A lost Friendship in Florida

friendshipDespite its efforts to provide a satisfactory counter offer, a Florida congregation has been dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) without its property.

Friendship Presbyterian Church, located in Hialeah, Fla., was dismissed to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians during the June 3 meeting of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida (PTF), which rejected an offer of $191,000 from the congregation to retain its property.

The 90-member congregation, which holds services in Spanish and English and is comprised primarily of adults of Hispanic origin, will be allowed to use the property rent-free for one year while it makes the transition to another place of worship.

Friendship had a congregational meeting June 8 and voted to accept the terms of dismissal.

“We unanimously approved that if we have to go this route then we will go,” said Winston Sosa, commissioned lay pastor (CLP) for Friendship. “We made an offer that was simply rejected for no reason at all. There was no explanation given. It was a decision made by the presbytery, not us.

“If we have to vacate the property for a little while or forever we’re willing to do that, but we’re not going back to the PCUSA.”


A counter offer

At the presbytery meeting, Friendship offered a counter proposal to the presbytery’s motion to dismiss the church without property in the form of a substitute motion with an offer of a payment of $191,000 over three years. The figure represented more than 10 percent of the total value of the church’s assets, per capita for three years and repayment of a $10,000 grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). The total amount offered surpassed the “tithe” of 10 percent of a church’s value suggested in the gracious separation agreement.

The motion was voted down by a 71-30 margin, leaving the congregation organized in 1960 to depart the PCUSA for a new home in ECO without a church facility for worship after a year’s time.

Amalie Ash, presbytery administrator for PTF, responded to an email from The Layman about the offer and vote to dismiss the congregation without property by simply noting that “the offer was not rejected” and “that is the way the members of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida voted.”

“We’re going through a difficult time, but we will continue fighting the good fight,” Sosa explained. “For some reason unknown to me, it seems as if we were singled out and delayed (in the dismissal process). We thought we’d be part of a larger group of churches to be released, but we were left behind as (the presbytery) changed the procedure.”

The Presbytery of Tropical Florida released nine churches in May 2012, and a 10th was granted its exit in October 2013.


Going and coming

The Friendship congregation, labeled as conservative in religious beliefs, has expressed concern with the PCUSA’s theological posture through the years, sustaining a view of Scripture interpretation compatible with the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. It has displayed disagreement with the PCUSA’s ordination standards that allow practicing homosexuals to hold the positions of pastors, elders and deacons. As a result of such disagreements, the congregation voted unanimously to seek dismissal from the national denomination.

In its report to the presbytery, the Peace, Unity and Purity Administrative Commission (PUPAC) indicated that the presbytery may place another congregation in the property to meet its missional needs, leading some to surmise that PTF is merely trying to compensate for the financial loss brought on by the departures of the other congregations.

Ash indicated that “there is more to the dismissal process than money” but did not elaborate, adding a simple “no” to the notion of placing another congregation in the facility to offset financial losses brought with the departure of other churches.


Rationale for dismissal

In its rationale for dismissing the Friendship congregation without its property, the PUPAC referenced the presbytery’s Gracious Separation Agreement (GSA), which notes that the “presbytery must consider each congregation’s individual and unique circumstances on a case-by-case basis and assess the financial and missional impact that dismissal is likely to have on the presbytery and the PCUSA as a whole.”

The report further noted that the vision of PTF is “called by Jesus Christ, to move from being a reducing presbytery to a reproducing presbytery,” indicating that there is a belief by the commission that the area has potential for PCUSA growth and the presbytery should maintain a presence and mission in the area by placing another congregation or developing a new worshiping community on the property.

Sosa said there are indications that the presbytery plans to place a Korean congregation in the church, found in an area of Florida known to have one of the highest Hispanic concentrations in the United States.

“To me, it’s something that is hard to understand, why the presbytery would take our property and plan to use it for another congregation,” Sosa said. “We have been good stewards and worked in the presbytery to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But now we have a congregation that that has been worshiping there, taken care of the property in one of the most Hispanic cities in the United States that soon will be homeless. You’re not supposed to take the property of a congregation that has been faithful and loyal.”

And yet that is what  happened, meaning a process that started more than two years ago will come to an end with a homeless congregation in a year or less.