Last week in Texas, two pastors who had revoked the jurisdiction of their denomination were notified in writing to remove their personal belongings from the church buildings and turn in their keys. It appears that the judicatory officers followed the rules. Dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”. The pastors, with their congregations, made the decision to leave knowing that giving up the property was a likely, if not inevitable consequence.
Still, it was a shock to receive a letter like that. On short notice people gathered at the building to say goodbye to that place that had been home for nearly 100 years. They took candlesticks, tablecloths, books, paintings with them -- things that they had made or contributed, only to return some of them later, amid accusations of theft, followed by denials of accusations of theft and so forth. As any divorce lawyer will tell you, even when done by the book, property division is anything but a bloodless calculation.
It is painful when families split up, even when all the rules for separation are followed. The breaking of this particular kind of Christian covenant creates an opening for a question we don’t get to often enough: What is our right relation with property?
Owning church property -- whether ownership is by title or de facto by daily use and caretaking -- is a kind of oxymoron. Not legally, but relationally. If we believe all belongs to God, then our ownership is a false category. And yet, as creatures with bodies, we need a place. We need chairs in which to sit and dishes from which to eat. We thrive on beauty we can rely on and return to in our surroundings. Our memories are tied to, well, real estate.
But sometimes we get confused in the church, and instead of the building serving our mission, our mission becomes serving the building.
If you are a pastor whose congregation owns a building -- or owes a mortgage on one -- here are some clarifying questions to get you started:
- Why do you have a church building?
- Could you do what you do there somewhere else?
- What would you do without it? What would be lost? What would be newly possible?
- Do you or your denomination claim a biblical or theological ground for owning the property?
- What is the property’s place -- functional or symbolic -- in the larger community?
Ask these questions if you dare. Pray about them. Should you discover any unsavory attachments, fears of loss, sins of idolatry, begin with the confession Walter Brueggemann calls us to: “Oh God, we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity.” Confession is as good a starting point as any for a right relation with property.
Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.