In light of the recent resolutions to the complaints initiated by several presbyters filed against the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, the 16 complainants requested an opportunity to speak publicly and candidly about their actions.
I felt that an interview with the complainants, who have been silent until now, would be of interest to our wider presbytery and might foster healthy conversation.
Here are their responses to ten questions I posed to them, questions of my own along with questions I’ve heard voiced by others in our presbytery. PDF Version
Why did you disagree with the seven JDT settlements approved by the presbytery?
There were a number of points of disagreement:
1. We believed that higher settlements were needed to preserve the health and wholeness of the presbytery as it fulfills the mission to which we have been called.
The JDT settlements would not enable the staying churches to maintain the staff and programs of Los Ranchos which we believe are essential for the presbytery to persevere through this time of crisis and to grow through a season of redevelopment.
According to the JDT reports, the seven departing churches held over $60 million in assets. The presbytery would receive less than $4.5 million of it.
So the departing churches were receiving real estate far below fair market value at a time when the presbytery was in need of more resources.
Advocating for higher settlements was reasonable to us.
2. We felt that the implementation of the presbytery’s Property Policy and Procedures insufficiently fulfilled the presbytery’s responsibility of protecting the interests of the larger Church.
This responsibility, according to a recent GA PJC decision in New York, is more important than the presbytery’s responsibility to departing churches or even to itself.
The whole matter of church properties being held “in trust” falls to a presbytery like ours to ensure that use of those properties, and the relinquishing of those properties, are to the benefit of the glory of God and to protect the interests of the denomination.
In other words, in addition to keeping the costs of maintaining a viable presbytery in mind when negotiating settlements, the presbytery is responsible to protect the ongoing ministry of the national network of churches to which we belong.
3. We felt that in the end the discernment process approved by the presbytery proved, at least in part, to be unfair.
For example, having members of departing churches represent the presbytery on the JDTs was to us a conflict of interest. In one case, five of the six JDT members were from departing churches.
There are more points we could mention but this gives you a general idea of our position.
If you wanted “to save” the presbytery why did you file complaints against the presbytery?
It may sound like a contradiction but it really isn’t.
The question for us was how to help a presbytery that we believed was acting against its own best interests. In our form of government the only way to address the problem was to file a complaint against the presbytery.
Think of it this way. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, one way that American citizens attempted to overturn the unjust laws was to file suit against the US Government, with the court cases sometimes reaching all the way up to the Supreme Court. The complainants supported their country, just not the discriminatory practices.
Wasn’t this an extreme action though, taking the presbytery to church court?
Yes, it was extreme in that it is an appeal, an action of last resort. However, it’s not unprecedented and certainly not out of order.
The process of discernment has many steps, from the writing of a Property Policy and Procedures, to the Town Halls of the congregations, to the work of the JDTs, to the vote of the presbytery on the settlements, to the appeal process. Each step plays a valuable role in our system of checks and balances.
Please understand, we wrestled with this decision. We prayed. We knew that this would cause turmoil in some quarters. Ultimately we felt we had to follow our conscience.
That is our right and responsibility, as it is for all presbyters.
How do you theologically defend your action?
When the authors of the Westminster Confession acknowledged that “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred,” it was a defining moment of theological honesty.
Because of our doctrine of sin, Presbyterians have long valued accountability, specifically by subjecting the actions of a council to the oversight of a higher council.
The process of filing charges against a presbytery with the synod is one way that this process of accountability works.
Whatever happened to the policy of “gracious dismissal”?
This phrase was never part of our Presbytery’s policy or process.
Unfortunately, the phrase was introduced at the very beginning in a presentation on the floor of presbytery and has lingered, occasionally cited as if it were Los Ranchos’ official stand.
It’s a misleading term.
The word “grace” means to receive what you don’t deserve but it does not come at the expense of taking resources from another or putting others at risk. It seemed wrong to accept settlements far below fair market value that would subject other churches of the Presbytery family to reduced support services
“Dismissal” implies being fired or ordered to leave, and clearly, the congregations chose to depart.
Nevertheless, haven’t you caused “undue harm” to the departing churches?
No. The concept of “undue harm” to the departing churches needs to be balanced by settlements that are “fair and equitable” to the staying churches.
Couldn’t you compromise or negotiate with the departing churches?
While we couldn’t speak about it at the time, all along the court process, we, the complainants, were in conversation with departing churches – a conversation that one of the departing churches initiated and we welcomed – ultimately reaching a settlement with them in negotiations that were mutually respectful and candid.
Once the “out-of-court” settlement was reached, we asked the Synod to dismiss the complaints, which it did.
Have you irreparably harmed the relationship of the presbytery with the departing churches?
We made our decision based on principle. It was not personal for us although we understand that at a human level personal feelings get involved.
We followed our conscience in pursuit of justice. Relationships are only healthy if there is integrity for all the participating parties.
Moving forward, we will work toward forming healthy relationships throughout our presbytery and beyond.
What was the final settlement you reached?
We don’t have the exact figures but here are the general amounts.*
We negotiated an additional settlement of $2.8 million. Combined with the JDT settlement of $4.4 million, the total settlement for the seven departing churches is around $7.2 million.
This total will provide for the growing of healthy congregations, along with the forming of new worshiping communities and fresh expressions initiatives.
Is there anything else you want to say?
We hope that as a family of churches that have made a covenant with one another we can “agree to disagree” on controversial matters and still continue to be a Presbytery with a common mission.
The departing churches felt that for reasons of their own they had to leave. We had no desire to force them to stay, only to be good stewards of the presbytery’s resources.
We wish the departing churches well. We found the laying on of hands and prayer time at our last Presbytery Gathering to be spiritually meaningful and a step toward healing.
*The exact figures can be found here.