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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Keeping our Standards
November 15, 2012

This week I depart a bit from my usual pastoral mode to offer a response to a number of questioners that have called our offices recently, asking for guidance “from the PCUSA perspective” as they have been given information from their congregation only in favor of leaving the PCUSA. Our separation policy includes a period of discernment for congregations that includes hearing from folks representing the PCUSA – but some congregations have been lobbied by their leaders to depart by simply declaring themselves no longer part of our fellowship, without going through our dismissal process. What follows is some guidance I have prepared in response to these questioners – and I thought perhaps the rest of the presbytery might benefit from it as well. I ask that in any congregation where departure is being contemplated, this material be provided freely to the congregation. Representatives from presbytery stand ready and committed to engage in conversation about these matters with any congregation that is contemplating departure – a call to my office (412-323-1401) will get that ball rolling. The following material is available on our website in a one-page document that may be freely downloaded and distributed.

The PCUSA does not have a denomination-wide set of congregational dismissal guidelines. Such guidelines are up to each presbytery to develop and administer. But such guidelines must be consistent with the Book of Order as well. A very recent ruling by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission is requiring many presbyteries to redo their dismissal policies, because they are unconstitutional. In essence, it says that presbytery policies that specify dismissal settlements on the basis of a cash formula (percentage of budget, so many years of per capita, and the like) are unconstitutional, because they do not take into account church properties, and presbyteries are required to maintain fiduciary accountability for congregations' properties under the property trust clause (Book of Order G-4.0203). Any dismissal settlement with a congregation therefore has to take into account its property and other assets. Fortunately, Pittsburgh Presbytery's dismissal policy does take property into account, so our policy is sound, by Book of Order standards. Some folk argued on the floor of our presbytery for a policy that permitted churches to leave by paying a few years of per capita - that is how many other presbytery policies were structured, and so those lobbying for such a formula were arguing that our policy should be similarly "gracious." Now we have a definitive national ruling supporting our presbytery's dismissal policy.

Some sessions have sought to effect their congregations’ departures unilaterally by asking their congregations to vote to amend their bylaws to eliminate reference to alignment with the PCUSA, replacing it with language aligning it with another denomination. Such an act is unconstitutional on several levels:  1. Only a presbytery may dismiss a congregation (G-4.0207); 2. Voting to leave the denomination is not among the actions permitted at a congregational meeting (G-1.0503). 3. A church may not seize for itself alone the property it holds in trust for the whole church. (G-4.0204) Beneath all these lies a deeper issue - are the officers who call for such things not breaking their ordination promises to abide by the church's polity (W-4.4003e)? Not only are they asking the congregation to do things forbidden by our constitution; they are violating their vow to abide by the church's polity. Our polity includes both the PCUSA Constitution and any duly adopted local policies and bylaws, such as our presbytery dismissal policy. A recent pastoral letter to the presbytery addresses some of these issues in more detail.

When congregations undertake an action of self-dismissal that is contrary to our Book of Order, they have to do so using civil legal means. While presbytery does not wish to go to court, and remains firmly committed to avoid initiating court action against congregations seeking to leave according to its dismissal policy, it may become necessary to respond in court to churches that have themselves initiated civil legal action to remove themselves from our fellowship. The reason for going to court in response would not be to punish them, but to fulfill our fiduciary responsibility to protect members of the church from having their congregation seized by current congregational leaders against their will, as well as protecting the interest of the entire presbytery in the orderly disposition of any congregational properties. (That interest is underscored in our standard practice of presbytery needing to approve any sale or encumbrance of congregational properties.) We are certainly obligated to do whatever we can to support anyone in the church who wishes to remain loyal to the PCUSA when their congregation votes to leave.

As we move forward together in our fellowship, let us remain resolute in our commitment to our core values of truth-telling, transparency, generosity, and peacefulness. There is neither need nor justification for violating our ordination vows or these fundamental values in order for us to do the right thing – and that is true whether the end we seek is to keep our fellowship together, or to remove our congregation from the fellowship.  God is not a God of disorder but of peace… [so] all things should be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:33,40).

Yours in transparency,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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