A top church court has ruled that, in considering whether to dismiss a congregation to another denomination, a presbytery must take into account the financial worth of the congregation’s property, which is regarded as held in trust for the benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
That ruling, which cites the property trust clause of the PC(USA) constitution, could have significant implications for other presbyteries with congregations seeking dismissal.
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the denomination’s highest court, issued the ruling Oct. 28 in a case stemming from the Presbytery of San Francisco’s decision to dismiss Community Presbyterian Church of Danville to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
San Francisco Presbytery had adopted a gracious dismissal policy which stated that the trust clause “was not to be used as a weapon to threaten civil action against a congregation over issues of conscience” The commission’s ruling says the presbytery’s policy interpreted the trust clause in light of a desire for “organic unity as it fulfills `The Great Ends of the Church.’”
San Francisco Presbytery dismissed the Danville church in 2010, and in May 2012 the presbytery issued a quit-claim deed to the church’s property.
The commission ruled that, while it could not reverse the transfer of the property’s title, it would use its “declaratory authority to provide guidance to lower councils and prevent future violations.”
The commission ruled that the presbytery’s handling of the Danville dismissal “failed to duly consider the economic interests of the PC(USA).”
When a congregation seeks dismissal to another denomination, “it is the responsibility of the presbytery to fulfill its fiduciary duty under the Trust Clause,” the commission wrote. “This fiduciary duty requires that the presbytery exercise due diligence regarding the value of the property of the congregation seeking dismissal. Due diligence, of necessity, includes not only an evaluation of the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances but also financial analysis of the value of the property at stake. Payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for the separate evaluation of the value of the property held in trust.”