Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) Files Lawsuit Against Presbytery

The trustees of the church took the route of filing a lawsuit only after talks with the presbytery about participating in its discernment process had failed.

The source said that the church could not get assurances from the presbytery that: If the church went through the presbytery’s discernment process, it would not be challenged by others in the presbytery. If the church went through the process, the church’s property would not be at risk. While the court case is being heard, the church will continue with a discernment process. According to a March 8 letter, signed by Senior Pastor Alf Halvorson and Clerk of Session Jere Overdyke, “The Declaratory Judgment filed with the court will not prevent us from having a gracious, fair, and inclusive-of-different-viewpoints Discernment Process, which will occur in April and May of this year. In fact, it preserves that goal.”

 

The trustees at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church (MDPC) in Houston have filed a lawsuit asking the civil court to reaffirm that the church, itself, owns its property as “supported by established law in Texas.”

The trustees also filed – and was granted – a temporary restraining order to protect the church from any interference by the Presbytery of New Covenant or the Presbyterian Church (USA) while the case is being heard.

The trustees of the church took the route of filing a lawsuit only after talks with the presbytery about participating in its discernment process had failed.

Church leadership decided “early on to separate church property from the discernment process,” according to a source with knowledge of the situation. A 2013 Texas Supreme Court decision –Masterson vs. Diocese of Northwest Texas – held that a denomination could not unilaterally impose a trust on its member churches in the state of Texas.

Based on that Texas Supreme Court decision, state courts have awarded summary judgments to First Presbyterian Church and Winwood Presbyterian Church, both located in Houston.

In view of those court decisions, MDPC was adamant that the church’s property would not be part of any discernment process with the presbytery. With the church’s property valued at $35-$40 million — as a fiduciary issue — the trustees could not put the property at risk.

The source said that the church could not get assurances from the presbytery that:

  1. If the church went through the presbytery’s discernment process, it would not be challenged by others in the presbytery.
  2. If the church went through the process, the church’s property would not be at risk.

While the court case is being heard, the church will continue with a discernment process. According to a March 8 letter, signed by Senior Pastor Alf Halvorson and Clerk of Session Jere Overdyke, “The Declaratory Judgment filed with the court will not prevent us from having a gracious, fair, and inclusive-of-different-viewpoints Discernment Process, which will occur in April and May of this year. In fact, it preserves that goal.”

The Presbytery of New Covenant issued a response to the church’s lawsuit in its weekly newsletter, The Tuesday Connect:

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