What “Ownership” Means in the Church

Mession vs Mission

Katy Perry gets involved in a church dispute. Wow!


Maybe if we dyed our hair purple and sang better, we’d get national attention! The case is similar to our experience.


Who owns church land?


The concept of ownership in the Church is not often addressed until there is conflict.


Our case has shown the worst of this poorly defined hierarchical mess. The ideals of love, forgiveness and reconciliation flew out the door early on. Greed, pride, and power moved in. Gossip reigned. It was easy for others to look the other way. It was all so nasty.


But now there is a higher profile case involving a popular entertainer.


Nuns in California want to sell their land to a restaurateur for $15.5 million. The archdiocese claimed property rights. They want to sell the land to Katy Perry for $14.5 million.


Who owns the land?


Lutheran founding articles, constitutions and polity are clear. Congregations own their property. This was the crux of our feud with our equivalent of an archdiocese, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod.


Catholic polity is less clear. The bishop controls all the land, maybe. Clearly the nuns thought they owned their land until they wanted to sell it. Oh, and the Vatican can weigh in at any time.


The nuns’ legal representatives accused the archbishop of acting “as if he were above the rules and immune from the obligations of civil law.”


The court decision in our case will not help the nuns. There it was decided: The Church IS immune from the obligations of civil law. Our courts ruled they have no jurisdiction in intrachurch disputes. If the law were applied our congregation’s position had merit, they ruled. But the law does not apply.


Result: The Church can ignore its own rules. They would have a hard time getting away with what they are doing with anyone but their own members. The state of things should have every congregation questioning their relationship with their denominations. The lust for land is insatiable. Sooner or later, these decisions will affect everyone.


Small congregations are the most vulnerable. It isn’t that they can’t make it on their own or that their work has no value. Their failure enriches synod. Success won’t matter. The relationship is broken from the start. The prospect of land becoming available gives synods incentive to provide poor leadership options—caretaker pastors and interminable interims who report to the bishop. They are playing a waiting game. Congregations believe there is no hope. They aren’t imagining trusted leaders are looking for their own enrichment.


Congregations with members who can read their constitutions and determine that the actions of their leaders defy the authority given to them are walking the Jericho Road. They can expect to be robbed and beaten and left for dead. They can expect the priests and Levites to speed up as they pass by.


The behavior cited in the nuns’ case is all too familiar—refusals to meet, publicly bashing the decisions made by the sisters as if they are fools, moving ahead as if they do not exist. In short, arrogance.


At stake in the California feud is the future of the aging nuns. At stake in our case was the future of our entire faith community. Somehow these issues get buried.


If I had not been sued personally in our case (not to give the archbishop any ideas) I never would have started reading church constitutions.


But I was sued, so I started looking to see when and how the polity taught in confirmation class had strayed. The answer—bit by bit. A tweak to a bylaw here, another tweak there.


Here is what I learned.


Predecessor bodies of our denomination forbade synods from owning property.


The reason is now obvious.


Synods exist to serve congregations. Property ownership distracts from mission in their case. Land ownership for congregations means they have a presence and say in their community. Land ownership is best left to congregations.


Ownership changes mindset. That’s why synods should not be in the real estate business. It’s tough, it’s expensive, and it requires skills not taught in seminary. Property management becomes mission. It also is addictive. You have a little; you crave more.


While congregations struggle to support synods, synods look for sizable cash infusions to support their real estate enterprise. They need legal advice, property management advise, caretakers. Synod staff and budget will soon be out of hand. You’ll need a development office for fund-raising—competing with your supporting congregations’ offering plates. Since the constitutions don’t allow synods to take property, they have to start conniving. Congregations are not required to leave property to the synod if they close—unless they are mission churches. So the strategy will be to find a way to get congregations to accept mission status. Bribery is a good short-term investment. The congregation won’t realize that accepting a few thousand dollars, a gift that can be revoked at any time, lost them their property rights forever. If congregations don’t agree, the decision can be forced by using Involuntary Synodical Administration—a questionable contrivance that is a thief’s workaround. They’ll have to justify it somehow. They will recruit former pastors to support their case, violating the congregation’s trust—now and forever. Soon synods take land rights for granted and members will forget it was ever any other way. Fear guarantees it!


What a mess!


Mession not mission!


Maybe we need to return to the wisdom of earlier leaders. Maybe we should heed the advice of the Bible. Maybe synods and archdioceses should get out of the real estate business.


Property ownership by regional bodies is a clear temptation to abandon mission.


Congregations, don’t expect the courts to help you!