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Brief Comment On The Central (now Alps Road) Presbyterian Church Decision, Athens, Georgia – The Exception That Proves The Rule

(By Steve Salyards, The GA Junkie). I began my previous property post on the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church court arguments with the reference to the cliché “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” This is a very apt phrase to keep in mind when dealing with church property cases because the law varies significantly between states and each case has its own particular circumstances. Earlier this month we got a very good example of this in a court decision from Athens, Georgia.

Being in Georgia the hierarchical church gets strong support as laid out in the 2011 state supreme court decision of Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Inc. v. Timberridge Presbyterian Church, Inc. (Timberridge decision). The court wrote in the conclusion:

Like the trial court, we conclude that neutral principles of law demonstrate that an implied trust in favor of the PCUSA exists on the local church’s property to which TPC Inc. holds legal title. See Barber, 274 Ga. at 359; Crumbley, 243 Ga. at 345. The Court of Appeals erred in concluding to the contrary.

The critical word in that block is “implied,” sort of like “if you are a PCUSA church than the trust clause applies to you – end of story.” Very few states have given this level of deference to hierarchical churches. But the latest decision shows that it is not necessarily that simple and it is probably best to wait on analysis until you have the data.

In the case of Central Presbyterian Church, now Alps Road Presbyterian Church, a decision was handed down earlier this month that made a preliminary award of the property to the congregation. [And our thanks to The Layman for posting a copy of the decision.] The difference in this case is the strong documentary evidence that from the highest levels of the PCUS and then PCUSA the understanding was that the trust clause was a theological understanding.

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Presbytery Denies Church’s Request to Leave PCUSA with Church Property

(By Lee Shearer, The Athens Banner-Herald). An assembly of Northeast Georgia Presbytery leaders emphatically denied a breakaway Athens congregation’s request to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination and take the local church property with them as they join a more conservative denomination.

But the effect of the vote remains to be seen.

Church leaders Monday night said some members of Athens’ Central Presbyterian Church’s breakaway faction filed a pre-emptive lawsuit in Clarke County Superior Court, and a judge issued a temporary restraining order that would prevent the presbytery from taking control of Central’s Alps Road property, valued at more than $3 million.

Under the rules of the Presbyterian Church (USA), also called PCUSA, church property is owned by local congregations, but agree to a covenant that property is held in trust for the benefit of the denomination.

Presbytery leaders also received letters Monday from Central pastors Bob Bohler and Deb Trimpe renouncing their affiliation with the denomination.

Presbytery leaders were already poised to oust the two from the denomination for what they said was a failure of leadership and violations of their ordination vows, among other reasons.
 

Nearly 200 people gathered in Winder’s First Presbyterian Church for Tuesday’s meeting. After more than four hours of discussion and debate, they voted by about a 5-1 ratio to deny the dismissal with property request of Central Presbyterian’s “Session,” a local governing body like a board of deacons.

In a January 2016 vote, Central members voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the mainstream PCUSA denomination. But some former members and others speaking Tuesday described an atmosphere of hostility and aggression that some felt was a deliberate campaign to drive out members who didn’t agree with the conservative side that wanted to leave the denomination.

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Related article: Central Presbyterian in Athens Disaffiliates from PCUSA; Joins ECO

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Presbyterian Leaders Consider Future of ‘Church With a Broken Heart’

(By Lee Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald, GA). Presbyterian leaders from across northeast Georgia gathered in Greensboro Tuesday to consider the future of what one member called “a church with a broken heart.”

Most members of Athens’ Central Presbyterian Church want to leave the mainstream Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination and affiliate with the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. They also want to keep the church’s property as they leave.

Central’s session, an elected group somewhat like a board of deacons, has petitioned the Northeast Georgia Presbytery for “gracious dismissal” with property. The church’s 380 Alps Road building and other assets such as vans are valued at about $3.4 million, with a $600,000 mortgage still remaining on a large addition 10 years ago.

The local congregation paid for it all, but under Presbyterian Church (USA) rules, local congregations hold property in trust for the benefit of the denomination, locally represented by the 53 congregations of the Northeast Georgia Presbytery.

The Central session offered to turn over about $371,000 to the Presbytery as part of the church’s departure to ECO.

A special Presbytery fact-finding group called an administrative commission recommended denial of the request. The commission recommended instead a settlement that would give those who want to depart about $243,000 and a church van, if the dissident members found a new ECO church within three months.

A big part of the schism is differing views on what rights gays and lesbians should have within the church.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination has in recent years relaxed its historical teachings on homosexuality to permit same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays or lesbians as teachers within the church.

ECO holds to the older Presbyterian interpretation of God’s will, that marriage should be between a man and a woman and that ordained leaders should live either live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man or a woman, or practice chastity if single.

The sometimes bitter schism actually goes back years.

“I want to talk about broken hearts,” said Central member Louie Boyd, quoting a former Central leader who’d described the 380 Alps Road church as “a church with a broken heart.”

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Dissenters Can’t Take Central Presbyterian Property With Them if They Leave PCUSA

(By Lee Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald, GA) Members of an Athens Presbyterian church who want to change denominations are free to join a more conservative Presbyterian denomination – but they shouldn’t be allowed to keep church property as they leave, according to the recommendation of an “administrative commission” appointed to consider the dissidents’ request.

The commission has also recommended that church administrators “dissolve the pastoral calls” of Central Presbyterian Church teaching elders Bob Bohler and assistant pastor Deb Trimpe, Central’s pastor and assistant pastor.

Leaders from Presbyterian churches in northeast Georgia gathered in Athens’ Covenant Presbyterian Church last week to hear the commission’s recommendations read by Travis Adams, Stated Clerk of the Northeast Georgia Presbytery. A stated clerk is the chief ecclesiastical officer of a Presbytery. A Presbytery is an administrative body representing all the churches of a geographic district.

Dissent over the Presbyterian Church (USA) stance on same-sex marriage and other issues began years ago. Then in 2015 the session — similar to a board of deacons — of Central Presbyterian Church formally requested “dismissal with property” from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in late 2015, saying they wanted to affiliate with the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), the county’s largest Presbyterian denomination, allows same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays. ECO, which came into existence about five years ago, does not.

In a vote earlier this year, a large majority of Central members voted in favor of the denomination switch and to keep the church’s 380 Alps Road property as they made the change to ECO.

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Read the Report of the Administrative Commission for Central Presbyterian Church, Athens, GA to Northeast Georgia Presbytery (December 13, 2016)

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Meetings This Month on Athens Church’s Move to Leave Mainstream Presbyterians

By Lee Shearer, Online Athens. (Georgia)

central-pc-athens-gaAfter a months-long quiet period, an Athens church’s move to secede from its denomination could be headed toward resolution.

An administrative committee of the Northeast Georgia Presbytery scheduled two meetings this month with the congregation of Central Presbyterian Church, whose congregation earlier this year voted to leave the country’s mainstream Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

At the first meeting on Thursday, those who attended heard a presentation on the work of the denomination, followed by a survey which included the question of remaining with the PCUSA denomination or affiliating with the more conservative Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, or ECO.

“The survey is non-binding and is meant to give the Administrative Commission a sense of the membership concerning the question of leaving the PCUSA denomination,” according to a notice on the Central Presbyterian website.

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Central Presbyterian Church legal battle with PCUSA heats up

By Marlee Middlebrooks, The Red & Black.

central PC athens georgiaDue to the evolving theological direction of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the majority of the congregation at the Central Presbyterian Church on Alps Road in Athens feels it is time to disaffiliate from PCUSA. It cannot secede, however, without permission from the denomination.

This process has caused frustration among congregation members of Central Presbyterian Church, including members of the University of Georgia community.

Jeffrey Dorfman, a member of CPC and UGA professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, said members feel upset about several issues — chief among them the way PCUSA has responded to his church’s desire to disaffiliate.

“PCUSA treated us so terribly that now people want to leave just because they are mad,” Dorfman said.

Evan Alley, a CPC intern and a junior UGA art major from Johns Creek, said discontentment was felt throughout the congregation. 

“From my perspective as a youth intern and from the kids’ perspective, it really hurt them, and they were just confused as to what was going on,” Alley said. “I could tell that they felt the same frustrations that their parents probably did.”

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In lopsided vote, Athens’ Central Presbyterian elects to leave main Presbyterian denomination

Editor’s note: The duly-elected session of Central Presbyterian Church called a congregational meeting in January for the purpose of voting on the following question “Shall Central Presbyterian Church ask Northeast Georgia Presbytery to dismiss it, with its property, to the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, according to conditions acceptable to the Session and Church Treasurer?” Subsequently, the presbytery’s Administrative Commission asserted original jurisdiction, replaced the session with itself, and changed the question. At the congregational meeting, through the appropriate use of Robert’s Rules and the PCUSA Book of Order, the question was restored and answered in the affirmative by an 82 percent majority. 

By Lee Shearer, Online Athens (Georgia).

central PC athens georgiaDissident members of Athens’ Central Presbyterian Church voted by a wide margin Sunday to leave the mainstream Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination and affiliate with a more conservative branch — and to take the church’s property with them.

Whether they will ultimately succeed remains to be seen.

About 300 men, women and children packed the church sanctuary for Sunday afternoon’s special meeting, and more than 200 of them filed to the front of the church to be certified as active members and cast a simple ballot — yes or no to the question of leaving the Presbyterian Church in the USA and affiliate instead with the ECO branch of Presbyterianism.

Fewer than 1 in 5 wanted to stay in the Presbyterian Church (USA), also called PCUSA, which sanctions same-sex marriage and the ordination of women.

When Pastor Bob Bohler announced the ballot results at the end of the two-hour meeting, 159 voted to be “dismissed with property,” 36 to stay. Eleven ballots were tossed into a “provisional” pile — names of members who were not on the church’s active roll — but a majority of them also voted to leave and at any rate were not enough to change the decisive majority in favor of disaffiliation from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join ECO, or An Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

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Read the Jan. 15, 2016 letter from Central Presbyterian Church Administrative Commission to the congregation

Read the AC’s Jan. 24, 2016 letter to Central Presbyterian Church

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Downtown churches dealing with declining membership

By Bradley W. Parks, The Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio)

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Heavy doors swing slowly open with a creak. Donna Barclay, the secretary at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Zanesville, kicks the doorstop down. It hits the floor, echoing off the sanctuary walls.

The sanctuary is like this many days of the week — empty, reverberating with every sound made in its emptiness.

The historical building is up for sale for $490,000.

“We have a declining attendance (and) population in our church,” said Larry Ledford, a member of the board of session at Central Presbyterian. “With the number of people we have, it’s hard to maintain a church so big.”

Attendance numbers have fallen sharply in recent years at Central Presbyterian. As of May 31, the congregation stood at 165 members. Ledford remembers when the congregation consisted of several hundred people.

“There used to be more people,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

The possible sale of Central Presbyterian raises the question of whether other downtown churches will see similar challenges in a shifting religious landscape.

Many, if not all, face the challenge of reinvigorating their congregations as they grow older and turnover rates shrink.

The brain drain

The decline and attempts at revitalization at Central Presbyterian reflect those of the downtown area as a whole.

While people attempt to revamp downtown with new businesses, some churches are trying to up their efforts as well.

Melanie Von Gunten is the director of religious education and the unofficial historian at St. Thomas Aquinas. She attributes congregational change to brain drain, which is when people earn a college education and leave their hometowns, usually to bigger cities.

“Sometimes the younger people are almost forced to look outside Muskingum County for employment,” Von Gunten said.

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Failed dismissal vote proves to be a blessing for Pennsylvania congregation

Grace service

Members of Grace Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church have a worship service at Lionville Fire Station.

A failed vote to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) seemed to be a discouraging blow to a faction seeking to lead Central Presbyterian Church (CPC) out of Donegal Presbytery 22 months ago. That’s not the case now.

Instead of remaining part of the Downingtown, Pa., congregation after a dismissal vote failed to meet the 75 percent super majority required by the presbytery, more than 200 former CPC members left to form their own congregation as a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).

That group, 290 at the time, had their inaugural meeting on July 1, 2012, at Lionville Fire Station for the first service as Grace Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church (GCEPC).  The congregation, which has grown from 210 members to approximately 230, also has purchased a building to be its new church home, and was accepted as an EPC congregation in February 2013.

“When we look back that failed vote was the best thing possible for us,” said Tod Gilmore, a ruling elder at GCEPC and a former elder at CPC. “I don’t think it dawned on us until it was too late that we were not going to carry that vote, but it turned out better to separate us. Like-minded people went two different ways.”

EPC logoA recommendation of the CPC session to seek dismissal from the PCUSA led to a congregational vote June 3, 2012, but achieved only 53 percent of the vote required to leave.  Gilmore, and Patrick Hartsock, former pastor of Central and now the minister at Grace Covenant, indicated that a group of church members know as the Fairness Coalition worked closely with the presbytery to advocate against recommendations of the session, perhaps factoring into the failed vote for dismissal.

A few days later, session members in favor of departure from the PCUSA called a meeting to determine the future of those who no longer wished to be part of the national denomination.

“There was a group that was interested in sticking together and planting a church,” Gilmore recalled. “Most of those there were afraid of losing the building, but that’s something you have to be prepared to do if you are going to be faithful to God’s calling. We determined we were no longer focused on preserving the past and a building but moving forward to answer God’s call. So we left the building and an endowment fund behind.  They (Central) kept everything, and we left with nothing.”

 

A painful reality

Walking away from friends, fellow church members and the building that had been their place of worship for many years proved to be difficult for quite a few of those who made the decision to depart the PCUSA and Central Presbyterian Church.

“We had a lot of things going on at Central, and the church had grown to 500 or more in worship,” said Hartsock, who spent eight of his 38 years in the PCUSA at CPC. “It was very painful to leave because we felt we had built a strong church. But when the decision was made to ordain practicing homosexuals (Amendment 10A in 2011) we had to make a move. It was hard to walk away from something I had been committed to for 38 years. It was hard to do, but it was the faithful thing to do.”

Despite leaving behind a church building and all the financial resources, a core group that included three quarters of the church staff, 12 of 15 elders, about half the deacons and nearly all the Sunday school teachers made the move to become part of the church “replant.”

“We walked away with people, and that’s the greatest asset you can have,” Hartsock said. “If we had stayed, this core of people would have been seen as a dissenting group. We are concerned with the need to share the love of God with the world, and we are a unified body.”

Gilmore said there was some resentment about leaving everything behind and starting over, but those feelings were overshadowed by the desire to follow God’s will, even by some people who had been at CPC for more than 40 years.

“It was not easy, but I’m grateful that God called us together to be His church,” he said. “It’s sort of like the Israelites leaving Egypt. They wandered around in the wilderness for 40 years looking for the Promised Land.  That’s kind of the trek we have been on. I’m sure like in the Bible there may have been some who talked about returning to Egypt. But God has been faithful to us, working through our congregation in wonderful ways, bringing people into our midst.”

 

Grace building

Pastor Patrick Hartsock is shown outside the building that now serves as Grace Covenant’s new place of worship.

Seeking refuge

Procuring a facility to conduct worship services came about rather quickly. Within a month’s time, plans were made to have services at Lionville Fire Station in a large meeting room that previously had been used for the same purpose by another church.

“The Lord opened a door for us to find a fire hall that had room for us to use for our services on Sunday mornings,” Gilmore said. “It’s been great to be there. The firefighters have worked with us, and we have had a great relationship with them. We’re very thankful that door was opened by the Lord.”

But that’s not all that was opened by God. He also opened the door to a corporate office building for the GCEPC congregation as well as the pocketbooks of some members to help pay to purchase the facility and make renovations for use as its permanent church home.

In November 2013, the congregation – thanks to the generosity of some of its members – was able to purchase a building for approximately $3.2 million in a corporate business park in nearby Exton, about two miles from Downingtown, that has five suites available. Two of the suites are occupied by other businesses that will have lease agreements with Grace. One will provide ample space for the congregation, and the other two could be leased or used to provide additional space for use by the growing church.

A group of investors from Grace is backing the purchase and will be repaid by members of the church.

Members of GCEPC continued to meet at the fire station until the building was renovated to facilitate the church and its needs for services.

 

cpcHappenings at Central

When Hartsock left Central, Bill Hess was called to serve as a temporary co-pastor along with designated co-pastor Emily Chudy. Hess, who spent 26 years as senior pastor at nearby First Presbyterian Church of West Chester, spoke well of those who left CPC to be part of the EPC congregation, though he indicated there still was sadness over the split in the church.

“The former pastors here who are now in the EPC congregation were respected colleagues. We wish them all the best. They are good men,” Hess wrote in an email to The Layman. “There is still a certain level of grief on the part of folks here and at Grace Covenant – good friends, loving relationships, now in two different congregations. We have maintained a spirit of wishing those who departed all of the good Lord’s blessings. Emily and I have vowed to never speak ill of them in worship or any other occasion. They are our sisters and brothers in Christ.”

Hess indicated that the past year was fruitful for Central.

cpc logo“The year 2013 was a wonderful year for Central. Our membership is growing, and our income far exceeded our expenses. We are slowly fixing up the building – too long neglected during the time of discord,” he wrote. “Our outreach into the community has taken a big step forward – with our deacons providing more than $36,000 in assistance to the needy, along with great spiritual support.”

Hess pointed out that he had been aware of the strife at Central that led to the division from his time of service as the chair for the Presbytery of Donegal’s Committee on Ministry, adding that there is an air of renewal now at CPC.

“I can’t speak for the current situation at Grace Covenant, but here at Central there is a true spirit of hope and joy. People are smiling and joyful – and the fruits of the Spirit are bursting forth everywhere,” Hess wrote. “Some who had distanced themselves from the previous leadership have now stepped forward in humble, faithful service. The Good News of the risen Jesus Christ is being declared in word and deed.”

Hartsock said officials with the Presbytery of Donegal were wise in their decision to call Hess to work with Chudy in leading the congregation that remains at CPC.

“The presbytery did a smart thing, and that has helped Central thrive,” he said. “The church appears to be stable with a good attendance, and we wish them well.”

 

Just getting started

Sharing the works of Jesus Christ is the goal for the Grace Covenant congregation as well. Continuing its faithful journey, the congregation has adopted a 4G philosophy: Gather, Grow, Give, Go.

“We’re all about fulfilling His purpose of making disciples of all nations,” Gilmore said. “We’re finding out who God is calling us to be and what He wants us to do. We know He has called us to be together, to be His church. He has a great adventure for us, and we’re going on it with Him by our side.”

Hartsock senses a discovery of identity for the congregation as well as a renewed purpose and excitement about what the future holds for GCEPC.

“Even though it’s been painful and hard, I’ve been energized by this process, this faithful journey we have been on,” he said. “Our goal is to share the love of God to all people, especially the lost.”

And Hartsock is convinced God is just starting to work at Grace Covenant.

“God is always moving, always active in our lives. He’s not finished with us,” Hartsock said. “We’re excitedly anticipating what the Lord will do next because of all that he already has done for us. There is a great anticipation for what lies ahead. We look forward to His amazing works in the life of this church and what He has in store for us.”

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