The Property of Congregations, by Rev. Andrew Simcak
(Rev. Simcak writes on behalf of the Texas Confessional Lutherans. Their other posts can be found on the Regular Columns page of the website.)
Even if our church body were not in doctrinal turmoil, it would be meet, right, and salutary for all of us to carefully examine the terminology in our church Constitutions and Bylaws to ascertain what they actually say about the ownership of our church property. Now that there is an ever escalating problem of doctrine and practice within our synod, it is even more necessary to make certain that our church constitutions affirm what we really want them to affirm. It should be stated in very crystal clear language what happens when a group seeks to leave the congregation for any reason, especially when doctrinal matters are involved.
It would be well for all of us to heed the words of Dr. C.F.W. Walther, the leading spirit among the founders of the LCMS. He delivered an essay at the first convention of the synod’s Iowa District in 1879. The essay subject: “Some of the Main Obligations of a Synod which wants to Bear the Name of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod Rightly.”
Here are some of his words of wisdom on this extremely relevant matter:
We have always said that our dear congregations should not include in their constitution the sentence: We shall always be associated with the Missouri Synod. We do not want this. The name of the Missouri Synod should not appear at all in the constitutions of congregations. This is, of course, not a sin. But only then, not when there is added to this: so long as the Missouri Synod continues to adhere to the pure doctrine which it now has. Without this additional declaration, the statement (“we shall always be associated with the Missouri Synod”) is false; no one should enslave himself to men. Rather, freedom again to leave the synod at any moment should be retained, so that it cannot be said, You are traitors if you leave. For God has given no law saying that at least three, five, or ten congregations should constitute themselves a single body, send delegates to it, and let these formulate resolutions for them…All of this is a matter of freedom…So, let no one worry as though we were lusting after the property of congregations. Indeed, if congregations should want to present their property to us, we would say: “You are mad! Why, you need it yourself; and we do not need it.”…That it is most foolish that a congregation loses its church property by joining a synod is to be seen from the fact that the matter is precisely reversed. For, when congregations join the Synod, they become joint possessors of the synod’s institutions and of all of its property, towards which they have not contributed a cent, while the synod never acquires right of possession of a congregation’s property…But this we desire, that there should always be in the constitution of the congregation the statement: If contention arises within the congregation, those who continue in the pure doctrine, the Confession of the Lutheran Church, should retain the church property. We do not want to catch people through craftiness.
The Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) in all of its wisdom has decreed in submitting “Guidelines For Constitutions” on May 1-2, 2006: “Although not essential, since membership in the Synod is not determined by a statement in a congregation’s constitution, congregations are advised to designate their membership in the Synod.” Thus saith the CCM!
What does this mean? If it is not essential, why have it in the constitution?
I believe we need some advice from attorneys and experts on church constitutional matters who can advise us what precise terminology to use in our church constitutions in stating who owns the church property, who owns the property when there is a schism or separation in the congregation, etc. etc.
The time is ripe for legal advice. I for one would be grateful for any and all legal advice relative to the ownership of church property.
Rev. Andrew Simcak, Jr.
The Texas Confessional Lutherans