Tell Me This Isn’t About the Money

October 22, 2013

Amended Wednesday, October 23, after comments from Menlo Park readers, to set the record straight:

Most of the “gracious dismissal policies” I have read from around the country go to great lengths to describe the chief concern of the church, that of the integrity and continuity of the mission of Jesus Christ.  Putting aside the false notion that there is no “church presence” in a community if there is no PCUSA congregation there, it is laudable and achievable in some parts of the country that a departing congregation and its dismissing presbytery can see the larger work of the Kingdom of God and share it in the end. This is the way it should be. However, I believe that in some cases, the concern for mission and ministry is darkly overshadowed by a far greater concern for money. A case in point:

The quest for a workable “gracious dismissal policy” in San Francisco Presbytery began in 2009 and its first document on the subject was adopted unanimously in September of that year. It was, by today’s standards, primitive and generous, and one church (Community Presbyterian Church of Danville, CA) was dismissed under its terms.

A remedial case was filed against the presbytery for letting the church go too easily, and the original policy was rescinded.  The GAPJC eventually rendered a decision in Tom et al v. Presbytery of San Francisco, informing the church that when determining the terms of dismissal, a presbytery is obligated to consider the value of the church’s property held in trust for the denomination.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Presbytery went back to the drawing board to establish a new, more comprehensive policy. A team of twelve presbyters representing the full theological and political spectrum of the presbytery worked for five months with a Christian mediator to develop a document that was thorough, challenging, and as balanced as such a thing can be. It, too, was adopted unanimously by the presbytery in June 2012. It should be noted that everybody, and I mean everybody, understood that Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC), the largest congregation in our presbytery, was in the pipeline when the new policy was enacted. The unspoken but very real question before the body was whether this policy would yield a workable outcome should MPPC renew its notice of intent to seek dismissal.

MPPC’s process had been put on hold when the original policy was rescinded. They took the process up again earlier this year and submitted all requested information in May of 2013. A Presbytery Engagement Team (PET) was assigned to work with them as a commission of the Presbytery. By early August, the teams had worked out a deal to their mutual satisfaction.

At the next meeting of the Presbytery, on September 10, the body was informed that an agreement had been reached and was asked to call a meeting of MPPC’s congregation for November 3. In addition to the congregational meeting, a series of Town Hall meetings were scheduled for October to reach the thousands of members at three sites with Q & A sessions.

But two weeks later, on September 24, MPPC’s representative committee was notified by the PET that upon further review, the PET wanted to reopen negotiations. The PET said it had not properly accounted for assets of a separate private foundation, The Church of the Pioneers Foundation, from whom the church leases office and residential property. The PET felt that the terms of dismissal should be increased to several times the earlier, agreed-upon amount. The PET cancelled a pre-scheduled meeting with the church, so conversation has stalled. It appears the presbytery hopes it can make a financial killing from the dismissal of San Francisco Presbytery’s most successful church.

So tell me this isn’t about the money. The overriding concern of the Presbytery here is not mission. No, it is ecclesiastical extortion. It is unjust. Not to mention ironic: At the very meeting where MPPC’s congregational meeting was approved, the Presbytery closed down a failed new church development within ten miles of Menlo Park. What confidence do we have in a Presbytery that cannot demonstrate its ability to start new churches and does not to this day have a mission strategy for the San Francisco Peninsula?  

There’s a lot wrong with this picture: how could the Leadership Council usurp the authority of one of its commissions? Was it right for the presbytery to renege on its agreement once the congregational meeting date was set by the body? And legally, how can leased property be considered the church’s asset under the Trust Clause?

More thoughts tomorrow.



24 Responses to “Tell Me This Isn’t About the Money”

  1. Paul Says:

    The naked truth is that vengeance always exacts a price.

  2. Randy McGrady-Beach Says:

    I find it interesting you use the adjective “intimidating” when describing a letter sent by the Presbytery. Yet it there is not full disclosure of assets then I question the “good faith” of the leadership of that said congregation.
    I also find it interesting that you do not consider yourself a member of the Presbytery which has failed to develop a mission strategy. I mean shouldn’t you say “We” have failed to develop a strategy if you are part of the San Francisco Presbytery.
    I don’t agree with trying to milk anyone out of money to penalize them for wishing to be dismissed, but then I think all parties should be above board when negotiating a settlement.

  3. Jim Caraher Says:

    There is a good reason the presbytery hasn’t been able to furnish a legal opinion defending its position that properties MPPC leases but doesn’t own should be deemed assets of MPCC. No competent lawyer would write such an opinion. Except in the unlikely case that MPCC is paying below market rents for its leased properties, those leases are liabilities for MPCC, not assets. Here’s a suggestion. Let the presbytery put its money where its mouth is. If the presbytery insists on its position that MPPC’s leased properties are MPPC assets, let MPPC assign 100% of its interest in those leases to the presbytery, let MPPC find alternative space elsewhere and let the presbytery be responsible for paying the rent under the leases.

  4. John Kerr Says:

    Jim Caraher took the words right out of my mouth, so to speak–to count leased properties as an asset is fraud. It is the legal equivalent of counting a house one rents as an asset when applying for credit. This is a blatant attempt to seize assets as a punishment. It’s no wonder that people these days are resistant to becoming part of the church–look at the witness we provide!

  5. Bruce and Marlin Ogden Says:

    They have no shame. It has ALWAYS been about the money! This kind of treatment is very much like what Fremont Presbyterian received from the Sacramento Presbytery.
    Just remember that God is in charge and here in Sacramento we are praying for you

  6. Paul Says:

    Let’s see…. I rent a house, I lease a car, I go to Aaron’s and rent furniture. Now… I go to the bank and apply for a loan. The bank says, “No go buddy!” I ask why. The bank says that I have no assets. I say that I have a car and a furnished house. The loan officer is speechless as I demand that I be approved for a loan.

    How is a leased property an asset? It isn’t owned. It is a contracted liability. This knowledge is basic basic accounting and yet the term “asset” is being redefined. This kind of logic is difficult to reason with. Add institutional power and you have a recipe for intimidation. No, let’s use the word “oppression.”

    • Randy McGrady-Beach Says:

      So it sounds like everyone else has all the facts so judgement is swift and sure. Not sure I do so I guess I am the only one willing to allow so latitude for the Presbytery of San Francisco. That is very disappointing.!!!

  7. L. Lee Says:

    Money and retribution are certainly at the core of these actions.
    You gave the history yesterday. but more recently I think the
    decisions and compromises made in the group that came up with the PUP report ushered in a desire for unity that was based on missguided thinking. The leadership coming out of
    that event had high hopes. They were so certain that the process they Went through was right for the church and they still cling to this belief. They so deeply and strongly believe in this that now the leadership must make demands to validate their beliefs through strong arm techniques.
    My observation is that money is only part of the issue.
    Underlying this is a deep disillusionment that ” evangelicals”
    are not buying into the “celebration” of unity that came out of
    that committee and the further celebrations of decisions from GA. The disbelief that more are leaving the
    Denomination is real and the only leverage is to make
    It as hard as possible for churches to leave. Their commitment to their views demands this.
    These leaders forgot to count the cost of their actions…….the evangelical churches are seeking God’s direction
    about leaving and moving with a spirit of enthusiasm
    (And dare I say, Unity). The real consequences are
    that the Presbytery is bearing the emotional cost as well as financial. They are getting pressure from national
    Leadership to put the brakes on those “leaving” churches for the sake of their vision. They also know that with diminished financial support their vision will be harder to carry out. Furthermore, a church that goes through the process of leaving Is making a strong statement of disapproval of the decisions and vision that are coming out of the General Assembly. And that creates desperation.
    ….a desperation we are now seeing first hand.

  8. MPPC member Says:

    I’m a member of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. Have been for decades. I’ve attended the informational meetings – including one at MPPC last Sunday – and read all of the documents our staff provided to congregants. Today, via email, we were informed that the Presbytery canceled our Nov. 3rd vote. MPPC has no authority to call a vote; only the Presbytery can call a vote. This is fundamentally unfair.

    Some information on the leased properties. There is a non-profit called the Church of the Pioneer’s Foundation (COPF) to which some members of MPPC have donated. Some people have COPF in their wills. This non-profit assists MPPC by buying properties and leasing them to the church. Properties include the homes our pastors live in – If you’re not familiar with the area around MPPC, it’s one of the most expensive areas for housing in the nation. Other properties include office space and rooms used by our youth ministries. We need more space than just the sanctuary and classrooms owned by MPPC.

    COPF also assists other non-profits, such as a local ministry which provides for the homeless, food for low income folks, etc. MPPC isn’t the only non-profit which receives assistance from COPF.

    In the opinion of many congregants at MPPC, what the Presbytery wants (in the guise of wanting to include leased properties as assets) are the assets of the non-profit COPF. What judge would even consider allowing the Presbytery to have any claim to the COPF’s assets, when the COPF is a separate legal non-profit entity, not a part of MPPC?

    That’s what the delay is about. I agree – it’s all about the money. Well, I wasn’t sure how I felt about MPPC splitting off from PCUSA to go to ECO. I wasn’t sure whether I’d vote yes to leave or no to stay – but now, based on the Presbytery’s outrageous behavior, I will definitely vote yes to leave.

    • Randy McGrady-Beach Says:

      Thank you for clarifying the lease issue. It is helpful to have someone willing to bring the facts to light instead of judgment based on a lack of knowledge. I do wonder what the reason was for that foundation that was begun so long ago. Was there a possibility it was to circumvent all property used by a church to revert to the Presbytery? Maybe not, but I fail to believe all the motives were pure. Just saying.
      Oh, I guess I should mention my wife was raised at MPPC. Her mother was a long time clerk and her dad was a long time Sunday School teacher. We were married in that church and I was a member beginning in 1977. So I have some history that has a lot of respect for this church, the programs, and its commitment to train disciples and transform the world.

      • revmary Says:

        Hi Randy, in regard to your question about the reason for starting the COPF: the Foundation was established in 1975, a full six years before there even WAS a trust clause in the Constitution, so that could not have been the motivation for forming it. [I was an attendee and member there from 1974, when Walt Gerber arrived, until my ordination in 1987. I was on staff starting in 1976. Walt had a huge allergy to acquiring “brick and mortar,” and just plain did not believe the church should be a massive builder. You have to admit that the MPCC campus is very modest in comparison with other congregations of its size, and his strategy proved to be very wise when the dot-com bubble burst around 2000 and they had to lay off about half their staff. At least their facility was of a manageable size.] Blessings, and thanks for reading my blog! —Mary

      • Randy McGrady- Says:

        Thank you Mary for the clarification.

    • WillowsRes Says:

      Thank you for the clarification. The question is whether COPF is effectively a wholly-controlled subsidary of MPPC. Is the primary purpose of COPF to provide support for MMPC staff and ministries? If COPF were to be dissolved, what would happen to the assets of the foundation? If they would return to MPPC, it is hard to argue that the assets of COPF aren’t fundamentally the assets of MPPC. Also, although the foundation was started long ago, have people contributed to COPF recently rather than MPPC with the intent to shield assets from the presbytery?

      • erasmuse Says:

        If people contributed to COPF rather than to MPPC in order to shield their contributions from a rapacious Presbytery, that’s all the more reason to treat it as independent.In that case they definitely did NOT intend for their contributions to go to the Presbytery, and it’s as crazy for the Presbytery to ask for COPF assets as for any other charity church members gave to. COPF is a separate legal entity. If MPPC goes bankrupt, its creditors can’t seize COPF assets, and the MPPC elders can’t use its assets either. If MPPC were to dissolve, COPF would survive, and I doubt COPF would decide the next best institution to help would be the Presbytery of San Francisco.

  9. emd5542 Says:

    May all those with decision-making power prayerfully permit this to jolt their hearts and minds. Christian institutions like Christian individuals can easily apprehend the mind of Christ. Thanks be to God. Thank you, Mary, for standing firm and speaking truth. Eleanor

  10. Shannon Says:

    What are the two failed NCDs that presbytery has recently shut down within ten miles of MPPC?

  11. Paul Says:

    This is in regard to an inference made in this thread about the intent of COPF…

    How can one praise another for bringing facts to light and then ask a question that infers nefarious intent on the part of MPPC and COPF without presenting facts? “Begging the question” is a logical fallacy and only serves to weaken one’s position on a particular matter.

    In regards to the inference, it is difficult to make the case for it unless one is willing to say that the plans to get out from under the PCUSA by MPPC were designed in 1975 when the Foundation was started. And if the manses were transferred to the foundation, the Presbytery would have had to approve that transfer in accordance with the old Book of Order. I just don’t buy the inference or see the need for it in future conversations here or elsewhere.

    • Randy McGrady-Beach Says:

      I didn’t realize this was a debate in which we are trying to bolster our position or trying to weaken another’s. Is there a problem in asking what the original intent was of an action? I just think there should be more conversation and less accusations. Thanks for talking.

  12. Randy McGrady-Beach Says:

    Thanks Mary for the clarification.

  13. […] To read articles on other churches leaving the PCUSA, go here, here, and here. […]

  14. […] Tell Me This Isn’t About the Money, Oct. 22, 2013 […]

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