity Constitutional Legal Defense Fund that is unfunded). The Synod of the Northeast has established an Ecclesiastical Integrity Fund for such situations, which is yet unfunded. (Emphasis added.)

Our lawyers have contributed approximately $250,000 through pro bono service and reduced fees. One lawyer reduced fees by 50%. The other reduced fees by 20%.

The Synod has approved a loan of $200,000 to be repaid over 15 years at $18,000 per year or $1500 per month. The lawyers have agreed to let the Presbytery pay the remaining $100,000 over the next two years at no interest.

The consequence of the burden of these legal costs has been devastating to the Presbytery’s mission and ministry. The printing and mailing of the newsletter has been eliminated. Instead of mailing it to about 2,000 households in Northern New England, it is being emailed to about 200 individuals. Support for training and work-shops for our pastors and church members has been slashed by $12,000, essentially eliminating this ministry support.

Comparing the 2009 Budget to the 2007 Budget, Partnership aid with congregations for ministries in their communities has been reduced by 40% and support for denominational mission has been cut by over 50%. The Evangelism support for congregational programming has been eliminated. Staff consists of one General Presbyter and one secretary and their cost of living salary increases have been eliminated. The stipend for the Stated Clerk was also held steady. Travel expenses throughout the four-state region has been cut by 25%.

The Presbytery is saving rent by moving into one of its church’s buildings.[Office rent will go to $0 after October when the Presbytery office is moved to the Londonderry Presbyterian Church at no charge. PNNE Minutes 9/13/2008 at 615] Ministry expenses of COM and CPM have been cut by 72%.

Drastic cuts have been made. These are temporary, but it will take a couple of years before our normal financial processes will be able to begin to renew mission and ministry support for the Presbytery. The process has been financially hard. But the Presbytery made the right decisions for its congregation in Londonderry, but more importantly, for our denomination. The Presbytery made the commitment alone, but always with the conviction that it acted on the behalf of the denomination. As a part of the connectional church, it could not abandon its responsibilities.

When the process was begun, it was never anticipated that it would cost the Presbytery so dearly. The case law was clear. Everyone anticipated that the legal process would be concluded quickly and relatively inexpensively ($50,000). The Office of the General Assembly committed to partner in the legal costs.

Our faith tells us that the Lord does not put us to a test that we cannot meet.

Had the Presbytery in September of 2007 been presented with the question of spending $500,000 and 18 months to defend the Book of Order, it might responsibly have answered that there is no way the Presbytery can pay such a sum. It just doesn’t have that kind of money. Presbytery might responsibly have said that this is a national issue, and relied on the Office of General Assembly’s wisdom and lawyers as to whether and how to make a defense. But that was not the question presented. At each step, challenges were presented and ways forward were discerned. Presbytery has successfully defended our Book of Order and our connectional system and now looks to the future with significant financial handicaps for continuing mission and ministry throughout a four-state area. (Emphasis added.)

After championing the good cause for Presbyterianism, the many small churches throughout Northern New England are themselves now struggling to keep their own doors open, the heat on, and their pastors paid. At a time when mission needs are increasing, the Presbytery’s ability to participate in meeting those needs has been compromised. Now is the time Presbytery of Northern New England needs special mission gifts from all who are able so that our witness to Christ through mission and ministry in our area and through our many small and rural congregations may continue. PNNE Website 7/1/2009
Ultimarely, PNNE spent $650,000 to keep a couple of heavily mortgaged buildings (see PNNE minutes for December 6, 2008 at 660), and to terrorize its other members into staying in the PC(USA). One wonders: If another congregation in PNNE voted to disaffiliate today, would PNNE try to stop them?

The settlement agreement between the majority congregation and the remnant congregation probably effectively prevents the presbytery from selling the property because the majority congregation, which received 15 undeveloped acres of property as part of the settlement, also received the right of first refusal on any sale of the buildings and land of the remnant congregation. I doubt that the PNNE could explain to its members the expenditure of $650,000 to “keep” land that it then sold to the majority.

How does this all apply to the PC(USA)’s intentional misrepresentation of its membership numbers?

Prior to the split, LPC claimed about 530 members and had regular worship attendance of about 300. After the split, the majority now has nearly 250 charter members of Orchard Christian Fellowship and worship attendance in the 275 range.

The remnant LPC claims the pre-split membership of 534 [PNNE Website 7/1/2009], and says in different editions of its newsletter that it is seeing worship attendance in the range of 125 to “nearly 200”, but keeps showing the same 60 people in photographs of the congregation in its newsletter. See, e.g., June 2009 newsletter. And Louisville claims those same numbers. One could argue that Louisville allowed PNNE to spend all that time, money and spiritual effort simply to keep nearly 500 names associated with a 60 member congregation so that membership losses would not be even greater than reported.

At the same time, as may be seen in the PNNE report, the presbytery is suffering. PC(USA) leaders in Louisville promised PNNE (and other presbyteries) monetary support that the General Assembly refused to give. The PNNE General Presbyter who was Louisville’s great supporter has moved on to another presbytery and will not be replaced anytime soon. The fact that the presbytery had to freeze his salary may or may not have influenced his decision. He is being replaced by a part-time administrator, and the presbytery is being effectively divided into three groups with volunteer leadership because of the poor financial condition of the presbytery.

Because “I believe in . . . the holy catholic Church . . ,.” I pray that the congregation at LPC prospers so long as it remains faithful to Scripture. When they do, the entire Body of Christ prospers. Likewise, as Orchard grows, the entire Church should celebrate.

Perhaps in the fullness of time, LPC (the “victorious” remnant church) will once again actually have the membership it now claims. But wouldn’t it have been better for the “catholic Church” if the remnant had, in true Presbyterian fashion, merely accepted the call God placed on the majority?

Louisville’s desperate need to keep numbers so as to disguise the effect of its departure from Reformed orthodoxy in favor of post-modern practice has had a tangible destructive effect that did not need to occur.

6 comments:

Reformed Catholic said...

Two things Mac,

Steve Salyards over at the GA Junkie has a link to an article about the Londonderry churches. It seems that the separation has helped both congregations.

It seems that the 'remnant' has added members, but the presbytery is still supporting the staff of the church. It also appears (at least on the website) that the theology has leaned more to the left, than to the center.

The EPC congregation has grown by a third, and is attracting new members every week.

The other thing is that the fund that was approved at the GA, is a voluntary fund that would accept donations from the churches. I'm not sure anyone has contributed to that at all.

Mac said...

I worshiped with Orchard two weeks ago and I can attest that Calvin's marks of the true Church were aparent.

I have added a correction to the introduction of thr case study, based on GAJ's post and the article. Thanks for the heads up.

The financial support from the Synod was a three year, $75,000 grant for increased evangelistic activities in the Londonderry area. The presbytery is in bad shape financially and cannot support anyone.

I doubt that they would stand firm for the PC(USA) if they had to do it again.

As I read LPC's newsletter, I read the report from the March Presbytery meeting from RE/Commissioner Lucie Robbins who I have met in happier times. She was ecstatic that the line had held against loosening ordination standards. I suspect that she is in for a major disappointment next time, but that is in God's hands, and He has both groups working hard in Londonderry--all to His greater glory.

Cameron Mott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cameron Mott said...

Take 2

"The report acknowledges that 25 congregations have been dismissed to “other denominations.” Now, 23 of that 25 have come to the EPC, but as interested as the PC(USA) is in asserting EPC recruiting, they refuse to acknowledge that PC(USA) presbyteries have dismissed churches to the EPC, usually after extorting obscene ransoms to do so."

Mac,

23 PCUSA churches were dismissed to the EPC in the calendar year of 2008?

Cameron Mott

Mac said...

Cameron,
That is an interesting question. Because I am not privy to how the PC(USA) does their accounting, I can only account for the dismissals of which I am aware.

There were some churches that disaffiliated earlier whose presbyteries then considered subsequent settlements of property disputes as "dismissals." For instance, three churches in Donegal Presbytery disaffiliated on June 24, 2007. We settled our suits to quiet title in 2008. In the settlement agreements, the churches stated that they understood that they had a right to disaffiliate under G-7.0304. In the next paragraph, the presbytery recited that they did not recognize disaffiliation, but would consider the payment of the settlement agreement (equal to five years worth of presbytery per capita, directed to one or more of 4 presbytery missions)to be a request for dismissal that would be granted dating back to June 24, 2007. We settled despite the fact that Pennsylvania law is solidly on our side, based on two cases Donegal presbytery instituted and lost in the 1980s.

Good stewardship required settlement because the amount demanded by the presbytery was less than a week's cost of litigation. It was also 5% of the presbytery's original demand.

I do not know if Louisville considered those to be "dismissals" in 2008. I do know that more and more PC(USA) presbyteries, faced with the PNNE/LPC example of Louisville demanding scorched earth tactics and then reneging on paying for those tactics, are dismissing churches after negotiating buy-outs.

Since 2007, some 70 PC(USA) congregations have come into the EPC, either directly to a geographic presbytery or through the New Wineskins presbytery. Several have gotten to NWEPC via a geographic presbytery when their PC(USA) presbyteries were directed by Louisville not to dismiss directly to NWEPC. Two churches have been dismissed from NWEPC to an EPC geographic presbytery and, as we implement "Becoming One," that trend will accelerate.

charles said...

Having been a part of the Online Universal Work Marketing team for 4 months now, I’m thankful for my fellow team members who have patiently shown me the ropes along the way and made me feel welcome

www.onlineuniversalwork.com