A remedial complaint brought against the Presbytery of Tropical Florida (PTF) by five members of the former session of First Presbyterian Church of Miami was dismissed by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of South Atlantic (SAPJC).
The complaint revolved around the assumption of original jurisdiction by an Administrative Commission (AC) appointed by the presbytery to look into issues at the Brickell Avenue church that sought to enter the gracious separation process in 2012 to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The assumption of original jurisdiction, as outlined in G-3.0303 of the Book of Order, gives an AC full power and responsibility when it determines that a session cannot exercise its authority.
The Rev. Dr. Heahwan Rim, Synod of South Atlantic Transitional synod executive/stated clerk, confirmed that the Dec. 3, 2013, ruling in the case of The Session of First Presbyterian Church of Miami vs. The Presbytery of Tropical Florida reached by the SAPJC indicated that the session did not have standing to bring the complaint.
A matter of retaliation?
Jeffrey Hooper, who was relieved of his duties as clerk of session for FPC-Miami, said there was a belief that the presbytery granted original jurisdiction to the Administrative Commission as a form of retaliation for seeking dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA). The congregation voted in May 2012 to leave the denomination, but the process was halted in September 2012 when the presbytery revised its gracious separation agreement. FPC-Miami ultimately withdrew from the dismissal process.
PTF Administrator Amalie Ash said “punitive” retiribution had nothing to do with the decision of the AC to assume original jurisdiction. A belief that the session had not been keeping minutes and financial accountability in a proper way and had not adequately provided information that had been asked for by the AC was the basis for the action taken. Documents providing membership records, session minutes and fully audited financial information were not provided as requested, she said.
“The church had lost its way,” Ash said. “We have a polity with expectations of the way a church should be managed. There may be a belief that this action was taken because the church wanted to leave the denomination, but that’s not it at all. It was not punitive. We’re trying to get the church better managed. We’re not trying to take the church property or sell the property. We’re not the kind of presbytery that is heavy-handed. We’re just trying to do a good job and help our churches through some difficult times.”
Hooper maintained that the session was told on at least two occasions that the AC would not take jurisdiction only to see that very act take place.
“It revealed the bad faith behavior of the presbytery toward the FPC-Miami session,” he said. “My gripe is that they routinely do not follow their own procedures or the Book of Order. We can’t have a meeting to oppose original jurisdiction because we cannot act as a session. They have made a mountain out of a mole hill and can’t show or prove the session is not capable of handling the affairs of the church.”
The first report from the AC to the presbytery in September showed investigation into receiving new members into the church, the specifications of a rental agreement with another congregation, movement of church funds to different financial institutions and concerns of too much authority vested in too few people.
Filing the complaint
Five members acting on behalf of the session of FPC-Miami filed the complaint with the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of South Atlantic on Oct. 17, 2013, alleging that the Presbytery of Tropical Florida improperly granted original jurisdiction of the church to an Administrative Commission at the Sept. 24, 2013, presbytery meeting.
Allegations in the complaint charge that the action was taken in violation of the Book of Order and that action exceeded the authority of the AC as given in its original charge.
The complaint – signed by Hooper and Elders Barbara Hosford, James Hosford, Suzanne Irving and Joel Klenck – asked the PJC to declare null and void the AC’s assumption of original jurisdiction, restore full authority to the session to act on behalf of the church, and order the Administrative Commission and presbytery to cease and desist from any further attempts to act on the session’s behalf.
The complainant sought a stay of enforcement to suspend the Sept. 24, 2013, decision of the AC to assume original jurisdiction, citing a concern about the future of the church and consequences if the commission took control. The complaint alleged that serious irreparable and financial harm would result if FPC-Miami was under an AC’s direction.
However, the five members of the session bringing the complaint and seeking the stay of enforcement were removed from any positions of authority when the Administrative Commission was granted original jurisdiction three weeks prior to the session’s filing of the complaint.
There also was a question of whether the Rev. Christopher Atwood, moderator of session, presided over a meeting of the session to approve filing of the complaint.
Challenging the complaint
A preliminary judicial finding from Oct. 28 showed that the SAPJC had jurisdiction to entertain the request for a stay of enforcement but reserved the right to further review any other issues until the presbytery filed a response. The stay was not granted, though.
The complaint was challenged on Nov. 6 by the presbytery, asserting that the complaint was filed by five members of a session who had no authority because they were no longer a session after the AC assumed original jurisdiction. It also maintained that the moderator and four of the session members weren’t even notified of the meeting, further explaining that there was no majority to take such action. The challenge alleged that because the five ruling elders no longer constituted the session they had no standing to file the complaint.
Atwood and Ruling Elder Johan Askowitz both filed notarized affidavits on Nov. 5 stating they knew nothing of a meeting to discuss the issue or file a complaint after the AC took original jurisdiction. Atwood indicated that he had not presided over such a meeting, and Askowitz emphasized that she had not been notified of a called session meeting, nor had she been part of a meeting since September.
The SAPJC ruling
In reaching its decision on Dec. 3, the SAPJC determined that evidence showed, and the complainants conceded, that there was no meeting of the session between Sept. 24 and the time the complaint was filed, and that the actions of the five members, without a meeting of the full session presided over by the moderator, was not sufficient to authorize filing of the complaint.
The complainants maintained that authority to file the remedial action was given during a June 10, 2013, regular meeting of the session when a motion to have legal counsel respond to an email in opposition to presbytery’s formation of an Administrative Commission, though the issue of original jurisdiction was not discussed.
Hooper admitted there was no meeting to directly address the matter.
“The session discussed this in a previous meeting and the consensus then was that we oppose (original jurisdiction),” he said. “We were led to believe when we last met in September that the AC would not seek original jurisdiction, a claim the AC said was never made. Had we known this was what would happen, we would have passed a motion then (at the June meeting).”
The AC was formed by the presbytery on June 20, and no further action was taken by the complainants until the October filing of the complaint. The SAPJC found that the motion adopted during the June 10 meeting did not grant authority for filing of remedial action against the presbytery for alleged irregularities that occurred when the AC was given authority to take original jurisdiction in September.
Final chance to be heard
The Administrative Commission convened the FPC-Miami session for a hearing after receiving the complaint and consulting the synod’s PJC, granting a “full opportunity to be heard.” According to a report from the AC, all members were given an opportunity to speak at least twice, and all of them spoke at least once.
Hooper alleged that the Administrative Commission is merely squandering resources of the church, which has members concerned about its future. He asserted that the AC was unwilling or unable to manage the church’s affairs and supervise the pastor wisely.
“They have spent twice as much money in the last month than the session did, and this is an example of wise running of the church?” Hooper questioned. “It’s rather frightening for some of us who have worked very hard to get a sound financial condition. The AC sees this as a way to gain access to the church’s assets, that’s all.”
A final hearing was given during the Dec. 7 presbytery meeting, allowing the FPC-Miami session to be heard on the matter. A second report to the presbytery by the AC that was presented during the meeting indicated a belief by the commission that it had taken steps to cure allegations brought in the complaint, challenged by the complainants’ response to the findings outlined by the AC.
Presbyters at that meeting again voted overwhelmingly that the AC maintain original jurisdiction, despite objections from FPC-Miami representatives that the commission did not conduct a thorough investigation into the session’s ability to manage church affairs wisely or provide a full opportunity for session members to be heard.
Ash said the hearing was an opportunity to provide FPC-Miami’s session an open forum to air grievances, noting some people spoke against the session and others spoke in favor during a “healthy debate.” In the end, the vote was to affirm the AC’s handling of the church’s day-to-day operations.
“From my observations and speaking with our stated clerk, yes, we have handled this matter accordingly,” she added.
Hooper had a differing account.
“They need to follow the Book of Order and their procedures,” Hooper said. “It’s OK for them to violate procedures if they say, ‘I’m sorry,’ then go back and correct the mistake. We make a mistake, and they take jurisdiction. People need to be accountable, and to make them accountable others need to be made aware of what is going on. It may be too late for First-Miami, but this could help others.”