I don’t usually get into issues like this because I’m really not familiar with the inner workings of denominations that I’ve never worked in, but this sounds like a money grab to me. The PCUSA’s General Assembly Council (GAC) is apparently trying to get its hands on money that has been donated by individuals in a restrictive way, to use on their own pet projects. Parker Williamson reports in the Layman Online:

Two members of “The Chairs and Chiefs,” an exclusive syndicate of Presbyterian Church (USA) leaders, have launched a campaign to wrest fiduciary authority from the Presbyterian Church (USA) Foundation and place it in the hands of the General Assembly Council. The move could weaken donor restrictions on millions of dollars and unleash windfall funding for denominational programs that congregations are unwilling to support.

Consisting of three offensives that are making their way to the denomination’s 218th General Assembly, June 21-28, the campaign is asking commissioners to

1. Issue an “Authoritative Interpretation” to the effect that the GAC, not the Foundation, has final authority on the disposition of donor-restricted funds;

2. Grant to GAC program managers broad latitude in the way they interpret fund restrictions and permission to pay administrative fees to themselves and mid-level bureaucrats for their handling of donor-restricted money;

3. Grant to the GAC authority to invest middle- and long-term assets for higher yields than the Foundation’s professional fund managers deem prudent.

Valentine dismisses the Foundation’s fiduciary concerns. She says that the issue is not “either-or” but “both-and.” “Both the Foundation and the GAC have fiduciary responsibilities under the law – church law, that is – and we both have responsibilities to follow donor intent,” she told The Layman.

In answer to the Foundation’s insistence on maintaining checks and balances via separate functions, Valentine said, “I don’t really place a lot of stock in that argument.” She said that she had confidence in her GAC staff’s ability to handle fiduciary functions.

But although Valentine claims that fiduciary authority is to be shared between the Foundation and the GAC, she agrees with the ACC and her own GAC that where there are differences of opinion, the GAC should decide. Valentine adds that she thinks such differences would be minimal and she believes mechanisms can be put in place to handle them in a non-polarizing manner.

That drift does not sit well with Laura Plumley, general counsel to the Foundation: “I think one of the dangers of the ACC Recommendations and the Stated Clerk’s opinion is that they give the GAC complete discretion (in so far as it is in their power to do so) to interpret restrictions on funds held by the Foundation … The recommendations would jeopardize adherence to donor restrictions on any funds held by the Foundation for any beneficiary – G.A. related or not. This is because, while the language of the ACC findings and the Advisory Opinion of the Stated Clerk discuss honoring donor restrictions, the actual Recommendation 2(c) would permit the GAC to interpret all restrictions whether donor created or board created and whether the restricted fund pays to a G.A. entity or to a local congregation, college or Presbyterian retirement home.”

Kirkpatrick says in his Advisory Opinion that he supports the Foundation’s claim to fiduciary authority over donor-designated funds, but he believes that restrictions made by a denominational governing body may be amended by that governing body (the GAC).

The Foundation disagrees. Plumley told The Layman, “Where the PCUSA, through one of its mission corporations, set aside its own money in an endowment fund and decided to restrict the use of the income for that purpose, the Foundation agrees … that the G.A. retains the right to modify or release that restriction as it sees fit. However, when the G.A. through one of its mission corporations, has solicited contributions from multiple donors to a fund for a specific purpose that fund is considered by the Foundation and under civil law a donor-solicited or donor-restricted fund and may only be modified with court approval.”

I don’t know much about foundations, trusts, and so on, but there’s one thing every pastor knows: when people give money to the church for a specific purpose, you’d better use it that way. Rather than being simply an argument over turf or procedure, there is almost certainly a specific goal that the initiators of these proposals have in mind. What that might be I can’t say for sure, but it certainly sounds like they want to be able to ignore restrictions on donations. Given the shrinking membership and financial base for PCUSA, it’s to be expected that leadership would look for creative ways to insure the survival of the institution. Combined with the efforts to get their hands on church properties on which they have no legitimate claim, however, it looks like the PCUSA’s leadership is throwing all ethical or even legal considerations out the window in an effort to provide support for their agenda for years to come.

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