In Los Ranchos Presbytery five churches were dismissed in May after satisfying every requirement of the presbytery’s process. Remedial charges were then filed with the synod in all five cases alleging that the presbytery did not sufficiently defend the interests of the denomination.
The Los Ranchos policy was developed after the Toms decision and the terms of every dismissal took into account the value of the church property, mission giving and per capita. The terms total more than $6 million (with more than $11 million in the pipeline for the presbytery from agreements reached to date). But apparently that is not enough. In California, those who want to strip departing congregations of their assets have the secular court’s defacto deference method in their favor. They know that the law does not require them to be gracious; so gracious they shall not be.
Another three churches were dismissed June 28 and now expect remedial complaints to be filed and a stay to be issued by the synod. During the floor debate about dismissing the churches to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, the truth was unmasked. A presbyter alleged that the whole thing was a “hostile takeover by ECO of millions of dollars of church property.”
So much for ECO’s original hopes of an amicable departure of congregations from the Presbyterian Church (USA). There has been an observable change in the approach that presbyteries are taking to churches seeking dismissal. And I see the dismissal door closing, and closing hard.
The clearest evidence is in places like Tropical Florida which dismissed several churches very graciously and then had a dramatic change of heart. This is the presbytery that overtured the General Assembly to have clergy who leave the denomination stripped of their pension benefits. Even more recently they acted to allow a small Cuban-American congregation to go but required a 100 percent payment for all assets.
This new hard line approach is laid out in a letter addressed to all PCUSA presbyteries from Tropical Florida Presbytery transitional presbyter, Amalie Ash. In it she admits that the approach she is advocating is both “hard” and “ungracious.” But she proceeds to lash out against ECO and calls presbyteries to resist dismissing congregations to what she views as an “attack on the denomination.”
The letter is reprinted here in its entirety without edit.
June 12, 2014
To: Mid Council Leaders and Stated Clerks
From: Amalie Ash, Transitional Presbyter – Tropical Florida Presbytery
This letter is to encourage you and your presbytery to reconsider church dismissals. The Presbytery of Tropical Florida is encouraging you to consider the long range implications of this current trend; the impact on the dismissed congregations, the challenge to replace worshiping centers and the growth of a historic and relevant denomination.
In 2011, our leadership in Louisville was aware that the PCUSA would lose a percentage of churches. The Stated Clerk speaking at the San Diego Financial meeting estimated 10% to 13% would leave. I do not believe the leadership envisioned the largest, wealthiest and historic churches to be fodder for a new domination.
In 2012, Tropical Florida experienced the dismissal of ten churches, nine to the newly formed ECO. We have had a heighten awareness of the dismissal process unfolding around the country. When you observe it in-total and merely count churches, the numbers reflect low impact on the denomination. However, when you consider the membership, the property values, the per capita, mission giving, support for programs and missionaries, the careers in Louisville, the channel for new ministers and support for seminaries you see that the loss is much larger than the double digit number of churches. The departing churches may have withheld per capita but they supported many aspects of the denomination.
Have you consider the challenge of planting a new church? Around the USA, local governments are denying permits for new churches; new church plants cannot rent a dilapidated 7-11 in South Florida. In some areas we are denied permits for religion/non-profits to gather. Recently, a mega church agreed to pay property tax in order to buy a new building. The property is our heritage. It is where generations had a vision for Presbyterians to have a presence. A place for those seeking a reform tradition could worship. Even if you do not have a mission for a property, it is a resource for the Presbytery.
Presbyteries are fighting this with no support from GA. Each Presbytery is individually trying to solve the problems of dismissal, property and maverick pastors; each one is reinventing the same wheel. Presbyteries feel they have to let their churches go. Presbyteries need to know that they can stop this attack on our denomination.
The ECO leadership hails from Tropical Florida. We have observed their strategy being implemented in your presbyteries. Our denomination is be being dissected by their successful well-orchestrated strategy that aids a church pastor(s) and a few key elders to project an inaccurate picture of the PCUSA and its spiritual beliefs. Pastors encourage elders to take the lead. Elders are carefully schooled to focus on inaccuracies such as the PCUSA no longer believes Jesus Christ is the head of the church. They are cautious to avoid any reference to the changes in ordination, lest they offend their progressive members. To the person in the pew, these claims are highly charged; they trust their leaders and pastors are telling the truth. Thus the trusting congregation is easily swayed.
Tropical Florida was gracious. We believed that our congregations had discerned their beliefs and that we needed to provide a gracious exit for them. It was after, that we realized the pastors were in collusion, that churches were using the same “play book”, using the same sound bites, and had a strategy to leave in mass with a voting bloc. Recently we have learned that cradle Presbyterians regret they are no longer in the PCUSA; that they feel duped. The ECO strategy to take our churches understands that we will be nice, polite, avoid legal challenges and let the churches go.
ECO is an under-resourced collection of now independent churches. ECO is built on the PCUSA Book of confessions, PCUSA 2009 Book of Order, our church properties and our unknowing members.
• In Miami, a small (under 100 members) church went to ECO in 2012. Their pastor, upon learning he could not stay in the Board of Pensions and could not have his PIF in the PCUSA, changed his mind and stayed. (Now severing in UCC). ECO promised they had many pastors to fill the pulpit. After two years, the church’s pulpit was still empty. Finally, a PCA Church plant, supported by NYC Redeemer, negotiated a plan for this Miami church. Today the church is a PCA plant that now has an affiliate relationship with ECO. ECO told the church that if three ECO members were on their steering committee they would be considered ECO. Thereby skirting our GSA Reversionary Clause.
• Another dismissed church where the pastor renounced jurisdiction and the congregation was wounded; ECO placed an Evangelical Free Baptist pastor to serve as the interim.
• It is reported that a few pastors have been fired after their church was dismissed. This due to the unrealized promise of greener pastures after leaving the PCUSA.
With no trust clause, churches dismissed to ECO can change to independent or become part of another denomination. When we dismiss, we give the title to the church, ECO has no hold on a church remaining a reform tradition. The founders of our churches did not intend for this to happen.
Again, please know, there are tactics and strategy to recruit our biggest and wealthiest congregations and to build their numbers from our smaller churches; and their strategy is ethically questionable. ECO is being built off the work and contributions of Presbyterians who envisioned a PCUSA presence in their communities. ECO is turning congregations from the PCUSA with false statements and convincing them that they are a better way, a more holy way.
This is not a new denomination being built on truth, but being assembled using our properties, our confessions, our processes but calling themselves a better way.
Leaders in the Presbytery of Tropical Florida believe that this train can be slowed down. We have learned that we do not have to let a church go, yes, the congregation can go, but they do not “deserve” their property. We now believe that the property is for the mission of this Presbytery and the PCUSA…..not for ECO…not for a pastor who has lead his congregation to believe that “we have lost our way” and no longer believe that Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, etc.
This may sound hard, ungracious, and lacking compassion I believe we need to take a stand. A unified stand to save our denomination, a denomination that does make a difference in this world.
• We encourage you to reach out to other EPs that have been through this process.
• EPs that have lost churches help your neighboring presbyteries; share your experiences. How to negotiate property settlements, encourage them to have the courage and tenacity to stop (or discourage) churches from leaving. Let presbytery leadership know it takes resolve, time, and grit to stand down a group of angry elders, but they will be speaking for those that have been silenced. Churches can rebuild with the faith of a few; presbyteries have seen success in their divided congregations.
• Presbytery leaders meet with churches as soon as there is a whisper of a church leaving, to get to the churches that have been disconnected from the presbytery, to have COM checking on maverick pastors.
• Take action before dismissal is requested.
• Presbyteries it is ok to refuse to dismiss property; to remove pastors for breaking their vows of peace, unity and purity.
The Presbytery of Tropical Florida’s leadership is available to support any presbytery seeking support or encouragement, please feel free to contact us.
In closing, we have the tools (Administrative Commissions, Book of Order, Trust Clause, the mission of the Presbytery, 1001 Worshiping Communities vision, etc.) to justify our reasons for the heritage of the PCUSA to remain as previous members, elders, and pastors had envisioned. It is worth the fight.
Rev. Amalie A. Ash
Presbytery of Tropical Florida
954-785-2220 x 1
The allegations in this letter by a member of one part of the Body of Christ against another part are significant. One wonders if the Rev. Ash recognizes that both the PCUSA and the ECO are members in good standing of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and as such have a mutual commitment to not throw stones at one another in public. One wonders what impact such allegations will have on the relationships of PCUSA and ECO congregations who are currently working together in common ministries toward common Kingdom goals.
Dana Allin, Stated Clerk of ECO, responded,
“As a brother in Christ I am deeply disappointed by the tone and false information that is exhibited in this letter. I am further saddened that this would come from my former Executive Presbyter whom I and others labored with faithfully in Tropical Florida Presbytery. I will respond further to the misrepresentations of this letter in the next few days. My prayer now is for Rev. Ash and the obvious pain she is feeling. I pray we can find reconciliation even in the midst of different denominations, I know many of my colleagues have also tried to be amicable. Further I pray that the attitude expressed by Rev. Ash does not become indicative in the PC(USA). I have worked hard to keep dismissals gracious and out of court. I have had been in consistent communication with Gradye Parsons to do so. However if the attitudes expressed in this letter become pervasive we will unfortunately see more instances of civil court which is not good for any of us and our Christian witness.”
Attempts to reach Rev. Ash for comment were unanswered at the posting of this article.