It’s church time, close to 9 a.m. last Sunday.
Katherine Milligan, 66, walks through the central hallway of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, feeling more uncomfortable, more spurned and more angry than she has in all her 33 years attending this Overland Park church.
“I’m too old. I don’t care what people think,” the Olathe woman said later, defiant in the battle she has joined. “No one is going to tell me I can’t worship in my sanctuary.”
Yet in late April a trial scheduled in Johnson County District Court will effectively determine exactly that. Judge Kevin Moriarty will hear arguments on who owns this $4.4 million house of God, a white modernist building erected in 1978 on a grassy rise at 148th Street and Antioch Road.
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For six months, two factions of the church have been embroiled in what both sides agree has been an ugly and hurtful conflict.
Although easy to view as a parochial property matter, the same drama of division has been playing out inside hundreds of congregations across the country in recent years, notably in mainline Presbyterian and Episcopal churches split over conservative and more liberal theology.
For more than a decade, in fact, the 1.9 million-member Episcopal Church has watched as one conservative congregation after another and even entire dioceses have abandoned the denomination over what’s viewed as its liberal theology, fueled in particular in 2003 when the denomination ordained its first openly gay bishop.
Similar strife has riven the church in Stanley.
“It’s like a civil war,” said member Ellen Crain, 41, of Overland Park, who supports the mainline Presbyterian side. “Friendships have ended. Families are divided. It’s like a divorce where both sides are arguing over who gets the house.”
The theological schism at the Stanley church, some argue, had been simmering for years. It erupted last August.
It was then that the leadership of the Stanley church declared it would “disaffiliate” from (quit) the Presbyterian Church (USA), which represents some 10,000 mainline Presbyterian churches nationwide.
The move came about two months after the national church, often called PC (USA), announced that clergy could perform gay weddings in states where gay marriage was legal. The Stanley church decided to join a different denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, more aligned with its beliefs.
The decision was hard, the Stanley church leadership said. But the leaders, including the senior pastor, the Rev. Eric Laverentz, had for years been concerned about what they saw as the national church’s gradual move away from the word of God and Bible-based mandates.
It wasn’t just about sexuality, although sexuality tended to be most visible.
In 2011, for example, the national church removed language from its rules that effectively created a path to the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy. Over the next two years, PC (USA) saw an exodus of 258 churches to other denominations.
“For us,” said Laverentz, 43, “Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, as the Word teaches he is. That same reliance on Jesus is not as present” in the mainline Presbyterian church.
But while it is one matter for a church to declare that it is leaving the denomination — a move that the national church argues must follow a defined process and should not have been done unilaterally — it’s a whole other level of wrong, PC (USA) insists, to declare you’re changing denominations but still intend to occupy the church and keep every Bible, pew and cross, plus the church bank account.
“Imagine if you, in your own house, invited a tenant into your home and the tenant tells you, the owner, you have to leave. ‘I don’t like the rules you have established for me to live here,’” said the Rev. Mark Braden, who was named to a commission by Heartland Presbytery to investigate the schism. Heartland Presbytery, the PC (USA) regional body that includes Stanley, counts about 100 churches and 17,000 members.
“That’s exactly what has happened,” Braden said. “We at the PC (USA) were thrown out of our own church. We had to file an injunction to get back in.”
The question of who has the right to say “our own church” is what will be before the Kansas court.
“All our legal documents say we own the building,” Laverentz said.
Yes, the national church initially put up money when the Stanley church was being developed in the 1970s and helped support it early on, the church leaders concede. But since then, said Brett Milbourn, who is defending the breakaway church in Heartland Presbytery v. The Presbyterian Church of Stanley Inc., the church has been self-sufficient.
It is a standalone nonprofit corporation, Milbourn argues in court papers, that for some three decades has paid for everything — mortgages, utilities, expansions, salaries, upkeep, hymnals and handbells — using money given by its 1,200 members. If a majority of those members vote to join a different denomination, they should be able to use the building and Bibles they paid for, he said.
“Heartland is not on any of the mortgages,” Milbourn said.
Two of nearly everything
What remains on Sundays is at best a silent, uneasy truce infused with tension.
By court order, the two factions now share the church building, with the mainline faction’s single 9 a.m. service being held in the sanctuary, with its stained glass and large wooden cross over the chancel.
That service overlaps with the 8:15 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. (but not the 11:11 a.m.) services for the ECO faction, held 15 feet across the narthex through the double doors of the expansive fellowship hall, set up with more than 200 folding chairs.
Two paper programs. Two rooms. Two pastors — Laverentz on one side for ECO, a guest PC (USA) pastor on the other — offering separate sermons for two congregations that both call themselves the Presbyterian Church of Stanley.
Discomfort is shared as church members who once joined for potluck dinners, funerals, weddings and Bible classes now sometimes chance an acknowledging nod, smile or brief word as they walk the hall, but more often pass each other in silence.
“Painful” and “devastating” are the words most often used to describe the situation.
“This has been an incredibly difficult time for a lot of people,” said Milligan, with the mainline church, as she choked back tears. “There are friends and there are families of 30 or more years that have been ripped apart because of this situation. … To lose this as a church family is a devastating loss.”
Laverentz: “2014 was the most painful year of my life, without a doubt.”
Not long after church leaders announced a plan to leave PC (USA), the members took a vote in late 2014.
Heartland Presbytery argues that that vote, just like the unilateral decision to disaffiliate, was unsanctioned and should never have taken place under the procedures and policies spelled out in the PC (USA) constitution, called the Book of Order. Everything about the Stanley church’s disaffiliation, Heartland Presbytery maintains, has essentially been illegitimate.
“No vote of any faction, however large, should be able to take property purchased by and dedicated for service to a particular denomination and move it to a different denomination,” the Rev. Charles Spencer, executive presbyter of Heartland Presbytery, said in an email to The Star.
Only about a third, or 400, of the congregation’s 1,200 members voted. Of those, 300 voted to disaffiliate and link up with ECO. The denomination, based in Southern California, was started in January 2012, months after the PC (USA) vote that effectively allowed openly gay clergy.
Three years on, ECO has gathered 185 churches into its fold, many said to be former PC (USA) congregations.
“There are 100 others that are on the way,” said Dana Allin, ECO’s executive director.
At the 9:30 service inside the fellowship hall last Sunday, some 250 ECO congregation members gathered. The ECO faction had the singing choir onstage with the handbell choir on one flank. It had the black robes draped with red stoles. It possessed the video camera and the projector that flashed verses from the Bible and from hymns on a screen.
Doug Edwards, 52, of Olathe, who has been attending the Stanley church for 20 years, said he has welcomed the change to ECO. His children, now 21 and 16, were baptized in the church. He taught Sunday school there. Over the last seven years, he said, he had begun to question what he called the national church’s “declining” direction.
“It just gets back to whether the Bible is God’s inerrant word for us,” he said. “Are we to follow it or are we to make up our own rules? I started using the term ‘relative truth.’ And it seemed it was more important than God’s word.”
Laverentz, who has been pastor at the church for eight years, said he tried to open a dialogue with Heartland to try to resolve theological concerns before they came to a head. Once they did, he said, there seemed to be no turning back.
“They wanted people to leave who didn’t see eye to eye with them,” he said. “They stood in our sanctuary. They said, ‘If you don’t like being here, you can just leave. Just make sure you leave the building.’”
Holding the fort
Precisely, said members of the mainline congregation gathered on the other side of the hall. That’s exactly how they feel.
They are a small group, 25 or so on most Sundays, 70 or more on high holy days, and lifelong mainstream Presbyterians.
They call themselves the Stay group because, they said, they have chosen to be vocal and, in Alamo-like fashion, to hold the fort until the building is returned to them. Unlike at the Alamo, they expect a different outcome.
“We like to say when we win,” said Susan Pittman, 59, of Olathe, a member of the congregation for 19 years.
It’s difficult for the group not to talk with bitterness over hurts and slights and how they’ve had to go through lawyers to obtain music or a decent worship time. They were relegated to the 8:15 a.m. service before a judge stepped in.
The ECO Presbyterians “are squatting over there and we can’t get them out,” said Joe Woelfel, 72, of Olathe, part of the Stay group.
Pittman recalled going to congregational meetings last year to raise her voice against a split.
“They said we were allowed to come to these meetings and express ourselves,” she said. “If we did, we were more or less shouted down and had a Bible shook in our faces and were told we were part of the devil group. Oh yes, that’s the words they used: ‘of the devil.’”
The group has started its own church newsletter and tried to remain in touch with former mainline congregants, friendly to their cause, who left for other area churches after the ECO faction solidified.
“That is the reason there are so few of us,” Crain said. “Most of our more moderate-thinking friends are gone. But most of the people who left, most of them will come back once we get things up and running. I don’t think that will be a big deal.”
Their best weapon in the battle for their church, they think, will be Kansas law.
‘A nice offer’
The Presbyterian Church of Stanley is hardly the first to change denominations and want to hold on to its church property.
In many situations, the turnover of property is a genial negotiation or, if not that, at least agreed upon. The parent church acknowledges an unavoidable split. The new church pays the original church organization a negotiated price for the building and other assets.
In Dallas last year, a conflict that was ready to go to trial ended when the 4,000-member Highland Park Presbyterian Church agreed to pay its PC (USA) presbytery $7.8 million for the megachurch building and its property. The church joined ECO.
Laverentz said that his new church also tried to negotiate.
“We did make an offer. We thought it was a nice offer,” he said, declining to reveal a figure. “They didn’t respond.”
He acknowledged, however, that the offer did not include paying for the building, which he thinks the church, as a standalone nonprofit, already owns.
Lawyer Allan Hallquist, who filed the lawsuit for Heartland, declined to talk about the case. But others familiar with the offer said it came in at a single-digit percentage of the building’s $4.4 million appraised value.
When these cases go to court, Milbourn and other attorneys said, they generally are resolved in one of two ways, based on the legal standard a state court uses in church property disputes.
Courts in some states apply the “neutral principles” approach, remaining neutral on theology and church laws and using the civil and secular laws of contracts and trusts to guide their decisions. Who owns the title? Whose name is on the mortgage, bank accounts and other papers?
In Missouri in 2012, a neutral-principles court decision allowed two Kansas City area churches — Gashland Presbyterian Church, 8029 North Oak Trafficway, and the Colonial Presbyterian Church, with campuses on Ward Parkway and in Johnson County — to break away from the Heartland Presbytery and keep their buildings and other assets. Both joined the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Kansas courts, however, have long ascribed to the “hierarchical deference rule,” deferring to denominational rules, which in this case would be those of Heartland and PC (USA). The question at hand would be whether the church in Stanley is a standalone entity or whether, as Heartland contends, it is a church held “in trust” for the national church.
“The faction seeking to leave appear to understand church property to belong solely to the current membership…,” Spencer, Heartland’s director, said in his email. “The PC (USA) understand the property of the church to be held in trust for the whole church.”
Current members, he wrote, are “merely stewards” who received the property from “saints who have gone before” and preserve it for “saints who will come after.”
Historically, Kansas case law has affirmed that single churches hold their property in trust for the larger denomination. Which is why the Stay group is confident it will eventually get its building back.
“I like to think we are going toward a new and better church,” Crain said.
Milbourn said part of his case, nonetheless, will to be to push for a neutral-principles approach. On another front, an ECO congregation member, Kansas Rep. Craig McPherson, an Overland Park Republican, has introduced a bill for courts to “apply a neutral principles of law analysis to any church property dispute.”
If the breakaway church loses, Milbourn said, he will appeal as far as is warranted.
“Although there is a law in Kansas that supports the idea of a hierarchical approach, we don’t believe the Supreme Court in Kansas has ever made a definitive ruling,” he said.
There is little doubt, said those involved, that other churches are watching. They speculate that should the ECO faction succeed in keeping the property, a door would open for other Presbyterian churches in the state, or even similarly structured churches of other faiths, to break from their home denominations while maintaining their property.
In the meantime, both sides are staying put.
“Even if we win,” Crain said, “I won’t be celebrating. Nobody wins in one of these things.”