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Chris Thompson: When churches break up, it can be expensive

Chris Thompson
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News Chris Thompson, church visits blogger, photographed in ADN studio on Thursday evening, January 23, 2014. Erik Hill

When considering a local church home, it may be wise to first consider whether your target church may be looking at breaking away from its national or local affiliation. Considerable breakaway activity is being seen in the church community across the U.S.

Often when churches break away, it can be over theological concerns, such as the right of use of church property, or social issues like gay ordination, to name a few. These can be traumatic times for churches, threatening membership growth and impairing the rights to use local church properties.

Depending on how the breakaway is negotiated, the end result could be a virtually empty church or part of a church looking for a home.

For example, several years ago the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly voted to allow for the ordination of noncelibate gay people. (Please note this article's focus is not about this issue but merely an example of why many churches are imploding.) As a result of this decision, many Presbyterian churches began leaving the fold. In 2012, a group of concerned clergy and individuals formed an entity to encompass these breakaway churches. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians was formed in response to these challenges. Essentially it's a denominational structure under the Fellowship of Presbyterians. This reform group strongly feels the PC (USA) has no business changing scriptural authority. As of recent count, ECO encompasses more than 115 churches and congregations nationally, a rapidly growing number.

Last month, the 3,400-member Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, one of the largest PC (USA) congregations, voted to leave and was approved to do so. Christianity Today reported the "PC (USA)'s interpretation of the authority of Scripture was one motivation for leaving. But the other three reasons -- mission, governance and property -- all hinge on the ability to operate multi-site campuses. MPPC added two new campuses -- in nearby San Mateo and Mountain View -- in 2007 and 2008. And it would like to add five more." Menlo Park Presbyterian Church will be responsible for paying PC (USA) more than $9,000,000 for the church property. Menlo's pastor, John Ortberg, is even selling his home to enable this transition. They are joining ECO as are many other breakaway Presbyterian congregations.

This same type of dialog is heating up in the United Methodist Church, which recently tried one of its clergy for marrying a same-sex couple in violation of its Book of Discipline. Long term, this could promote a similar situation with churches splitting away from the main body.

In a recent story on the United Methodist Church situation, Christian Century interviewed Jack Jackson, professor of mission at Claremont School of theology. "While there is a lot of talk about greater autonomy, Jackson is not sure anyone actually wants it.

Progressives do not want to be in a church in which some parts are allowed to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and conservatives don't want to be part of a church in which gays and lesbians can be clergy, even if they serve in another region. If conservatives were eventually to lose the vote on changing the language of the Book of Discipline, some would simply leave."

"Some of them leave the next Sunday, and some of them leave in the next four years, by the next General Conference. I am not sure there are that many people who want to find a middle ground," Jackson said. Clearly these are polarizing issues.

For some years, the Episcopal church has also been dealing with controversies arising from the ordination of openly gay clergy and over biblical principles. Some breakaway Episcopal churches have affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, a significantly more conservative body. However, many breakaway congregations have found they've lost access to their church properties and assets due to property rights being asserted by the Episcopal Church of America. Court judgments often do not go in favor of the breakaway congregation.

To further muddy the water, African bodies such as the Anglican Mission in the Americas have been sending missionaries here as an alternative to the theological liberalism of the Episcopal Church.

This group has been chastised for interfering in the internal affairs of the Episcopal Church of America for these missions. However, its church-planting efforts have been quite successful, and several hundred Anglican Mission in the Americas congregations are now sprinkled across the U.S.

It's a most interesting state of affairs, when Africa sends missionaries to the United States, instead of vice versa. What a change from 50 to 100 years ago. Africa is also one of the fastest Christian growth areas in the world. When local churches take offense at my questioning why they send large, short-term missions teams to Africa, often places with 75 percent to 80 percent practicing Christianity, they pretend not to notice research data showing Alaska is one of the most unchurched areas in the U.S. The grass always seems to be greener on the other side of the fence.

Breakups happen here in Anchorage too! When looking for a new church home, do your due diligence to ensure you understand the stability of congregational environment being considered. In the event of breakup, it may save you grief in the long run. As the old song says, "Breaking up is hard to do."

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.

 


By CHRIS THOMPSON
Church Visits