The Seattle Presbytery is trying to take back a historic church after a report found pastors and other leaders engaged in financial impropriety and a “pattern of duplicity.” A lawsuit will now determine the fate of Seattle First Presbyterian — and its $20 million property.
The regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is ordering two pastors to vacate a historic downtown church that sits on a $20 million property. The directive comes as a commission appointed by the Seattle Presbytery released a report finding that Seattle First Presbyterian’s pastors and other leaders engaged in a “pattern of duplicity” as they sought to unilaterally separate from the denomination.
The Feb. 16 report also alleges financial improprieties, including unauthorized payments to co-pastors Jeff and Ellen Schulz, the use of church money for the married pastors’ home and tampering with the books.
The Schulzes, in an email to The Seattle Times, called the allegations “false, inflammatory and disturbing” and characterized the presbytery’s actions as an attempted “hostile takeover.”
In a separate email to the congregation, they and other church leaders said this maneuver was aimed at taking “control of our property for their own gain.” But they asserted that the presbytery has no authority over them given a November vote by members of the congregation to break away from the denomination.
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That leaves the matter for the courts to resolve. The presbytery filed suit this week asking for an injunction that would force the Schulzes to leave and turn over church affairs to new leadership appointed by the presbytery, including a transitional pastor.
Founded in 1869, Seattle First Presbyterian occupies an 8,000-square-foot building stretching from Seventh and Eighth avenues along Spring Street, across from Town Hall. It once had some 8,000 members but, as of late 2015, claimed just 125.
In an interview last November, the Schulzes explained their desire to separate by saying they wanted to revitalize the church with an “entrepreneurial” approach that didn’t mesh with the presbytery’s bureaucratic structure. They also alluded to theological differences, although they maintained that the denomination’s recent decisions to ordain gay and lesbian ministers and condone same-sex marriage were not motivating factors.
The church’s assets, primarily its valuable real estate, also are a major point of contention. The Schulzes claim the property is owned by Seattle First Presbyterian, and they have been working on a plan to redevelop it. The presbytery maintains that the church holds the property in trust for the denomination.
The presbytery also contends that the church cannot disaffiliate without going through a formal separation process. “The church remains a part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) because it has not been dismissed — a step that only the presbytery is constitutionally authorized to take,” the commission wrote in its report.
Some members of the church wanted to go through the formal process, but they were marginalized and intimidated, according to the report, which declared that a “schism” was evident. The commission interviewed 45 current or former members and employees over the past three months.
Whatever the presbytery wrote, the church’s leadership announced in its email to the congregation, “this Sunday’s service will be held, as always, at 10:30 a.m. and will be led, as usual, by our Pastors, Jeff and Ellen Schulz.”