Toddler Property Laws and the PC(USA) Trust Clause

October 23, 2013

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

One of the fascinating features of child development is the growing sense of self and ownership. What lesson do moms and dads try to teach their two-year-old children? “Share your toys!” But it is a learning process occurring in a phase during which a child is egocentric and unable to differentiate between self and environment. As a parent I discovered that the concept of sharing fell on deaf ears until my child was able to grasp the concept of ownership. Only when a child fully appreciates that “this blanky is mine” can we work on the virtue of giving or sharing it with someone else. Until then, the Toddler Property Laws describe the scene:

1.  If I like it, it’s mine.
2.  If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3.  If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4.  If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
5.  If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6.  If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7.  If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.

The concept of Christian stewardship is an advanced adult value, based on the biblical truth that “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Aha! We discover that in fact what we possess is not ours but God’s, and we are managers and stewards of it.

It seems to me that the Presbytery of San Francisco, and sadly many other judicatories around the church, needs a reminder of Who owns our church buildings and possessions. The Presbytery wants to say, The denomination owns what you paid for and steward, and the congregation wants to say, “No, it’s ours.” Both are wrong. A congregation’s assets are the Lord’s and dedicated to Christ’s mission. It has been the wisdom of this Church for hundreds of years to entrust such an important ministry to its congregations, to let them acquire the property and tools necessary to do that, and to encourage their incarnation within the local mission field. The Presbytery sees its governing role as overseer of the progress toward this end. Where we get off the track is with an assumption that the Kingdom work as God’s representatives can only be done under the banner “PC(USA)” and that if that affiliation is detached, the church is no longer living out Christ’s mission. [The wording in many dismissal policies conveys concern for the ongoing mission of Christ in a region, when a church is dismissed.] On the other hand, when a congregation feels that the Presbytery’s mission is no longer consonant with what they see as Christ’s mission, it becomes a matter of conscience to differentiate themselves in order to live out their Kingdom responsibilities freely.

This adult value of stewardship of God’s assets requires trust in God and trust that congregations are doing the best they can to represent Christ’s Kingdom faithfully in the world. Unfortunately, trust in the Trust Clause of our constitution has diverted our attention away from what is really important within our Presbyterian/Reformed heritage.

So while we’re talking about trust, we also understand as Presbyterians that working together in decision-making requires transparency and patience, while we together trust God through the process.

What is at the heart of the dispute is a fairly simple legal question. That is, what really must be considered the assets of the church? MPPC understands the answer to be: everything to which MPPC holds title and that which is held for its benefit. But the Presbytery is claiming that MPPC’s assets include those of The Church of the Pioneers Foundation (COPF). The Foundation is a completely separate legal entity, with its own board, established in the 1970s to receive tax-deductible donations to be used at the Board’s sole discretion. Beneficiaries of COPF’s generosity have included Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center, Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as MPPC. The Foundation owns several buildings in downtown Menlo Park that are leased to the church at the full-market rate as needed for office and program space. It also owns several homes in town that are leased at full market rates to staff members who otherwise could not live in one of the most expensive residential communities in the country. None of the assets in its portfolio has ever previously been owned by MPPC. In no way is the foundation an “alter-ego” of the church. All of the information needed to come to this conclusion was passed along to the PET when requested in May 2013. For this reason, MPPC has no reason to count the assets of COPF as theirs, and therefore there is no reason for the Presbytery—unless operating under Toddler Property Laws—to covet them.

COPF assets are irrelevant to the calculation of MPPC’s property value and consequently the financial exit fee, which was deemed to be roughly 10% of property values. My sense is that the PET needs to do its homework with the material that has been in its possession for months and let the church move forward in a timely fashion according to the agreement that was struck in August.



8 Responses to “Toddler Property Laws and the PC(USA) Trust Clause”

  1. Harry Slye Says:

    Greetings Mary,

    I greatly appreciate your timely report and analysis of the struggle between MPPC and the Presbytery of San Francisco. I shared your first post about this yesterday with 3 elders I have coffee with weekly. I will pass it on to others and I expect you will have some new regular readers as a result. I hope so.

    Your Toddler Property Laws will be an excellent help for my SS Class at Memorial Drive PC in Houston. I am retired but was asked by MDPC staff to teach this class and have enjoyed doing that for two years. We are 5 chapters into Acts and the infant church in Jerusalem evidently got past toddler stage in a hurry. All except Ananias and Sapphira which we will discuss next Sunday.

    The matter of separating a foundation from the church from which it arose will be a critical one for other congregations like MPPC. First Houston connects with one two. They handle much of their mission giving from it so it may be that the relationship between the church and the foundation will be the legal point. I was Assoc. Pastor with Dave McKechnie for 16 years and I assisted the Session committees responsible for leading our congregation in participating in the Lord’s mission to the world. I frequently talked with my colleagues at First, Houston and saw how they referred mission opportunities on to their foundation budget. That type of connection may be different from MPPC but the type of relationship or separation will make all the difference won’t it?

    Harry Slye

  2. emd5542 Says:

    May all those who hold decision-making power prayerfully permit this to jolt their minds and hearts. Thank you, Mary.

  3. George McIlrath Says:

    Another “Home Run” analogy by one of the Church’s great teachers

  4. Paul Says:

    There has to be some mint, dill or cummin on MPPC property to be tithed…

  5. MPPC member Says:

    Thank you Mary. What a great analogy.

    One of my frustrations is that I’m getting far more information from reading your two articles about what is going on between MPPC and the Presbytery than I’ve received from MPPC through its informational sessions with the congregation. MPPC’s congregation can handle receiving all of the details regarding communications between MPPC and the Presbytery. I encourage MPPC elders to fully disclose (without violating confidentiality of course) everything they’re able to disclose about this process to the congregation. I also encourage MPPC to use this time (now that the Presbytery has canceled our Nov. 3rd vote and we’ve been told another vote date won’t be scheduled until after the first of the year) for outreach to members to explain more about PCUSA and ECO and our Session’s vote to make the change. Let’s view the extra time as a blessing for increased time for communication with our congregation.

    Mary – A Google search showed that there were two congregations with votes scheduled regarding leaving our Presbytery. MPPC’s was canceled. What was the outcome of the vote which was supposed to have taken place last Sunday, Oct. 20th? Did that church vote to leave and did that vote have any impact on the decision to cancel MPPC’s vote?

  6. […] Toddler Property Laws and the PC(USA) Trust Clause, October 23, 2013 […]

  7. […] Toddler Property Laws and the PC(USA) Trust Clause, Oct. 23, 2013 […]

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