Florida church leaves PCUSA, will have to lease property

ECOFirst Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda in southwest Florida was dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) during a Feb. 28 meeting of Peace River Presbytery. Three months later, the congregation learned it will not retain its property.

During its May 23 meeting, Peace River Presbytery agreed to lease the FPC-Punta Gorda property to the congregation for the next four years at a fee of $1 per year, effectively claiming the land and building for the national denomination and creating a very possible scenario that church members may be looking for a new home.

“We were really disappointed,” said FPC-Punta Gorda Pastor Stephen Mock, who has been at the church for 10 years. “We thought we may see more graciousness. (Peace River presbyters) thought they were being gracious by granting us the property on a lease basis, but they’re not. Despite that, we’re moving on and going to put this behind us as we push forward.”

The process to seek dismissal started in the fall of 2011. The passage of Amendment 10A, which deleted the explicit “fidelity/chastity” requirement from the constitutional ordination standard, and now allows the PCUSA to ordain gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as deacons, elders and pastors, and questions regarding the authority of Scripture initiated the need for the church to address issues dotting the landscape of the PCUSA.

In March 2012, the session informed the Peace River Presbytery of FPC-Punta Gorda’s desire to enter the dismissal process.

After a period of time with no contact from the presbytery regarding its request, FPC-Punta Gorda continued following the guidelines in place for gracious separation. Mock said documentation for an Aug. 25, 2012, presbytery meeting showed that the church was in schism, and an Administrative Commission (AC) was formed to act on the assumption that Punta Gorda was disaffiliating.

“That was never our intent at all,” Mock said. “We wanted to be totally transparent throughout the whole process. Finally, I think we all realized we had failed to communicate. We were fine working with an AC.”

Punta Gorda, with a membership of 98, was dismissed by the presbytery to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians following a 68-10 congregational vote (87 percent in favor) to leave the PCUSA in January 2013. That vote had been pushed into 2013 at a November 2012 presbytery meeting when the AC requested an extension.

Following the congregational vote, Mock said a recommendation for dismissal from the AC was made Jan. 28, and the suggested decision was approved during the Feb. 28 presbytery meeting.

However, the commission did not feel it had sufficient time to deal with the property issue – getting appraisals and taking the property value into account for terms of dismissal – to meet the parameters set by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruling established in October 2012.

“They felt there was not enough time to do due diligence,” Mock said of the bifurcated vote. “As much as we wanted to deal with it and have one motion, they refused to do it. Trying not to be uncooperative, we went along with (the decision to split the motion into two votes on two dates at two different meetings). We regret that now.”

The AC continued working with the Punta Gorda ECO session and finally came back with a recommendation May 8 that included terms for the church to lease the property.

Those terms included the presbytery retaining the real property, including all appliances, fixtures and attached furnishings; the property would be leased to the dismissed ECO congregation for $1 per year for two years, with the congregation responsible for all maintenance, and a $25,000 escrow account (reduced from an original amount of $40,000) be established by the congregation for large property maintenance items; and that wind and hail insurance be purchased, with the cost of the premium being split between the congregation and presbytery.

In addition, the presbytery would release the church name to the congregation as well as all bank accounts, furniture, instruments and supplies not covered in the real property description.

“They stunned us with the recommendation of leasing the building to us,” Mock said. “We were taken aback by that. The terms they gave did not sound that bad on the surface, but when we started to question it, we found that it put us in limbo about our future. When we asked if there was any room for negotiation, we were told no. They’re basically seizing the property.”

In its report to the presbytery, the Administrative Commission noted that the recommendations presented “were faithful to the needs of the ECO congregation to continue its worship and ministry in that location as well as to the Book of Order requirement to oversee the property of the PCUSA as ‘a tool for the accomplishment of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.’”

According to a final report and recommendation document from the AC to the presbytery, the commission, on May 6, informed the remnant congregation of Punta Gorda of a congregational meeting that would take place May 20 at a local restaurant for the purpose of transferring the title of the deed for the real property to Peace River Presbytery.

Mock said that step was news to him, the session and those who had been dismissed to ECO.

“We heard nothing about this,” he said. “It seemed like a very underhanded decision to get a claim on our property and leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.”

FPC-Punta Gorda provided a counter offer that was presented to the presbytery May 23. That motion read:  “Move that Peace River Presbytery, having dismissed the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda, Inc. to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians on February 28, 2013, now include all real property and assets in that dismissal effective this date, May 23, 2013, including the name First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda, Inc. with the understanding if said corporation is dissolved or ceases to be a functioning church within the next ten (10) years, said real and personal  property and assets will revert back to Peace River Presbytery or its successor organizations for the continuing mission of Jesus Christ in the world; and in consideration, First Presbyterian Church of Punta Gorda, Inc. will voluntarily make a one-time donation to the mission of Peace River Presbytery of $75,000.”

It was rejected.

The only change made in the property settlement extended the length of the lease agreement from two to four years.

“We offered a substitute motion, but it was defeated by a 60-40 (percent) margin,” Mock said, adding that the congregation does not know what the terms of the lease agreement are at this point.

“We don’t know when (the lease terms) will be made available to us,” he said. “We could try to fight this in court, but we know in Florida we probably would lose, and it would be costly. It would not be good financial stewardship to fight in court, and we know we don’t have any legal standing. Plus, Scripture frowns on taking brothers and sisters in Christ to court.”

Mock said Punta Gorda – the first church dismissed by Peace River Presbytery – very easily could have been used to send a message to other churches looking to follow a similar path.

“Maybe we were a test case, and the presbytery was sending a signal to others,” he said. “The message they sent was clearly that they were going to get our property. The church was pretty much at their mercy, and that leaves a bitter taste.

“We tried to take the high road but feel we have been mistreated. If they want the property that badly they can have it.”

Mock said FPC-Punta Gorda, established in 1895 along the southwest coast of Florida, suffered heavy damage in 1960 when Hurricane Donna struck the area and was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. The congregation was able to obtain land in March 2006 and renovated a building already on it to create the new church facility. It was paid off in 2012.

“They (the presbytery) have not put one dime into this property; we feel like this is our church,” he said. “I suspect we will stay for four years as we look at other options. At least it gives us more time to find another location if that is what we need to do. We’re just putting it in God’s hands.”

Mock said even though the name has been released to the church there is the possibility that it may be changed. That is an option that will be considered along with the likelihood of seeking another location.

Citing Philippians 3, Mock said he and his congregation will look forward and focus on what Christ wants them to do rather than dwelling on what might have been.

“What will be will be,” Mock said. “We’re disappointed and wish that things could have been different. We’ve lost the property, but we’re OK with that. We know the church is not a building. We just have to continue trusting in the Lord. I don’t think there’s anything better we could do.”