Sunday, January 10, 2010
When Property Becomes the Issue
I have been reading the succession of congregations (from mega church size to small rural congregations who have not had a full-time Pastor in a decade) leaving or trying to leave the ELCA. It is a sad spectacle. I also listened to a debate over the rules for leaving the ELCA and perspectives on the several congregations that came so close to their 2/3 majority of those present but just a couple of votes shy.
It seems incredible that in a congregation that missed the 2/3 majority of those present (not votes cast but those present) that this might require them to remain, where it is clear they do not want to be. Now I am not an advocate for schism but in the case of the ELCA there are so many ruptures in faith and structure that it is understandable why these congregations want to leave. Our own Missouri Synod saw a split in the 1970s that has left many East Coast Districts still wounded by the loss. But this is not what I want to focus upon.
The rules seem bent upon upholding a concern more for property rights than contending for the faith. If the majority of a congregation want to leave but cannot muster the 2/3 majority of those present, they are still free to leave -- just without the building. The building and all property would remain with those who chose to stay.
In the Episcopal Church the property reside with the Diocese (and therefore the national church) no matter what -- though there have been tests to this rule. There is also the unusual anomaly of whole dioceses that are leaving the national church but not the Anglican communion -- which brings with it its own set of unique problems.
In the end, my point is this. When a group has come to the conclusion they can no longer in good conscience stay within the denomination to which they are affiliated, why is the property issue the trump card over issues of faith? I understand that the people leaving have invested much in that building, that they have a history of family members tied to that building, and that it costs a lot to build new buildings. But it still seems that the issue somehow always comes back to property over faith.
What about those ELCA congregations who can muster a significant majority but not the 2/3 majority of those present -- and maybe they will never be able to raise enough votes to leave? Will they stay and be supportive of the ELCA? Will the Bishop be happy with congregations who will surely vote (only a majority required) to withhold funds and all practical levels of support from the ELCA? What would it be like to be a member of such a congregation -- on either side? I would imagine it would be the worst kind torture to be the Pastor of such a congregation.
I know that these kinds of situations bring out the best and worst in people. I was in one congregation when a past conflict became bitter enough so that the family which had donated a fridge came with their pickup to take back the fridge they had donated. There must be many similar stories. It has been my lot to be Pastor of two congregation with such a bitter and divisive history. I know how long healing takes.
My point is this -- though we say it is about the faith, it is also a building issue. In this respect, we either make it a property dispute more than a faith dispute OR we insist upon taking the property (and identity of the parish) just to spite the losing side. I don't have any great wisdom here, I am just lamenting how awful and how difficult it is when conflict about matters of faith become intertwined with property disputes. In the end we are all losers.
I feel for and pray for my Lutheran cousins in the ELCA and for family, friends, and classmates for whom this discussion is decidedly personal and real. It is a painful process and we seldom emerge from these situations without real wounds that need real healing and leave real scars. Lord, keep us united in faith and focused upon the mission of Your Church, that these situations may not befall us... Amen!