Monday, April 23, 2007

"Louisville Papers" Revealed

Today in the Presbyterian Outlook, the Constitutional Services Department and the Office of Legal Services at the General Assembly respond to the infamous "Louisville Papers." Back in August of 2006, the Layman reported that the denominational lawyers circulated secret documents to presbytery executives about legal procedures relating to churches and their property. The Layman drawing upon the Watergate era nomenclature of the "Pentagon Papers" dubbed the legal advice, the "Louisville Papers."

I know that some have been hyperventilating over the documents. They suggest that the "Louisville Papers" recommend strong arm tactics to presbyteries to prevent property from leaving the denomination. Personally, I find the statements rather standard legal fair. They clearly have a vested interest in protecting the property of the denomination. Since unification of the United Presbyterian Church USA and the Presbyterian Church US in 1983 if not before, the property of the local congregation has been held in trust by the presbyteries. These documents suggest nothing new.

What I find troublesome is the handling of the situation by our denominational leadership. Clifton Kirkpatrick only contacted the powers-that-be to respond to the controversy a few weeks ago. You don't have to like what's written in the Layman, but please read the thing. After you read it, then make your defense (if there is one). The folks in Louisville need a few lessons in public relations.

More importantly, why did the denominational officials keep the papers "confidential"?
While some have focused only recently on these materials, they are not new. They were first prepared in 2001, in response to requests from presbyteries and their legal advisers. Moreover, they have never been "secret," as some have claimed. The OGA paper has never born any label indicating confidentiality. The Legal Services memo is a confidential attorney document. Like many attorney-written documents, it was handled in this way in order to avoid its misuse by others who might wish to start or pursue civil litigation. These documents were intended to provide background information and pastoral aid to presbyteries, not to be used as legal briefs.
I've made this observation before, but perhaps it needs repeating. If a document is provided to the presbyteries, why shouldn't the presbyteries know about it? A presbytery is made of elders and pastors. These legal documents were provided to presbytery executives and staff. They are not the same thing. Although executives play an important role in the ministry of the presbytery, they are essentially the "hired help." Granted, there are times in the life of the church where confidentiality is important. Some pastoral issues are delicate and require discretion, but general advice about legal process is not one of them.

Transparency is always the best policy. I have no problem with denominational lawyers offering advice. Such advice could have led to a general process relating to departing congregations and their property. If such a process existed, there can be no complaint of discrimination. It applies evenly, fairly to everyone who wishes to leave the denomination. If people don't like the process, presbytery-wide debate can lead to the adoption of an improved process. The "Louisville Papers" kerfuffle could have easily been avoided by the Office of the Stated Clerk and Legal Services.

UPDATE: I erroneously suggested that the Layman was origin of the name, "Louisville Papers." In fact, it was given by Classical Presbyterian.