Denominations, Congregations and Property Rights

Who Speaks for Great Aunt Sally

Many old-line Protestant denominations are experiencing defections in their ranks, often related to disputes about doctrine and practice. Dissenting congregations want to sever their ties with their parent bodies and take their property with them. Denominational leaders want to hold on to the property. The financial interests of both parties are obvious.

Denominational leaders may also say that they have to hold on to property to preserve the trust that they have with previous generations. Great aunt Sally, long deceased, sacrificially gave a considerable sum of money to help build First Church in 1910 so that there would be a denominational congregation in this place, fulfilling the denominational mission, teaching the denomination’s distinctive doctrine and practicing the denomination’s distinctive way of living the Christian faith. Now the dissenters want to divert the property away from the purpose to which it was dedicated.

The dissenters will probably respond that they represent the values for which Sally sacrificed better than the denominational leaders, and in many cases they are probably right. The dissenters often look more like their denomination’s “old time religion” than the denominational leaders do. Is continuity with previous generation based on the denomination’s identity or the values it espouses?

The dissenters may also point out that Sally offered her gift because she loved the people of her congregation. She prayed with them, sang with them, ate with them, laughed with them and cried with them. The community to which she belonged was real and immediate. Stories of Sally’s generation have been passed down from generation to generation. The dissenting community, they may claim, is every bit as much Sally’s spiritual family as her great nieces and nephews are her physical family. The current congregation is visibly, tangibly and physically connected to the generation that built First Church.

The denomination will reply that it, too, is part of Sally’s church family. The communion of saints extends beyond the local congregation. In churches with connectional polities, the spiritual ties that bind congregations together in denominational mission are no less real than the emotional bonds of a local congregation, even if they are not as immediately self-evident. The larger denomination may have changed since Sally’s day – as all cultural institutions do – but the continuity with her generation is nonetheless genuine.

I’m not sure that either side can claim exclusive claim to Sally’s legacy. That was then. This is now. I don’t think it’s possible to determine with any certainty what a person of the past would say about a situation today. One’s personhood can’t be fully separated from the temporal environment in which they live.

Little David versus Corporate Goliath

Regardless of their theological arguments, the parent denominations often come off quite badly in property litigation. Denominational leaders can appear mean-spirited, petty and eager to get their hands on assets that others bought and paid for. The presiding bishop of one denomination has decreed that abandoned properties can be sold to anyone except the dissenters who used to worship there, even at full market value. And to purchase the property at market value means the congregation is essentially paying twice for the same piece of real estate.

Even apart from the bad faith, ill-will and vindictiveness that so often characterize these arguments, church property disputes are messy business. The disputed property is the congregational family “home.” It’s where the church community has shared its common life, often for generations. The members of the congregation sacrificially offered their time, talents gifts and service to God to build this house for their church family. When a denomination kicks out dissenters who want to disaffiliate, it doesn’t look much different than a corporation foreclosing on its tenant-owners. If this were a business setting, many of these same denominational leaders would be condemning the injustice of the big, impersonal corporations. We would likely hear the words of the prophet Nathan denouncing King David: “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb …”

Congregations, of course, are also capable of wrongdoing. For many faithful people in hierarchical denominations, the very idea of breaking away is culpable disloyalty and an offense against the spiritual unity of the church. Beyond this, congregational leaders can be as petty, vindictive and deceptive as their corporate overseers. And if the dispute in any way touches on one of the culture war’s hot button issues, that’s bound to catch the interest of the secular press, as well. Dissenters from Hollywood orthodoxy must be exposed and shamed.

Once the lawyers and news media get involved, it’s messy business all around.

The Church’s Two Kingdoms

In many instances, the legal status of the property is controlled by a “trust” clause in the church deed and a similar requirement in ecclesiastical law. In this arrangement, local church property is held in trust for the larger church and its mission. The use and possession of the property is subject to church law and continued submission to denominational polity.

A trust is a legal entity in civil law. A person responsible with legal responsibilities under a trust is bound to fulfill its requirements. A trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to preserve a trust’s assets and insure their appropriate use. Apart from legal authority to do so, no one in the local church or the denominational headquarters can simply give away property that has been legally encumbered by a trust clause. To do so would open them to both civil and ecclesiastical litigation.

This is where we run squarely into the fact that the church is both a spiritual body and a temporal institution. The church has its own little version of the “two kingdoms” with which to wrestle.

As a “this age” institution, the church operates by ecclesiastical regulations, civil law and economic realities. The question “Whom would Jesus evict?” is not terribly relevant to the civil side of the equation. In managing the church’s temporal affairs, church leaders often have to make the same hard choices that academic, business, and government leaders make every day. They are legally bound to the trust and morally bound to look after the temporal needs of the institution.

If denominational leaders want to find a way to make concessions to the departing congregations, they have to find the legal authority to do so.

My 2¢

In almost every case, the denomination has the legal right to assert its ownership of local church property when the congregation declares its independence. In almost every case, the members of the local church have a deep emotional and familial connection to the property they’ve sacrificed to purchase and build. In cases where there is no hope of reconciliation between the denomination and the local church, both parties should negotiate the way ahead in a manner that respects both claims and avoids damaging either group. Lawyers are necessary to the process, but litigation and accusatory press releases should be last resorts.

If there is a core of congregation members who want to remain in connection with the parent denomination, the larger church should protect their ability to do so. If a “loyal remnant” can make a go of it in the current property, or if they could sell the current property and relocate to a smaller, more suitable piece of land, the denominational headquarters should support them regardless of what percentage of the congregation they represent.

With the departure of the dissenting congregation from the connection, the larger church should also consider its need for a congregational presence in the area. If the abandoned property or the proceeds of its sale could be used to support a new church plant, that should also factor into the denomination’s decision on what to do with the property.

As the denomination’s intentions for the property become more remote from the existing congregation and its immediate community, the less the money should matter. The corporate church will always find a way to tie the financial value of the property to its future missional needs, but at some point it just becomes about dollars. The monetary value of the property should not be the pressing issue. The denominational leadership did not labor to buy or improve the property, and the value of local church property does not show up on the denominational headquarters’ balance sheet. Allowing a departing congregation to take its property with it is a financial loss for the denomination only in the sense that it precludes the headquarters from profiting from its sale.

Just Drop off the Key, Lee

On the other hand, if I were in a congregation that wanted to sever its ties to its parent denomination I don’t think I would try to hold on to the building and the lands we once occupied, especially if it meant going to court and fighting in the media. It’s a waste of money, harmful to the cause of Christ and a legal fight that you almost certainly will not win.

Yes, you and your ancestors built this place. Yes, the sanctuary and the fellowship hall feel like home. Even the smells in the hallway remind you of the sacred moments spent in this place.

But if it’s that important to you to leave, just leave. As Paul Simon sang, “Just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free.” Every place of worship is just a temporary tabernacle. Jesus called his first disciples to abandon all their worldly possessions and follow him. By the grace and power of God, they managed. The Christians who built your sacred sanctuary in the first place did the same. If God is truly calling you to leave your denomination, he will provide a way forward through the wilderness.

Tomorrow I will look at the trust clause in the United Methodist Book of Discipline.