Sunday, May 3, 2015

A new dismissal policy for Sacramento Presbytery?

Sacramento Presbytery, my presbytery, will be voting on a new dismissal document at the next presbytery meeting. You can read the policy here: Gracious Dismissal Policy Review Task Force- Proposed Policy. This change comes just as three more churches in the presbytery are in the midst of discernment. The policy is supposedly meant to bring the dismissal policy up to date with the most recent church court cases. For that reason the writers of the document cite, “Tom v Presbytery of San Francisco, GAPJC (General Assembly 30 Permanent Judicial Commission) Remedial Case 221-03 (2012).” [1]

But I think this dismissal policy goes much further than anything intended by the remedial case. As I read the policy that will be voted on at the next presbytery meeting, May 14, I had a question which hopefully my readers can answer. Does anyone’s presbytery have a policy that is like this policy or is this something new? I will highlight some of what I think is important.

Property is a big part, of course.  Here is what it says about the property of a church that is leaving

“Care for Property

 Within the important constraints set out below, and as long as it recognizes its fiduciary obligation to the entire denomination codified in G-27 4.0203 "The Trust Clause" and G-4.0207, Presbytery may permit options in dealing with PC(U.S.A.) property being used by a Congregation. These 1 options include:  (1) retaining the property for those members of the Congregation who wish to remain in the PC(U.S.A.); (2) leasing the property to the departing Congregation; (3) selling the property to the departing congregation; (4) leasing the property to the departing Congregation with an option to buy; (5) selling the property to a third party. The choice of which option to offer shall be made according to which option is in the best interest of the PC(U.S.A.) in consultation with Presbytery's Congregational Support Ministry Team or its successor.”

As a writer and in a culture which has lately been concerned with the issues of freedom of the press and freedom of religion I was very surprised at the new policy’s rules for the media. The dismissal policy states:

“Concurrently with the appointment of the PET [Presbytery Engagement Team], the chair of COM shall advise the pastors and Session as well as the Moderator that the General Presbyter or Stated Clerk will serve as the sole spokesperson with all media agents throughout the process. Any exceptions to this policy shall be approved by the Stated Clerk or General Presbyter in consultation with members of the COM and Presbytery Council.”

And then there is the control of meetings which has been a joint project between the Presbytery Discernment Team and the Session of the church. Part of the policy states:

“If the vote of the Session is to continue the process, then the PET and the Session shall jointly decide on a procedure for taking the matter to the entire Congregation.  The congregational meetings, moderated by PET, shall review the earlier PET meetings, explain the options, and discuss the process to date. The PET shall determine how many meetings will be necessary.”

There is a lot more but this is enough to answer the question about other presbyteries’ policies. Does your presbytery have a policy that in any way resembles this one? If you were voting on this how would you amend it?


[1] The GA Junkie has an excellent article on Tom versus San Francisco Presbytery.


Dr. Mary Holder Naegeli said...

Hello Viola. Yes, there's plenty NEW in this policy:
1. Regarding property, by spelling out the five options the presbytery is limiting the options. Giving the property to an exiting congregation is not an option. But it should be.
2. Regarding media interface, the proposal assumes that there is only one party in the dismissal process, namely the presbytery. Ordinarily, one would expect a spokesperson for each point of view to be available. Is there a veiled threat attached to the gag order? You cannot keep people from talking! Is the presbytery requiring a confidentiality agreement with all parties? In which case the presbytery, too, must sign on.
The conceptual underpinning of this document is that the presbytery is the church; the congregation is part of the presbytery but does not have its own identity and cannot represent itself independently. As for property, the presbytery seems hell-bent on maintaining ownership and control and getting as much money out of the deal as possible. The lease options only continue to tie a congregation to a body that wants to control it through its property.
With such a policy, I wouldn't be surprised if congregations decided simply to walk away from their buildings and let Presbytery, which wants to assert ownership, do what owners do and take responsibility for maintaining the property. The long-term effect of this trend would be a presbytery that is land/building-rich and people poor. Ultimately, presbytery would have a far greater burden upon itself with all that property to maintain or dispose of. Do they really want that?
From a spiritual perspective, is there anything in the document that really shows concern for the health and well-being of the Kingdom of God at large? Of all the disappointments of the last few years, this one is the saddest to me: that officialdom in the PCUSA cannot see or care about the work of the Kingdom of God in the communities in which PCUSA churches now reside. Ultimately, who really cares what name or label is put on a property, if it is faithfully proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel of Christ?

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Mary,

I hope some other people will not be afraid to speak up. But I understand.

Thomas L. Fultz said...

I suggest you refer back to the action of the General Assembly which recommended presbyteries adopt a policy for reasonable pastoral concern by presbytery toward congregations in turmoil over the denomination's actions

The language of the General Assembly is about grace rather than regulatory control for the denomination.

Openness and Transparency: Early, open communication and transparency about principles and process of dismissal necessarily serve truth, order, and goodness, and work against seeking civil litigation as a solution.

• Pastoral Responsibility: The requirement in G-11.0103i to consult with the members of a church seeking dismissal highlights the presbytery’s pastoral responsibility, which must not be submerged beneath other responsibilities.

From Presbytery of South Alabama: "3. Denominational separation becomes a consideration when there is irreconcilable
disagreement on issues essential to faith and life. In such tragic situations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order allows presbyteries to dismiss congregations peaceably, with property but designates the presbyteries to determine the most faithful disposition of property.

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Thomas,
A good call by South Alabama.

Craig said...

It seems like a written specific policy is a step up from the other option. Even given the overly restrictive and less than gracious terms specified, at least churches know before they start the process what the process will be. At least some presbyteries seem to be opting for a more fly by the seat of their pants approach which makes it difficult for congregations to do their homework early in the process.



Viola Larson said...

I understand what you are saying Craig, but sometimes specific policies can lack any kind of grace and turn organizations into totalitarian organizations.

Craig said...


I agree with you that a policy such as the one in question certainly removes virtually any option for grace. However, a less formalized policy also leaves plenty of room for a lack of grace. I've just seen some instances where the congregation got blindsided by the lack of graciousness, which can be really demoralizing.

There is also no question that the PCUSA, at least in some of the presbyteries, is exhibiting a totalitarian streak that is disturbing.