Divorce is hell. Amicable divorce is an oxymoron. When a church divorces its denomination, it can be just as painful as a marital dissolution. Sometimes it’s worse.
You know how divorce happens. The aggrieved party looks back over recent history, shudders over the hurtful things the spouse has done, and remembers all the unrequited steps he or she took to try to bring reconciliation. The aggrieved party transitions from trying to save the marriage to building a compelling case to justify ending it.
In the process, the accused party reacts and does things that are really, really stupid, reinforcing the anger of the aggrieved. Soon each party can’t stand the sight of the other.
I’ve been participant in or immediate observer of a dozen congregational splits and denominational separations. Every one of them has followed that divorcing pattern.
We can do better.
Given the desire of some congregations to separate from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) these days, let us consider a few possible modi operandi.
The most critical thing we can do is to believe in one another’s intentions.
Those wishing to leave are not seeking to be schismatic. They don’t lie awake at night plotting some way to divide and conquer the PC(USA). They want to be faithful to the gospel. They perceive the denomination to be rushing headlong into beliefs and practices that run contrary to the scriptures. They’ve grown weary of explaining why their denomination keeps advocating causes they oppose. They want to preach the Word of God among a fellowship that shares their ministry vision. And since they and their parents built those buildings and paid the bills, they figure they should be able to continue using those facilities, regardless of denominational affiliation.
At the same time presbytery leaders are not seeking to be punitive. They don’t lie awake, plotting how to seize the property and cash it in for a windfall. They want to be faithful to the gospel. They feel connected to the congregation, which was launched years (or centuries) ago by them or a predecessor presbytery. They know that the other denomination is in the body of Christ, but they also want to have a PC(USA) outpost in that locale. They don’t want our missional and theological emphases to give way to those of some alternative denominations. Further, they question if the original perceptions of the disaffected congregation–their belief that the denomination is straying–are not misperceptions to be reconsidered.
Those are good motives, even if some really, really stupid behaviors suggest otherwise.
Second, we can seek the truth together.
We can debate whether God is calling a congregation to leave, but there is no debate about God’s call to tell the truth. Long before members vote to leave, they owe it to themselves and to their PC(USA) family to solicit input from a wide range of informed parties. What does the Trinity paper really say, and what is its status? How is the TTFPUP report being applied? It behooves all parties to “seek wisdom and understanding” as Proverbs exhorts.
Third, we can extend grace toward one another.
We all know that the church is people, not property. Now’s the time to prove it! If God is calling a congregation to exodus, are they willing to relinquish the conveniences they have enjoyed in the past? Then again, if a congregation reasonably, responsibly, prayerfully, and deliberately determines that God is calling them to transfer to another fellowship, is the presbytery willing to extend them a missionary commission (with property) to serve there?
Both of those questions can be answered honestly only on our knees.
Somewhere between those questions we find many nuances and possibilities, such as the departing church giving a tithe of their property value to the presbytery to help launch a new PC(USA) church in the community. Well-intended, truth-seeking, grace-extending sisters and brothers in Christ can explore other negotiated financial arrangements. But property settlements should be the last topic of discussion, not the first.
In spite of reports to the contrary, the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) concurs with this approach (link to interview).
Divorce will never be heavenly, but to borrow from Roman Catholic doctrine, perhaps the hellish experience of ecclesiastical separations could shrink to the level of purgatory. That would be an improvement.