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Congregations are more often finding that the best way to deal with conflict is to sit down and talk.
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Congregations are more often finding that the best way to deal with conflict is to sit down and talk.

Churches taking a more HANDS-ON approach
Mediator, not court, settles church property dispute

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com 340-2468

This spring, a Huntsville church and the presbytery it belonged to were in court, disagreeing over who owned the church's property.

The suit filed by Central Presbyterian Church in Huntsville went from state to federal court and back to state. A lengthy wrangle loomed.

But on May 24, the church and Presbytery reached an agreement — not a court decision but a mediated one.

Increasing sources for mediation are available for religious groups to stay out of courts. They can avoid the irony of slapping someone with a lawsuit while teaching to turn the other cheek.

Tom Porter, executive director of JustPeace, a United Methodist ministry in Washington, said he has seen more churches turn from litigation to mediation.

"They've learned that (litigation) is not the best way to resolve disputes," he said.

JustPeace is one of many religious groups promoting mediation and conflict transformation. Porter, formerly an attorney for a United Methodist conference, said congregations are more often finding that the best way to deal with conflict is to sit down and talk.

Porter said JustPeace was originally funded through money awarded a party in litigation involving a retirement center in California. The party decided the money should go to help prevent lawsuits and support mediation, he said.

JustPeace compares the "adversarial process" to mediation in an online guide. In the adversarial process, a third party makes decisions and the focus is on liability. In mediation, the parties make the decisions and the focus in on relationships. The adversarial process results in a winner and a loser, but in mediation there is accommodative resolution, "win/win."

What side is right?

Both sides in the Presbyterian case thought they had good cases.

The North Alabama Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) contended that it owned Central's properties according to church law.

The Rev. Warner Durnell, executive presbyter of the presbytery, described the litigation and entanglements in civil courts as "grievous to me" in a letter to the pastor that was included in church reports.

Central's pastor, the Rev. Randy Jenkins, said the church owns its buildings and never got loans or aid from the Presbytery. He told The Layman newspaper in early March that the suit was purely about property rights.

At the heart of the disagreement was Central's vote to leave the presbytery and the PCUSA over theological concerns.

It seemed the courts would have the final say. However, Central and a seven-member administrative commission of the presbytery, which was given full authority to settle, both agreed to mediation.

The mediator was former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Drayton Nabers Jr. Nabers is now with the Birmingham firm of Maynard, Cooper & Gale and is specializing in mediation and arbitration.

Jenkins said Nabers was impressive with his demeanor and grasp of the issues. Nabers went back and forth between the two groups for almost 12 hours, presenting offers and counter offers, the pastor said.

The resulting agreement let Central leave with its property, valued at $2.5 million. It agreed to pay $250,000 to the presbytery by the end of 2010. The church also acknowledged that its pastor and session did not follow PCUSA rules in seeking dismissal from the denomination.

For its part, the presbytery relinquished its right to the church's property and agreed not to exercise jurisdiction over Central.

Cost, perception

Durnell said cost was a factor in choosing mediation, but public perception was the primary one.

"I mean, here we are as Christians, and we can't sit down and find a way to work through our differences," Durnell told The Layman.

Jenkins said the presbytery brought up the idea.

"We were amenable to that because it's always better to talk when you can than to proceed into court, especially in church things," the pastor said.

The Rev. William Cockrill, chairman of the commission, commented in a final report to the presbytery that he and other members were "convinced that the Spirit was at work in the mediation process and in helping us to craft this solution."

Jenkins said the church felt it had a good case and so was not too happy about the payment.

"But the flip side is if you go to court, you never know what is going to happen," Jenkins said.

The Layman reported that legal fees between the church and Presbytery could have topped $300,000 if appeals kept the case in court for two years.

Jenkins said he would recommend mediation, but it isn't feasible in every religious organization and setting. Much depends on state laws, denominational rules and congregations' situations, he said.

Congregations facing legal conflict should, before anything, pick up a phone and talk to the other side, Porter said.

Ask these questions

Questions for congregations from The Church Law Group, Irving, Texas:

  • Does your church have alternative dispute resolution as its written policy?

  • Who will provide those services?

  • Is it faith-based or secular?

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