First Presbyterian Church of Cushing, located at 301 East Moses Street in Cushing, Okla., reached an agreement with an Administrative Commission (AC) from the presbytery that allowed the church to be disaffiliated from the denomination by closing it.
Under the terms reached between FPC-Cushing and the AC – authorized to act on behalf of the presbytery – the church paid three years of per capita in the amount of $7,702.80 and $1 for the building and assets for a lump sum payment of $7,703.80 to become an independent body under the new name of First Presbyterian Church, Independent.
During its Feb. 12, 2013, meeting the presbytery concurred with the AC on closing the church and accepting the terms of real property and asset transfer.
Scott Foster, pastor of First United Presbyterian Church of Guthrie and moderator of the AC representing Presbytery of Cimarron, said the determination there was not a remnant congregation or interest in a new church plant made it easier to reach an agreement suitable to all.
“We saw no reason to draw a line in the sand over a building,” he wrote in an email to The Layman. “The per-capita assessment eases the presbytery’s loss of funding for mission projects or church camp support of the Dwight Mission, etc., not to mention the tremendous waste of money in legal fees.”
The agreement was reached in October 2012 after five months of wrangling over the issue, and the property transfer was finalized April, 2, 2013, after both parties signed the proper paperwork. Payment to the presbytery was made by First Presbyterian Church, settling the dispute without denying ownership. The church also provided all its records to the presbytery in a meeting labeled as “friendly” in a letter written and sent to The Layman on behalf of the FPC Board of Trustees by Greg Griffeth, president of the board.
“We want to give glory to God for the outcome of our church’s disaffiliation from the PCUSA,” Griffeth wrote. “He has been gracious to us, and we want to praise Him.”
The letter sent to The Layman by the church in Cushing raised objections to the new form of Government (nFOG) and a slant toward Unitarianism as well as the national denomination’s shift from a traditional Presbyterian form of government to a “top down” hierarchical system that eliminated safeguards and due process for pastors and congregations.
Additionally, there was objection to a “gag order” passed by the presbytery in March 2011 and action to establish a standing Administrative Commission with powers to “act on behalf of the presbytery on all matters regarding ministers, congregations and members of congregations who are considering withdrawal from the PCUSA.”
Feeling that such powers restricted the discernment process for the Cushing congregation, the session and members moved to seek disaffiliation. For Biblical reasons, every member of the church dropped individual membership in the PCUSA and voted at the congregational and corporate meeting May 6, 2012, or turned in a signed ballot to sever the relationship with the denomination as a congregation and individuals.
Cimarron is a small presbytery serving 13 congregations and approximately 2,700 members in northern Oklahoma.
Executive Presbyter Jim Bellatti acknowledged the AC’s work in completing the process to allow the FPC congregation to leave the PCUSA.
“The AC was given the authority to negotiate the settlement and dissolved the PCUSA relationship. That’s what the commission was elected to do,” Bellatti said. “(AC members) were convinced 100 percent of the congregation wanted to seek dismissal, so the church was granted a release given that all the records were produced, advanced per capita was paid and the property bought for $1. (FPC-Independent’s congregation) can go and do as they please now. We wish them well.”
To assure there was no remnant wishing to continue a PCUSA church in Cushing, located in Payne County, Okla., a city-wide meeting publicized by a mailing and newspaper ad took place Oct. 28, 2012. Bellatti and members of the Administrative Commission spent the afternoon waiting to meet anyone seeking to continue affiliation with a PCUSA church. One person showed up, and she was not interested in being part of a Presbyterian church.
Satisfied a good-faith effort had been made to hear the voices of Presbyterians in Cushing, the AC closed the Cushing church and honored terms of the agreement.
“The presbytery wanted to work with the church all along,” Bellatti said. “When we found out they all wanted to leave, we were glad the AC acted as it did.”
Foster noted that the Cushing church was not dismissed but rather dissolved once it was determined there would not be a remnant congregation.
The property of the church was held in trust for the PCUSA, but that clause was not invoked in this case.
“Something would have to be done with the building,” Bellatti said. “It would have to be maintained or sold, and we didn’t want it.”
Foster, in his email to The Layman, explained how the AC worked within the trust clause to reach the final outcome that allowed FPC-Independent to keep the building.
“We worked within it (the trust clause) and considered the value of the property and the cost of maintaining it for any possible remnant PCUSA congregation before we moved forward regarding property,” he wrote. “Our first consideration is for the church – that is for the people of the congregation – both those that wish to remain PCUSA and those who don’t wish to stay.”
According to the Administrative Commission’s February 12, 2013, report to the presbytery, there was little personal communication between the AC and church representatives in the early stages of the process.
A letter received May 29, 2012, by the Rev. Deborah Meinke, stated clerk of the presbytery, from Griffeth indicated the congregation had voted unanimously earlier that month to disaffiliate from the PCUSA, though church officials maintain that Cimarron officials continued to treat the congregation as part of the presbytery and the PCUSA despite attempts to point out there were no more PCUSA members in the Cushing church.
The presbytery learned later that the church had incorporated through the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office as First Presbyterian Church, Independent, Inc.
In a June meeting with presbytery representatives, Griffeth and FPC-Independent Stated Clerk Kiln Knight were informed of the Book of Order property held in trust clause, and they denied any further jurisdiction of the Book of Order, the presbytery, Administrative Commission or PCUSA, reiterating the church had disaffiliated and any further contact should be with the church’s attorney to begin property negotiations.
Griffeth’s letter countered that the meeting was hostile and accusatory in nature, with talk of “deception” and demands for AC involvement.
Later, emails from the Rev. Tom Stewart, serving the church in a part-time temporary supply capacity, were received, including one that indicated there was no reason for a discernment process since the congregation had disaffiliated from the PCUSA and there was no relationship with either the national denomination or the presbytery. The email also indicated the church would not work with an Administrative Commission, according to the AC report to the presbytery.
After several requests for meetings and records went unanswered, the AC retained legal counsel to move forward. John O’Connor, counsel for Cushing, later requested an informal meeting between AC members and Cushing trustees.
Finally, in early October 2012, the two sides met and ironed out details to allow the church to be released from the PCUSA. Noting that the Book of Order does not provide a way to release a congregation to independent status, the AC looked at other options to resolve the matter, ultimately deciding to close the church and transfer the property once the terms of the settlement were agreed to following the determination that a remnant congregation no longer existed.
“We are pleased to share that our disagreement with the Cimarron Presbytery, over the ownership of our property and assets, has been settled,” Griffeth wrote. “The tone of the final meeting was friendly with both the presbytery representatives and the church trustees feeling that an amicable resolution had been reached without going to court.
“We feel good about the outcome and are grateful that Cimarron Presbytery agreed to avoid civil courts as well. It is a better witness for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Foster indicated that the presence of attorneys probably muddled the process early on, and once the sides were able to meet face to face they were able to resolve the issue in a Christian manner.
“For Cimarron Presbytery (and we’d advise others similarly) attorneys have no place in the conversation unless or until the civil system has to be engaged to make a property transfer,” he wrote. “We are perfectly capable and prayerfully able to communicate clearly our differences with our Christian sisters and brothers and arrive at an ultimate understanding … . This approach worked very well once the attorneys were dismissed from the conversation.
“We feel guided by the Spirit and try very hard to demonstrate good Christian witness. We make every attempt to hear every voice on every issue. Mutual forbearance is a key tenet of the Presbyterian church. Once the attorneys got out of the way, and we were able to talk directly to each other, we were able to find a Spirit-filled way forward agreeable to all.”