By Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
A lengthy court case over church property in Los Angeles, Calif., is finally drawing to a close. This was one of two cases in recent years that have involved the Church of the Brethren denomination in local and district struggles over ownership of church buildings and property. In each case, a congregation decided to leave the Church of the Brethren but continued to claim ownership of church buildings and property, in contradiction to denominational polity.
According to denominational polity, church buildings, property, and assets owned by congregations are held in trust for the denomination, and administered by the district. Polity indicates the district and denomination retain ownership of the property if a whole congregation votes to leave the denomination. If a congregation votes to leave the denomination but there remains a group loyal to the Church of the Brethren, polity says the loyal group has rights to the property and assets of the congregation. The relevant polity is in the Church of the Brethren Manual of Organization and Polity at www.brethren.org/ac/ppg .
The two cases are not the only recent disputes over church property, but are the ones in which the denomination has been directly involved in court.
Not an easy decision
In the Church of the Brethren, there is a strong reticence to engage in lawsuits because of the tradition’s understanding of scripture. Maintaining the integrity of denominational polity has at times seemed to require doing so, however, in order to defend the assets of the Church of the Brethren. The recent decisions to engage in court cases have not been made lightly, and came only after serious reflection by denominational leaders including the Annual Conference officers, general secretary, and district executives.
The Leadership Team of the denomination has had an earnest desire to first seek other possible means of resolution of conflicts over church property. In addition to the biblical mandate against engaging in lawsuits, the group has had concerns about the heavy costs of court cases and their effect on the denominational budget.
The denomination’s position in the court cases has been one of support for the districts involved, as well as defense of denominational polity. Engaging in legal defense of Church of the Brethren polity has been seen as a helpful aid for other Christian denominations in similar legal struggles with break-away groups.
The most recent case concerned Central Korean Evangelical Church (CKEC) in Los Angeles, which claimed ownership of church property although the congregation left the denomination and the district. The case came to court after years of efforts by Pacific Southwest District and its leaders to resolve differences with the congregation without resorting to legal action.
The case was complicated by a number of factors, chiefly that the denomination held a mortgage on the church property. This was one of a few church mortgages still held by the denomination, from a decades-old and now concluded program in which member churches could receive financial help secured by mortgages from the denomination.
Also complicating the case, CKEC did not originate within the district but joined after having formed as an independent congregation that already owned a parcel of property. The congregation claimed that it had been given an oral exemption from denominational polity with regard to property ownership. Then, after joining the Church of the Brethren, the congregation and district jointly purchased additional property adjacent to the church building to be used as the church’s parking lot. Subsequently the denomination and district assisted CKEC in refinancing its bank loans by loan consolidation secured by the denomination’s mortgage.
The CKEC is represented in the case by the pastor, who is the legal trustee of CKEC.
The trial court had ruled that denominational polity did not apply at all and that CKEC was primary owner of the church property. However, a California appellate court reversed the trial court and held that CKEC was bound by denominational polity and that the property purchased while CKEC was member church of the Church of the Brethren belongs to the denomination and district. In this particular case the property owned by the congregation prior to joining the Church of the Brethren was not bound by denominational polity and belonged to the congregation.
The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled against South Central Indiana District in a dispute over ownership of a church building and property in Roann, Ind. The court issued the opinion on Nov. 17, 2014, rejecting the district and denomination’s appeal with regard to the dispute with Walk By Faith Community Church in Roann.
There was a change of the law in Indiana in 2012, that had the effect of shifting the case into the area of real estate law, and out of the realm of ecclesiastical polity. The denomination had supported the district in an appeal of a lower court ruling, in an attempt to defend polity.
The Indiana case began as a dispute within the congregation. After a break-away group won a majority vote to leave the Church of the Brethren in 2012, a minority of members who voted to remain in the denomination continued to meet and identify as Roann Church of the Brethren. The case came to court as a dispute between the break-away group and the district, and the denomination was not directly involved until after a circuit court issued a ruling in favor of the break-away group.
Differing outcomes in California and Indiana point to the benefit of each congregation having documents in place stating explicitly, rather than implicitly, that property and assets are held in an irrevocable trust for the Church of the Brethren denomination and the district. The cases also highlight the importance of congregations closely monitoring activities of their own leaders and curtailing activities that seem intent on disassociating congregations from the denomination or district.
The cases also highlight society’s shifting attitudes to church denominations and congregational life. The best way to mitigate property disputes–in addition to having correct and legally binding language in church documents–may be for district and denominational leaders to be proactive in building good relationships with each congregation.
In recent years, the general secretary, district executives, and other denominational leaders have been intentional about holding face-to-face meetings with congregations that have expressed disaffection with the denomination. For the majority of these congregations, disaffection has not mounted to the level of taking legal action because denominational and district leaders have provided a listening ear, and in some cases have offered practical solutions to a congregation’s problems.
— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren, and associate editor of “Messenger” magazine.