The Layman Online today tells a remarkable story of venality and incompetence that almost makes one wonder about the sanity of some leaders in the PCUSA. It comes from the Presbytery of South Louisiana, which has already had to lay off most of its staff and may be headed for bankruptcy because of a lawsuit pushed on the presbytery by people who apparently like gambling with other people’s money. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few highlights:

At a presbytery meeting on Oct. 9 and 10, the finance committee announced that its deficit for the first eight months of 2009 had grown to $244,000 and was climbing fast, due primarily to the cost of PSL’s lawsuits against one of its congregations, the 20-member Carrollton Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. PSL’s legal bills were $96,700 in 2008 and $144,000 through August 2009, most of which was spent on the Carrollton litigation.

The Carrollton case logged multiple courtroom hours in September and October with the prospect of more to come that may add more than $50,000 in attorney fees by the end of the year.

According to PSL’s documents, “the synod and Louisville have contributed a total of $25,000 towards the cost of this lawsuit,” but that is a drop in the bucket for a continuing case whose expenses to date have cost PSL more than $240,000.

Among property law cases, this litigation is unique, in that the Carrollton church is a member congregation of the PCUSA that says it has no intention of leaving the denomination. At issue is Carrollton’s decision to sell its property to a Catholic school next door in order to facilitate the school’s classroom expansion. The plan includes Carrollton’s intent to continue using the sanctuary for its own Sunday worship services, even after the sale. Carrollton session members see this as a win-win arrangement: They will facilitate sound Christian education for New Orleans children while continuing to use the building for worship. Further, they can use the proceeds from the sale for their chosen ministries, and the Catholics will assume expensive maintenance costs.

All was well until PSL intervened, clouding Carrollton’s title and blocking the sale.

So far, this makes absolutely no sense, at least until one takes into account what seems like growing paranoia in PCUSA leadership:

Carrollton was formerly a Presbyterian Church, US (southern) congregation, and, as did many southern churches, it voted for an exemption from the requirement that it gain presbytery permission to purchase, sell or otherwise encumber its property. Based on the language of that exemption, Carrollton believes that it is entirely permissible for the congregation to sell its property to the school next door, and that PSL has no right to intervene.

PSL argues that Carrollton’s “real intention” is to leave the denomination with its property or to dissolve itself without presbytery involvement – acts that PSL believes are forbidden by the denomination’s trust clause. In documents filed with the 19th Judicial District Court, Carrollton has denied that it has any of these intentions, and PSL has cited no evidence to substantiate its suspicions.

One may ask why PSL is being pushed to exhaust its some $300,000 in assets, not to mention the possible imposition of court-ordered penalties and sanctions, in the Carrollton litigation. Why has the Office of the General Assembly and the Synod of the Sun unleashed so much firepower over the property of this 20-member church?

The answer probably lies in precedent. If Carrollton can sell its property without presbytery approval, so can any of the thousands of former southern Presbyterian congregations that exercised the exemption clause within eight years of denominational reunion. If while acting as a PCUSA church, a congregation has an unconditional right to dispose of its property with only the congregation’s approval, this means that no third party, like a presbytery, can decide on the disposition of that same property. The denomination’s trust clause is thereby negated.

Well, it’s negated in those cases, at least, though clearly not in the case of the thousands of other congregations that did not exercise the exemption clause. Still, we’re talking about a very substantial number of churches that could potentially slip from PCUSA’s grasp. Of course, lots of those thousands have no intention of leaving or selling their property, so this may all be a lot of hysteria over nothing. Still, it makes one wonder why PCUSA would want to spend so much money (and, because of some of the actions detailed in the report, risk contempt of court rulings and perhaps even jail time for some of its officials who are trying every trick they can think of to avoid complying with court orders) over something like this. One can’t avoid the suspicion that they’ve completely lost track of what their responsibilities as church officials really are.