Church battle comes to head
Can fate of Linn Grove church be resolved before it goes to a courtroom?
As a potential deadline nears to throw a dispute over a Linn Grove church into the courtroom, neither the small congregation or the parent church oganization are prepared to give in.
Both sides in the unusual debate, however, have hope that discussions can come to a positive resolution before litigation begins.
A year ago, the congregation of the Riverside Presbyterian Church in Linn Grove voted 74-0 to secede from the 2.4 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) and joined the smaller, more conservative Presbyterian Church in America organization.
Meanwhile, the parent church, represented by the Prospect Hill Presbytery in Storm Lake, claimed that under church law, the Riverside church building belongs to it. It wants to take possession of the tidy frame church on High Street, which dates to 1917, the parsonage, additional property, assets and records. It had sought to suspend and dismiss the church pastor, who defied the orders, and continues to occupy the parsonage.
The congregation argues that the church property belongs to it, and says they have the deed made out to Riverside Church to prove it.
"They can't stop us from worshipping as we see fit. All they could do - if they really want to press it - is try to steal our property," says Pastor Russell Westbrook.
"They have not wanted to give in to the (Presbyterian Church USA) constitution," answers Rev. Duane Queen, representing the Prospect Hill Presbytery interests in the standoff. "They obtained an attorney first, and we had no choice but to respond."
Neither side has set a concrete deadline for talks to end - but Queen said that the matter is scheduled to go to litigation in October unless some agreement can be made.
"At this point, we are waiting for the response from Riverside Church. We had hoped it wouldn't come down to this," Queen said. "This is a church matter, not a courtroom matter."
There is still hope that an amiable agreement could prevent the need for a court battle, Queen feels.
"We want to leave the door open for them, but we have obligations to our religious organization and all the people represented by it also," Queen said this week. "If we can have patience, perhaps we can still have a situation that allows them to get on with pursuing their ministry and we can pursue ours. It would be wonderful if we could put all this behind us before the Christmas season."
Queen also said that the possibility exists for the Linn Grove church to return to the Presbyterian Church USA fold at some time.
That, pastor Westbrook in Linn Grove says, is not going to happen.
"No one here wants to be part of the PCUSA and its leftist movements," Westbrook said.
Issues such as the potential for ordaining homosexuals in the ministry have been somewhat devisive, through Riverside members were apparently most upset by nuanses of worship, such as whether the God they worship would be seen in church policy as the only true god.
"It is impossible to force the conscience of a group of people to worship a different God - the god of liberalism as opposed to the God of the Bible. The worshippers have the right to declare for themselves what is righteous and what is not," Westbrook said.
The congregation too, feels the burden of legal costs, he admits.
"I would be lying if I said that we are enjoying this. We feel very positive that Storm Lake (Prospecy Hill Presbyetry) will do the civil and right thing, and there is some reason to believe that things are moving in that direction," Westbrook said Wednesday. "Right now it is a case of lawyers talking to lawyers."
After a year under a new church leadership, the Riverside congregation remains pleased with its decision to secede, he said.
"We are very happy. In fact, we have enjoyed a season of growth - we have 10 new members, and that is pretty good for a little country church like ours." Last week, services saw a crowd of more than 90, he said. "Our spirit of good-natured fellowship is at an all-time high."
Following a more conservative lead than the Presbyterian Church USA may be helping Riverside, he feels.
"We believe one true God has given us in His word the actual pattern for how we are to think, live and act.... how he wants to be worshipped. Despite the prevailing liberalism of the times, some people intuitively seem to resonate to that."
The Bible tells Christians to expect to be persecuted for their beleiefs, Westbrook suggests. "This is simply our season of being persecuted. We feel sorry for Prospect Hill and its zeal to persecute us."
The PCUSA is not trying to persecute anyone, Queen says, but is simply trying to resolve issues of property rights through mutual discussion and according to the faith's constitution. The Linn Grove congregation would be free to worship elsewhere, and as suggested earlier, the Presbyterian Church USA could have the option of reopening the Riverside building as one of its own congregations again at some point in the future.
The Riverside congregation begs to differ. "Why are they so interested in the property? It's not like people are beating down the doors seeking property to develop in Linn Grove. And since no one here wants to go back to that organization, it would be very interesting to see them try to open it up as a second Presbyterian Church in this little town," Westbrook said.
Westbrook does not know if other churches might follow its lead and consider seceding from parent church organizations to take a more traditional path.
"We at Riverside would not presume to dictate to other churches. We knew out own consciences, and that is all."