(Photo: Courtesy HPPC)
A Texas Presbyterian megachurch is asking for prayers as it readies for the trial date for its property lawsuit against the mainline Protestant denomination that its voted to disaffiliate from.
Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas' sent out a statement requesting prayers as they neared the date for arguments in their lawsuit against Presbyterian Church (USA).
The letter sent to the congregation last week by Highland Park Presbyterian's leadership, or Session, outlines the events leading up to the fall trial.
"We thank you for your support and prayers throughout this process, and we are asking for you to continue to pray in the future," stated the leaders. "The Session is committed to keeping you up-to-date with information regarding the case as details become available to share."
The church leaders called for supporters to pray for "our legal team and executive staff", "the Elders and Pastors on Session", "the mission of Highland Park Presbyterian Church", "our new denomination", and "for insulation from distractions during this time."
"Thank you again for your prayers, your patience, and your understanding during this time," stated the Session near the end of the letter.
Last September, Highland Park Presbyterian filed suit in Dallas County District Court to secure their church property should they decide to leave PCUSA.
"HPPC was first organized in 1926 and first incorporated on January 31, 1928 … members of the local church corporation are all those who are on the active rolls of the local congregation," read the lawsuit in part. "At no time in its history have the articles of incorporation for Highland Park Presbyterian Church contained any provision creating or establishing any trust…in favor of a national denomination upon the property held by or for the local church or its civil corporation."
The court granted Highland Park Presbyterian a temporary restraining order regarding ownership of the congregation's church property.
Last October, Judge Jane Boyle of Dallas ruled that the lawsuit would be tried in state rather than federal court, a decision that had the approval of both parties.
Voting to Leave
While the legal process over the lawsuit continued, Highland Park Presbyterian underwent the process of discernment for terminating their affiliation with PCUSA.
In September, Highland Park Presbyterian's Session unanimously approved a resolution to disaffiliate from PCUSA and its regional body, the Presbytery of Grace.
The Session recommended leaving the mainline denomination and membership into the newer more conservative body known as the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) of Presbyterians.
By October, Highland Park Presbyterian's congregation voted overwhelmingly to leave PCUSA and join ECO, with the resolution passing with 89 percent of voting members present.
Rev. Joe Rightmyer, interim senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian, stated that the move to ECO involved a "restoration" of the church's Presbyterian roots.
"By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them," said Rightmyer. "With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us."
With approximately 4,000 members, Highland Park Presbyterian was the largest PCUSA congregation in the state of Texas. Its membership also represented about ten percent of the PCUSA members in the Grace Presbytery.
A Failed Process
In February, mediation talks between Highland Park Presbyterian and Grace Presbytery over the disputed property took place only to have the two parties fail to reach an agreement.
Through the legal and ecclesial actions of Highland Park Presbyterian, the leadership of Grace Presbytery has expressed their criticism and heartbreak.
In a statement released last September, Grace Presbytery said it was "shocked and saddened that Highland Park Presbyterian Church (HPPC) of Dallas has chosen to file suit."
"There has been no conversation at the presbytery level to seek control of their property or establish a commission to work with the church during their period of discernment as to whether or not to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA)," continued the Presbytery.
Janet M. DeVries, M.Div, D.Min., General Presbyter for Grace Presbytery, told CP in an earlier interview that Highland Park was not undergoing the proper dismissal process.
"Highland Park's lawsuit circumvents and interferes with the established ecclesiastical dismissal process," said DeVries last September. "The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Just and Gracious Dismissal Policy of Grace Presbytery provide for a process which enables the congregation to hear and discuss both the PC(USA) and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO)."
The trial between Highland Park Presbyterian Church and the Presbytery of Grace to determine ownership of the church property is scheduled to take place on Monday, October 20.