Highland Park Presbyterian Church sues for control of its $30 million property

By Claire St. Amant, Culture Map Dallas

hppc logoWhen Highland Park Presbyterian Church was founded in 1926, the world was a very different place than it is today. The Park Cities property on McFarlin and University boulevards was worth a mere $60,000, and HPPC was a willing member of the Presbyterian Church of the United States.

Fast forward to 2014: The property is worth $30 million, and HPPC has left the national Presbyterian denomination for a smaller, more conservative sect. The Presbyterian Church (USA) believes it should retain ownership of HPPC’s church property, but that isn’t sitting well with Highland Park Presbyterian, which has 4,000 active members and is one of the largest Presbyterian churches in America.

To retain control of the prime Park Cities property, Highland Park Presbyterian is suing Grace Presbytery, the regional affiliate of Presbyterian Church. The pious parties had been engaged in mediation, but those talks broke down last month before a settlement was reached. A jury trial date has been set for October 20, 2014.

It’s a complicated case that, ironically, has much in common with HPPC’s reason for splitting with the Presbyterian Church. It’s all a matter of interpretation.

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Comments 6

  • I was a member of Grace Presbytery for many years, so I have some distant understanding of Grace.
    If the presbytery wins the case, the more difficult issue is: How does the Presbytery pay for the
    upkeep, the insurance, and the essential services on a $30 million dollar plant?
    I doubt Grace has deep pockets or those “loyal” Presbyterians will remain and foot the bill.
    During Dr. Clayton Bell’s tenure as head of staff, HPPC voted by over 50% to leave. The Book of Order
    that was in force following the PCUSA [Northern] and PCUS [Southern] stipulated that 60% was
    required. The difference was just a few points.
    Those who thought strongly about leaving and did. They established a strong PCA congregation nearby
    HPPC. The HPPC church minister in charge of money told me that those who departed took their
    money – an amount that represented over 50% of the HPPC budget that year [in excess of $2 million],
    and HPPC had to scramble to adjust to the loss.
    Some time later, I was playing golf and a former elder in HPPC was in a foursome. I asked him about
    what happened? He said that when a representative of the Presbytery met with the designated committee,
    the representative inflamed the situation by stating: “You all leave and we take the property.” If resolution
    was possible, this solitary remark made the inevitable happen.
    I suspect the same mentality met to negotiate terms. And as I view the issue, it is not simply a legal
    issue but an issue of Christian mission. My best guess is the Presbytery needs the money and HPPC is considered a nice goose to pluck.
    Yet” what king goes to war with another king without first counting the cost.” I am not sure the Presbytery leadership has a plan in place to assume the physical liabilities one gets with a massive property.
    Expecting the few “loyal” members can and will support this structure is irresponsible and is not a business plan. [Churches and property are a business. Not many pastors think in those terms, though].
    For instance, I drove by HPPC in the Fall of 2013 and noticed the educational building roof, a tile roof if I am not mistaken, is discolored. My thought is in due course the tiles must be replaced or the structure will be
    If Grace is thoughtful, they will sue for the best terms or otherwise come away with empty hands and
    a massive property that they Presbytery cannot afford or maintain.

    • James, I doubt Grace has any real expectation of being awarded the property by the court. The recent ruling in the Episcopal church case by the state supreme court gives HPPC a strong hand. Instead, Grace is probably staying in the lawsuit in the hope HPPC will agree to a large settlement to end the legal proceedings.

      But in the unlikely event Grace is recognized as the legal owner of the property, it won’t necessarily be stuck maintaining the plant. It could sell the property to a non-PCUSA church. Failing that, it could sell to housing developers. The 5-6 acres of land, in the Park Cities, are worth millions even without the buildings. Of course, that last possibility is too horrible to contemplate. But again, I can’t see Grace ever establishing ownership. At this point, it’s all about getting that settlement — both for the money, and to preserve some vestige of power from the trust clause, which would receive a mortal blow if HPPC were to prevail in a court trial.

  • In a way it’s hard to fault Grace Presbytery’s strategy. San Francisco Presbytery just extracted $8.89 million from Menlo Park so it must be awfully hard for Grace to resist dipping into that same honey pot. The only consolation for HPPC is that Grace’s behavior surely marks the death knell of this kind of church polity. It’s intriguing that given a choice between sustaining the long term viability of its polity and trying to grab the money, Grace is opting to try to grab the money.

  • I am confused – why should Highland Park sue for the property its own congregation paid for and an upstart 1981 denomination insanely claims it owns? It’s like the Coo Coo who lays its egg in another bird’s nest and lets that bird do all its work to hatch a foreign egg. Let their presbytery sue them for their unfounded ownership if they dare..


  • Like many articles in secular media about church matters, this one is at best incomplete, and at worst misleading.

    The author says that HPPC left PCUSA “mainly because of differing interpretations of Bible passages related to homosexuality.” Did she fact-check that statement by interviewing pastors, elders, and members of HPPC — or just go with a commonly assumed, simplified narrative?

    But the article’s biggest flaw is that, in a recap of legal arrows in HPPC’s and Grace’s quivers, no mention was made of the one that gives the greatest edge to HPPC: the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling in the Masterson case. That is what likely gives HPPC a position of strength that undoubtedly has presbytery officials — despite the apparent confidence of their public statements — deeply worried.

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