Church Property Disputes

Church Property Disputes

Recently I was talking with a friend who is a part of a “breakaway” Anglican congregation whose members are in a property dispute with their former Episcopal diocese. He complained bitterly about the large amounts of money both sides are spending in the ongoing litigation, to say nothing of the loss of property that the losers will experience. “What a travesty!” he said.  “With all of the real problems in the world, here we are, both sides, spending so much on legal proceedings!” Then he made a fascinating suggestion. Wouldn’t it be better, he said, to work out some sort of mutually acceptable compromise that includes an estimate of what both groups would otherwise be paying for legal fees and property losses, and together contribute that to a fund devoted to ministering to AIDS orphans in Africa?

That strikes me as a promising model for other denominations as well. The mainline Presbyterian (PCUSA) denomination to which I belong is experiencing many property disputes right now, as some congregations are leaving for what they see as greener ecclesiastical pastures. When you look at the issue historically, it is a bit ironic that the leaders of major Protestant denominations are so adamant in their right to hold onto church properties, against the claims of the dissenters. At the time of the Reformation the Protestants grabbed hold of Catholic properties with abandon—monasteries and convents as well as places of worship—and they also simply destroyed much of the contents of those buildings: statues, altars, and the like. And all of this was done without any respect for the claims of those who had strong moral and legal claims to ownership of those properties. To the “breakaway” groups belonged the spoils.

But back to my Anglican’s friend’s proposal. Suppose both sides in these disputes were to set up a fund for a project, agreeable to both sides, and determine together a reasonable fee for the majority group in any congregation that wants to leave the denomination, to pay in exchange for keeping the property and settling with the voting minority and the local adjudicatories. Since our arguments these days focus primarily on sexuality, maybe the fund could be devoted to helping release children and others who are victims of sexual trafficking.

Such an arrangement would have important spiritual benefits. It would help both sides to see themselves as using our disagreements to accomplish something together for the Lord’s work. And it could help to reduce our anger toward each other, presenting all parties with an opportunity to be gracious toward our opponents.


  1. PC(USA) pastor Mark D. Roberts just finished up a 16-part series on this matter (at least in regard to the PC(USA)) on his blog. I don’t quite agree with him on all points (I want to give a bit more consideration to the needs of the Presbyteries being abandoned by the breakaway congregations, who can suffer serious immediate financial hardship caused by the loss of the resources such congregations represent), but it’s a very thoughtful series.

    Here’s the link for the first few parts. Scroll down to get the first entry.

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright — October 13, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  2. Dear Richard:

    Thank you for the admonition on how to minimize the disputes and misunderstandings within the Christian churches and ministries. And use the resources for the glory of God. In terms of spiritual dynamics, Satan is busy in invading the holy grounds and cause endless havoc in legal battles.

    There is a story in India which goes this way: There were two cats fighting for the a single piece of chees. They could not agree on the sizes of cheese when the single cheese piece was divided into two. So, they went to a monkey for help.

    Monkey said that it is not good to for one cat to get a bigger cheese and needs to be divided equally. In the process of weighing, one piece was found bigger. The monkey diplomatically took a small bite and tried to equalize the cheese pieces in the measuring scale. The story goes that the monkey ended up eating both the pieces of cheese and the cats were put to shame for seeking the assistance of monkey.

    The Christian ministers and administrators are obligated to be wise and kind to Lord Jesus who gave His life for all.

    Calvin Joshua

    Comment by Calvin Joshua — October 15, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  3. For denominations to sieze property of churches attempting to leave is just plain wrong. What about American Consitutional guarantees of freedom of asesembly?

    The California Supreme Court did a great diservice to religious rights in ruling in favor of the Episcopal Diosese. It is hoped that in cases such as Falls Church in Virginia, where Geroge Washington was a Wardon, that those on the Virginia Bench – heirs to Jefferson, will take a more enlightened approach to churches where members have toiled to build and serve the Lord.

    To allow denominational seizure of assets is to endorse the religious equivelant of Castro nationalizing the United Fruit Company. If we are truly to be a nation the endorses separation of church and state we cannot have our courts endorse tin pot denominational dictators.

    Comment by brent jaardema — May 2, 2009 @ 5:32 am