Mainline Presbyterian members win lawsuit over control of Overland Park church

A congregational split at the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, 14895 Antioch Road in Overland Park, led to a lawsuit over control of the building and other property. A Johnson County district judge has ruled in favor of the mainline Presbyterian Church USA faction.
A congregational split at the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, 14895 Antioch Road in Overland Park, led to a lawsuit over control of the building and other property. A Johnson County district judge has ruled in favor of the mainline Presbyterian Church USA faction. The Kansas City Star

Being an arrogant winner is hardly Christian.

That’s why a small group of members of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, part of the mainline Presbyterian Church USA, insisted this week that their job now (at least for the time being) is to be as gracious as possible to the former members of their congregation who last year voted to break away. In so doing, they had also sought to wrest away control of the congregation’s $4.4 million building in Overland Park and its contents.

“We wish them grace and peace,” said member Ellen Crain.

In 2014, the 1,200-member congregation at 148th Street and Antioch Road went through a painful schism that split the church and friendships, and led to a lawsuit.

At root were issues of both theology and property. The congregation’s more conservative, evangelical members, including the congregation’s senior pastor, Eric Laverentz, voted in October to disaffiliate themselves from the Presbyterian Church USA because they believed the mainline church had long been veering from what conservative members deemed to be the faith’s Bible-based mandates. The bulk of the congregation joined in, choosing to affiliate with a different denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

Such schisms have become increasingly common in the Presbyterian Church, especially since 2011, when the mainline Presbyterian Church USA changed its rules to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.

Heartland Presbytery, the regional body that represents the national Presbyterian Church USA, filed the lawsuit in Johnson County District Court. Heartland held that the mainline members owned the church, its pews, its Bibles and all other property. If the ECO members wanted to leave, fine, but they shouldn’t get the building.

The ECO faction argued that the church and its contents belonged to the congregation, the entity that holds title to the building, other property and has long paid all its bills.

Judge Kevin Moriarty this month ruled in favor of Heartland Presbytery, supporting the mainline members of Presbyterian Church USA.

“It’s a tremendous victory that we affirm 100 years of Kansas law. … We’re very pleased,” said the Rev. Mark Braden, who was named to a commission by Heartland Presbytery to investigate the schism.

State laws differ regarding disputes over church property. In some states, including Missouri, state courts apply what is known as the “neutral principles of law” approach to settling disputes over church ownership. The approach remains neutral on matters of theology and church law and relies on secular laws of civil contracts and trusts to guide their decisions. It bases decisions on who holds titles, mortgages and bank accounts, deeds and other papers.

In Missouri in 2012, the neutral principles approach allowed two Kansas City area churches — Gashland Presbyterian and Colonial Presbyterian — to break away from Heartland Presbytery and take hold of buildings and assets. Both joined the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Churches in Indiana and Pennsylvania took control of their churches by the same approach.

Kansas has long adhered to what is known as the “hierarchical deference” or “polity” approach, which defers to denominational rules, which in this case supported Heartland’s assertion that it was true owner of Presbyterian Church of Stanley, the judge found.

Brett Milbourn, the Kansas City attorney representing the ECO faction, said his clients are considering whether to appeal the court’s July 15 decision. They have 30 days from the ruling to do so.

“We want to stay in the building until we make a decision on appeal,” Milbourn said.

Laverentz, the senior pastor of the ECO faction, said that about 450 parishioners met at the church Sunday to discuss future plans.

“We’ve been talking with a Realtor,” he said, about finding a new home. “We are more excited for the future today, for this congregation, than we ever have been.”

For a year, the ECO group and the members of the Presbyterian Church USA have co-existed ill at ease, with both factions holding overlapping services in the same building, across the narthex from one another. The ECO faction commonly drew hundreds, the Presbyterian Church USA faction often drew just a few dozen.

Braden said Heartland Presbytery is willing to work with the ECO faction, allowing its members to worship at the church in the short term until it finds a new church home. Heartland has offered one of its own empty churches for lease or sale.

Mainline member Katherine Milligan of Olathe, who has been attending the church for 33 years, said any former members who want to return to the church are welcome. Some, she said, have already told her they plan to do so.

Meanwhile, she said, some tension still exists.

“We are more than willing to allow them to worship in the church for the time it will take to have them move on,” she said. “We think, graciously, they ought to be leaving.”