It seemed like an innocent proposal. A struggling church was in need of a preacher and a young, energetic man who had a little preaching experience had started attending the church. He offered to preach, free of charge, and the church gladly accepted his offer.
Within just a few weeks the church started to grow — for the first time in years. There was a certain excitement, but at the same time there was a little trepidation amongst the long-time members of the church. They loved the fact that the church was growing, but something was amiss. The doctrine coming from the pulpit had a very different tone, something that was very dissimilar to the church’s historic roots.
The new people who had come were quickly gaining a strong leadership footing, placing their membership and securing a clear-cut voice for a “new direction” for the church. The long-time members of the church were feeling marginalized as they saw their church begin to turn a direction that made them uncomfortable and sad. Before they knew it a new leadership group had been voted into office and the long-time members had no voice.
Little did those long-time members know that they were the victims of a hostile church take-over. Those words almost seem oxymoronic. How could a group of Christians walk into an existing church and in a matter of just a few months simply take a building away from those who had invested their time, energy and money over a period of years? Unfortunately, for independent, autonomous churches it’s quite easy.
The young, energetic preacher had planned in advance to bring in these “new members” before he preached his first sermon. Over a period of time, those people, with whom he had already been working, placed their membership in the church, called for a congregational meeting and outvoted the existing leadership in order to take control of the property. That seems incomprehensible in a Christian environment, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not an unusual occurrence.
The good news in this case is that prior to the young preacher’s arrival the church in question had placed their property in a trust, indicating that they wanted the resources they had worked so hard to obtain for the work of Christ to be used the way they intended from the start. The new leadership group was shocked to discover that the property was actually owned by a trust and the terms of the trust indicated that their theological bent and leadership direction was out of line with the church’s historic roots.
The trustee of the trust, an independent not-for-profit organization selected by the original group, moved to fulfill the terms of the trust in order to carry out the original group’s long-term plan. The new group filed a lawsuit which wound its way through the courts and the trust was determined to be valid after thirteen years of legal maneuvering and a visit to the California Supreme Court.
At that point, the “new” group, which had been using the building rent-free for those thirteen years issued ‘anonymous’ death threats against the leaders of the not-for-profit trustee of the property in a last-ditch effort to retain control. Fortunately, those were idle threats and an eviction was ultimately carried out.
The happy ending to the story is that the property was made available to another church that shared the theological roots of the original group. That church traded their old, decrepit building for this newer, more functional building at no cost. The trustee sold the older building and used the proceeds to financially bless the ministries that had been designated as beneficiaries by the original group.
While it may be easy for a religious group to rationalize that a take-over of an existing church facility is mere kingdom redistribution, it’s actually a matter of stealing the blood, sweat and tears of Christians who, over a long period of time, built a ministry. Those people had hopes and dreams for how their resources would be used. To see those resources taken away and “redistributed” to entities with whom they would be opposed is a sad end to what was once a vital ministry.
Placing a church property in trust is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Trust in the trustee is critical. Will that trustee commit to carrying out the wishes of the group placing the property in trust? Does the trustee have the financial resources to care for the property if there is a period of time where the property has to be managed? Most importantly, as an organization, do they have the heart of Christ at their very core, sharing the convictions of the local church?
The story above began in 1982. Most of the members of the original group have passed from this life and have gone to their heavenly reward. But their work on this earth carries on. Thirty years have gone by, but a church building that was nearly stolen away in an unscrupulous manner is still being used to carry out the work of Christ by a dynamic, faithful church which shares the passions of that original group. Along the way ministries that had been supported by the original group received a financial blessing. Not all stories have a happy ending. Thankfully, this one does.
Article By Brad Dupray, Church Development Fund.