Milwaukee Presbytery wants $500K to let Oostburg congregation leave

oostburgThe Milwaukee Presbytery voted to let the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Oostburg (FPO) leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and align with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. However, the price tag to do so is too steep for the 265-member congregation.

During the May 27 presbytery meeting a vote of 71-14 showed support for an Administrative Commission’s motion to dismiss the FPO congregation for $500,000 to retain its property, located near Lake Michigan about 45 minutes north of Milwaukee.

“It’s a price we are unwilling to pay and never were willing to pay,” said the Rev. Brian Jacobson, pastor of FPC-Oostburg. “Our congregation has already expressed that it will not vote for that motion.”

That leaves church leaders with a decision to make regarding the congregation’s future, though that remains uncertain at this time.

“I think the expectation (by the presbytery) is that we will stay if we don’t accept this proposal,” Jacobson said. “We need to decide what we plan to do in the future.”


oostburgsignOffers and counter offers

The session of FPO had offered a $100,000 financial gift to the Administrative Commission (AC) to “graciously and freely dismiss” First Presbyterian Church Oostburg with all its property to ECO, noting in its recommendation that “Such a dismissal would mirror the free gift of God in Jesus Christ and reflect it to a watching world.”

But the AC, which has no policy in place to serve as a guide for dismissing a congregation, stood firm in its financial settlement proposal, and the Oostburg motion was not even considered at Tuesday’s presbytery meeting.

In its report to the presbytery, the AC determined the gift offered by FPC-Oostburg to be “neither equitable to the presbytery nor reflective of the worth and mission of the presbytery over the past 100+ years.”

“We’ve been left in limbo to figure out what to do because nothing is clearly spelled out,” Jacobson said. “There are no set guidelines to follow so we have been walking on eggshells. We don’t want to do anything to incur the wrath of the presbytery, to upset anyone or cause waves.”

He continued, “Both sides feel they are the aggrieved party, and that makes it difficult to reach a middle ground. We felt like this was a purely partisan vote because everything we said fell on deaf ears related to a rationale for a more fair settlement.”

While discouraged that the counter offer did not go before the presbytery, Jacobson said the fact that the number did not change could be a blessing of sorts.

“If they had said we could pay $100,000 and be dismissed we’d be rejoicing, but anything over that likely would have split our congregation,” he said. “Some of our people are in the ‘don’t give them a dime’ camp, and others are in the ‘we know we’ll have to pay something’ camp. But according to our straw poll, no one is in the ‘pay them $500,000’ camp, and so we come out of this process unified in our reaction.”


Lack of movement

Jacobson, who has been at FPO since 2010, acknowledged that the church has not paid its per-capita apportionment in 20 years. Jacobson explained that delinquent per-capita payments are not supposed to be held against churches seeking dismissal, but the topic was brought up time and again during the presbytery meeting.

“I would call the meeting a reinforcement of hostilities,” he said. “It was a re-entrenching of difficulties in the process. We already had made clear that we were not going to pay $500,000. This didn’t feel like a step forward at all.”

Jacobson continued, “It’s disappointing to have the presbytery vote on a motion that doesn’t reflect any agreement between the AC and the church, and which accomplishes neither the dismissal nor the placement of funds for the ministry of the presbytery.  At best, the vote is simply a demand for an exit fee, and at worst, it’s an exercise in futility. It accomplished nothing, because it reflects no agreement, and so the time and energy spent, along with the rancor expressed, feels like a step backward and a poor use of presbytery time.”

And that leaves the congregation and its leadership with decisions to make regarding the future.

FPO has been engaged in dismissal discussions since informing Milwaukee Presbytery in April 2012 of its desire to leave the PCUSA.

Only one other church in the presbytery has been granted dismissal to another Reformed body. Cedar Grove Presbyterian Church was dismissed in 2007 to affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) after agreeing to pay $150,000. Cedar Grove had a smaller membership, less property and fewer financial assets than FPC-Oostburg.


Comments 39

  • Dad was hit from both directions.
    His own seminary – Westminster Theological Seminary – rejected him, because when he graduated with the first class in 1932 he went UPUSA rather than Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which Machen founded the next year just before his death. The presbytery hated him for the leading questions with which he baited ordination candidates like “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” “Do you believe in the Trinity?” and “Do you believe that Scripture is the Word of God?” The moderator would sit with the rubber-stamp engraved “ORDAINED” swinging in his hand in the air, while agnostic seminarians hemmed and hawed in front of a handful of evangelical pastors and a mass of bored liberals. Dad also got it from his wife when she conditioned Sunday lunch on apologies for the slurs against the denomination that had dotted his sermon. The only thing that kept him going in those days were friends like Russell Esty and the Layman. He knew if he left the denomination, his wife would leave him for a younger man and we’d be walking around town in fig leaves for clothing out of the nonsalary the elders would be free to budget him. Gen. 3:7: “and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”

  • So my father – Luther P. Fincke of the formerly United Presbyterian Church of Manoa – and Fred Russell Esty, boardmember of the Lay Committee, discussed the issues weighing down the church between shots on the golf course. On the eighth fairway one day I caught the following as I pulled the wedge out of the bag for Mr. Esty’s approach shot:
    Seems that stated clerk of the UPUSA, Eugene Carson Blake, in his concern about 1600 nuclear missiles trained on the United States had devised a plan to evangelize the Russians. The mission was put in charge of Angela Davis, a bright young black girl with gifts in oratory. The mission failed when Ms. Davis – instead of winning the Soviets to the Lord – switched uniforms and adopted the communist position. Back then – late sixties – the USA and the Soviet Union were engaged in a “cold war.” When the Lay Committee learned that the denomination was supporting communist missionaries – shades of Pearl Buck in the 1930’s! – it went on the attack in the pages of its new publication, the Layman. Mr. Esty wasn’t so much asking my father for advice, as rather giving the disenchanted pastor fodder for his sermons in the ensuing year.

  • Peter,
    Here’s the best I can reconstruct the history of the Lay Committee. Carmen can fill in the gaps and correct any errors. It was the late sixties. I’d graduated from high school in the western suburbs of Philly and gone off to college – Amherst in Massachusetts. I spent summers at home earning money – painting, driving delivery trucks, teller in a bank. Dad was home tending his church – United Pres. Church of Manoa, which Dad took over in 1958, leaving Point Breeze Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, Ockenga’s former church. Last year Dad’s successor led Manoa out of the PCUSA, from whom they rent – so I understand – the sanctuary building Dad built in 1961. Mom had gone up to the summer camp in New York state to care for Grandma, and Dad’s cooking was bad. But one Saturday he had an idea I jumped on. “Come with me,” he said, “downtown (8 miles) to Tenth Presbyterian Chuirch, and take in the meeting of the Philadelphia chapter of PUBC, Presbyterians United for Biblical Confession!” When we got there, we were greeted by Barnhouse’s successor and Boice’s predecessor, Mariano diGangi and five or six other ministers, whose comon beef was the proposed new Book of Confessions including its gem: the “Confession of 1967.” Another pain in the neck of those turbulent years was COCU, Council(?) on Church Union, which the stated clerk, Eugene Carson Blake, hoped would lead to a Christian Mega-denomination including the Catholics. I was an odd guest at the party. A student of a liberal arts college in the sixties faced both a moral decision about Vietnam and the practicalities of the draft. When my birthday came up 247 in the lottery, I was relieved of the second worry. Later on in the summer – when Dad got his one month vacation dictated by the denomination – I accompanied him to the Adirondack camp, where Dad played golf with his longtime friend, Fred Russell Esty, co-organizer with Roger Hull of the 1957 Madison Square Garden Billy Graham crusade and member of the original board of directors of the Lay Committee. “Uncle Rus” – as we called him – was very generous with the tips he gave his caddy, me. Rus, who knew the Bible almost by heart, supplemented his full time job as chairman of the United States Banknote Company with the presidency of the New York Bible Society. There was only a print edition of the Layman, and there were no alternative denominations, no alternative Bibles. The Layman kept us informed what was happening in the denomination, and how the decisions being made conflicted with Scripture. We didn’t think of leaving the denomination, because we lived in the adjoiing manse and associated the one with the other.

  • With regard to P.J. Southam’s comments on FPC Oostburg’s manse, it would make a lot more sense for the church to make a down payment on a new home for their pastor and adjust his salary to accommodate a monthly mortgage payment. Financially prudent churches and pastors don’t use the old model much anymore of a church owned manse because a pastor at retirement age ends up with no equity in a home. Housing values in a town like Oostburg must be awfully modest and having the pastor’s family own their own home would be a better use of the church’s and the Lord’s resources than the current arrangement, certainly a better investment than making a confiscatory six figure payment into the presbytery’s black hole.

  • Again and again, why do believers assume pagans act, behave, or have the same motivations as they? The apostates of the PCUSA are motived by one desire, money and the power they assume they can buy with it. All else is secondary, all else is non-imporatnt. The pagans of the said presbytery do not care one hoot about those who even wish to remain ‘faithful’ to their PCUSA, or left behind in a split. They only want the money and property. Here’s a radical notion, give it to them. Strip the walls, windows, anything that is not nailed down, and even that which is, gut the structure and just walk away, just flee the pagan and apostate church. Drop off the keys and lawn mower and be free. free indeed. Thank God.

    • Will you give your house to the pastor and his family so that they will have a home to live in?

    • Curious…why does someone who believes this about the pcusa continue as a pcusa teaching elder? And are you in the process of acting on the advice you give in this post?

  • You’re right, Stan. Until about a year ago all Presbyterians across the spectrum could be gratified that, with a few sad exceptions, very few presbyteries were embarrassing themselves the way the entire Episcopalian denomination has embarrassed itself. But in the last year a growing minority of presbyteries have started treating departing churches in harsh, indefensible ways. Maybe readers of this website have some thoughts on what could account for that shift. One possibility is that presbyteries always assumed that departures would be a trickle but now they fear that departures are turning into a flood. Another possibility is that non-PC(USA) Presbyterians (EPC, PCA, ECO) have already moved ahead of the PC(USA) on important measures of vitality such as per capita giving, new church development and foreign missions activity and it’s starting to dawn on PC(USA) presbyteries that their church is evolving into a hollow shell of its former self. The only silver lining in all of this is that the Episcopalians and Presbyterians are surely ringing the death knell of this kind of connectional polity.

    • The editorial in the latest OUTLOOK (came yesterday) made an interesting observation that applies to your comments. As “conservative” churches leave the denomination, and individuals who are unhappy with the direction of the denomination leave or become inactive in their individual church, the remaining churches and the denomination will move more to the left (or liberal) (or Progressive). This means things are likely to get worse, not more reasonable.

  • After a 90% vote to depart, our congregation in the Presbytery of the James in Virginia was initially given the ultimatum of paying 900K if we wanted to keep our property. This was far more than significantly larger churches with more valuable properties were assessed. When the AC was convinced that we could not afford that assessment, especially after the losses our church had taken during the 3 year process of separation, it was renegotiated to 400K.
    While the majority of our presbyters have favored a fair and amicable separation that will allow congregations to separate amicably and continue their ministry, there seems to be a growing minority that favors the Episcopal approach and wants blood and to hurt departing congregations no matter how substantial the majority that wants to depart. After coming to faith in this the PCUS and a quarter century in this congregation, I find the theological decline and the animus very sad. It will be good to have a fresh start where we don’t have to deal with the constant infighting.

  • I keep hoping PC(USA) churches like FPC Oostberg will learn from the example of the Episcopalians that strict enforcement of the trust clause is a giant black financial hole for the denomination and just mail the presbytery the keys. Nothing is more clear the last 30 years than the last thing a church needs to do vibrant, high impact ministry is a churchy building, an organ and stained glass windows. Willow Creek grew rapidly in its early years worshiping in a rented movie theater. Redeemer Presbyterian, the largest, most dynamic Presbyterian church in New York City (PCA) with weekly attendance or 5,000, didn’t own any property in its first 17 years. Without any exception I’m aware of, Episcopalian congregations who were forced to surrender their buildings to the denomination are thriving in all manner of alternative settings while the denomination suffers the humiliation of huge financial losses trying to sustain tiny successor congregations in empty buildings.

    • Jim, if all the church owned were a church building it would be one thing. FPC Oostburg also owns a manse which the pastor and his family live in. To turn the keys in would mean that the pastor’s family would instantly be homeless. A manse and the pastor’s family is another thing that needs to be taken into consideration.

  • The PCUSA knows there’ll be no more per capita from each church that leaves. They are propping up their finances by cannibalizing departing churches, feasting on their bones. But what they don’t seem to realize is the body they feast on—–is their own. Soon the feast must end.

  • I agree with some others above, it’s blackmail. I hope PC(USA) is left with 100s of empty buildings and then chokes on them.

  • This breaks my heart, and if mine, how much more the heart of the Lord of the Church our Savior, Jesus the Christ! As he wept over Jerusalem on his way to the cross, he must again weep over the PCUSA. At the coming General Assembly there will be so much talk about ‘peace! peace!’ And commissioners will make statements to the governments and corporations of the world calling them to make peace, divesting from corporations who support war, yet, there is no peace even among us and none will even sit down to listen and to understand the other’s complaint.

    Do you see the dusty robe of the One you follow? Do you see the nailprints in the bottom of his dusty sandaled feet? He has taught us how to lay down our lives and we continually refuse. Lord, have mercy on us all!

  • The Episcopal Church in Georgia is more honorable than that in New York. In my southern town the small high church conservative congregation peacefully split (I’d guess 50-50 in membership) several years ago as low church members (more liberal but how liberal I do not know) left and built a new church. The conservative (but not the liberal) congregation became Anglican a couple of years ago and walked away from their property, temporarily meeting in one of the Baptist churches. A few months ago the Episcopal Church got tired of the expense of the empty building and sold it back to the original congregation who again worship there as St. M- Anglican Church. I don’t know the price or how it relates to the value of the property.
    Blessings on you, FPO

  • Not only will the Presbytery have to maintain an empty building, but they will begin to pay property tax on the building as it no longer fulfills its non-profit status as a church. This has already happened elsewhere.

  • A quick note of clarification for “Z”.

    The “loss” of membership simply reflects a so-called “cleaning of the books”. That is, our membership numbers were a bit bloated when I arrived, and the Session set about determining which of the current members were actually still part of the church, or interested in being part of the church, and the rest were transferred to an inactive list. The reduced membership numbers, however, are not indicative of any actual decline in worship attendance or participation, and, in fact, the truth is that the church has indeed been growing, and is as vibrant and active as at almost any point in its history.

    Furthermore, as even the AC and the Presbytery of Milwaukee will admit, there is no “faithful remnant” here or chance for a new worshiping community to be formed. The “dissenters” as you call them, represent upwards of 98% of the congregation, and the demographics of our region largely preclude the possibility that a more liberal PC(USA) congregation could endure. In other words, “those closest to the situation” have already considered all that you suggest, and are all in agreement that the current congregation is the only viable one.

    • That may be, and I am sure your session believes it to be so, but the presbytery may believe otherwise regarding the demographics of their region. Your records seem to indicate a “cleaning of the roles” in 2009 (for members who had drifted away over the previous years?) and another in 2012 (for members who had drifted away…when?). Self-reported data indicate a drop in worship attendance and Christian education since 2006, even if not quite as sharp as the drop in membership.

      But of course membership and attendance fluctuate many places for many reasons. Whether this is because of an aging congregation, shrinking local population, changes in the population makeup, or fewer people comfortable with a church with an all-male session – those are among the things the presbytery must sort out.

      • I understand that you would feel the need to question the veracity of my statements because of my closeness to the situation, but I assure you that even the AC working with us would confirm everything I said.

      • The viabiability or non-viability of a mainstream pcusa congregation in your area is not a question of “veracity” -that by its nature is going to be a matter of opinion if it is not actually tested.
        Be that as it may, my comment primarily was about the church’s self reported data.

        • I meant the veracity of whether or not “those closest to the situation” had already considered the things you bring up. They have, and have concluded that they do not think any other congregation or worshiping community is viable. Sorry for the confusion.

          As to the data, I think a lot of the fluctuation is explained by the fact that there was a pastoral transition and a lengthy (3 year) interim period. That’s my sense, anyway.


  • Regarding “..Oostburg will continue to be a growing, vibrant, high impact influence..” one may note that Oosburg has lost a third of its members in the past 5 years, something that seems to be a pattern among many of these departing congregations. Whether that means that the presbytery should just cut its losses and let the property go or on the other hand that there is potential for a new PCUSA start to serve that community once the dissenters have departed is a question that should be considered carefully by those closest to the situation.

    • @z A 3rd of our members in the last 5 years? Where do you get those numbers?

      • On the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. website homepage you can find any member congregation. Once you get to the brief listing of the church’s name and address there is a link for “details”. This page contains quite a bit of information, including membership numbers. You can look at “ten year trends” that will show you information for each of the last ten years.

        While this information will show you what happened it does not explain why.

        Also, the annual paper directories that are sent out have statistical information for a particular year, but you would have to compare the directories side by side to see what has happened over time, while the internet report has it all there for you to see.

        I hope this is helpful.

  • Earlier today in this discussion, David Hock suggests to FPC Oostburg that it just hand over the property to the presbytery and then purchase it for less than $500,000 when the presbytery, stuck with the costs of maintaining an empty building, tries to sell it. However Mr. Hock fails to account for the mean-spirited, unbiblical behavior of mainline denominations. When the Episcopal denomination seizes the property of a departing congregation, it refuses to discuss selling the building to the congregation and demands a covenant in the deed when it sells the property to some other buyer which prohibits the building ever being sold to any Episcopal or Anglican body. In once instance in New York City the denomination sold the building to a Muslim group for a price less than offered by the departing congregation which built and paid for the building in the first place. In these cases, the Milwaukee presbytery and the larger PC(USA) couldn’t care less about what best advances the cause of Christ in Oostburg.

  • I, if asked by the editor of the article would have added the the AC came to Oostburg not to negotiate a settlement but deliver it’s terms of surrender. I have not been surprised at all by the attitude of the AC or the Presbytery for that matter on the whole issue. They preach tolerance and how important it is that we are a group of diverse voices and pat themselves on the back for their high minded acceptance of the things. But the truth is much uglier, they only want those dissenting opinions as long as they have a boot on the throat of the dissenter so they may silence it when its wearies them.

  • dont pay them….never pay a per capita….put up a sign in the parking lot that says the congregation opposes the positions of the PCUSA, and that they hold to the authority of scripture…have nothing further to do with the Presbytery or the denomination…..if they want to count you as members , fine and dandy…The extortionists of the PCUSA will receive theirs in kind.

    • Charles – To the best of your knowledge, has any PC(USA) congregation done what you suggest? If so, what was the result?

  • The congregation should leave the denomination without their property, and then when the Presbytery has to sell it, buy it for an amount significantly less than the $500,000.

  • What a travesty! The AC’s report makes it clear this is all about money. A half million dollars for a congregation of 250 members? The AC mouths words about “gracious dismissal,” a directive of the GA, but then fixates on its “duty” to honor the property trust clause on behalf of the Presbytery of Milwaukee. “We need to get our fair share of the property,” squeezing as much out of the congregation as they think it can give. Talk about a pound of flesh — Shylock would be proud!

    The AC is looking for a “fair and equitable” settlement; but “grace” is not about fairness and equity — it is about sacrificing our rights for the welfare of the other. The AC points to the appraised value of Oostburg’s buildings and property of $750,000. But everyone knows this is a special use property, and there is not much of a market for new churches in Oostburg. Were the presbytery to put the property on the market, my guess is they’d be lucky to get 25% of the assessed value in an offer by the few interested buyers there might be.

    Even worse, they factor in the (in)estimable value that the presbytery has been to Oostburg for over a hundred years. They fail to consider how their relationship with Oostburg may have been a hindrance rather than a help, nor do they factor in over that hundred plus years what value Oostburg has been to the presbytery. They laughed off Oostburg’s offer of $100,000, claiming with imperial hubris that the gift would be “neither equitable to the presbytery nor reflective of the worth and mission of the presbytery over the past 100+ years.”

    Most malevolent of all, the AC freely admits that they undertook a study of the congregation’s “financial abilities” (average salaries of members, etc.), and concluded that the congregation (whose annual budget is a little over $300,000) could afford the $500,000 figure they were lusting after. Convinced they could squeeze that much blood out of a turnip, they rebuffed any lesser figures, and patted themselves on the back that they had acted fairly in defending the interests of the PCUSA. Apparently it’s okay to cripple a sister congregation in the Kingdom of God as long as it lines the pockets of a denomination which increasingly demonstrates it is not interested in the Kingdom of God, only its dwindling bank accounts.

    The AC makes the case that the presbytery is entitled to and needs this money, at the same meeting in which the presbytery reports that it has over $2,000,000 in its presbytery foundation. This report reflects little interest in Jesus Christ, the Lord and Head of the Church, but much interest in the PCUSA and the god of Mammon. From now on, I think I’ll refer to the denomination in print as the PCU$A. May God have mercy on this lost but arrogant denomination and its money-grubbing presbyteries, and bring them back to their Christian senses.

    • If the church rebuilt the current building why would the church pay their way out when the pcusa contributed nothing for their supposed trust clause? Go to court, allow the courts to absolve the church to pay anything to the pcusa since the pcusa contributed nothing for repairs, replacements, and up keep of the church. Go to court, and you will see how fast the pcusa will take any kind of money settlement. Start with $1.00.

  • Another example of extortion.

  • Rev. Jacobson and his congregation can take some solace from the experience of the Episcopalian denomination (TEC) which has been strictly enforcing its trust clause which claims ownership of all its churches’ properties. TEC won’t even discuss the property with a departing congregation giving them only two options of either surrendering the property voluntarily or going to court. TEC has changed its financial reporting in an attempt to disguise the true cost of its harsh treatment of departing churches. However careful forensic analysis of TEC’s accounting indicates that seizing churches’ properties has cost TEC $30 million in legal fees, maintenance of empty buildings and attempting to save face by subsidizing tiny successor congregations in the buildings. Now the shoe is on the other foot as TEC is being forced to defend itself against charges of financial malfeasance before the New York State agency charged with insuring prudent financial practice by charities, non-profits and religious entities.

    In light of the experience of so many departed Episcopalian congregations which are thriving without their former properties, FPC Oostburg should consider just mailing the presbytery the keys and continuing its ministry elsewhere. One thing is absolutely certain regardless of how the property issue is resolved. FPC Oostburg will continue to be a growing, vibrant, high impact influence for Christ in Oostburg while the Milwaukee presbytery and the rest of the PC(USA) will continue its long, inexorable decline into oblivion.

  • i would like to again mention that Cedar Grove had an earlier secession, 1936, that went to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

  • What was not mentioned in the article was that for many years FPC Oostburg thought they had been granted relief of conscience status regarding abortion, but their presbytery would not give it to them and hid this information from them.

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