Legal battle over church property a sign of the times, experts say

Published: May. 26, 2022 at 5:52 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A Georgia church is battling in court for the right to sell its own property. Their opponent? Their own now-former larger church organization.

Members of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Thunderbolt say they are devastated. The church, which has less than a dozen members, has been a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) for decades.

But Reverend Steve Schulte tells WTOC as soon as the larger church organization found out they planned to sell their property and downsize, it kicked the congregation out of the denomination and sued them over the property, effectively blocking the sale.

Now, more than a year into this battle, Rev. Schulte says it’s become bigger than just their church.

“We are fighting for every small congregation that’s out there,” Schulte said. “A bishop can come in and close you, and take your property, and then you have nothing left.”

Schulte has led St. Luke’s for almost 30 years. Founded as a Lutheran church back in 1931, Schulte says the congregation joined the ELCA when it formed in 1988.

St. Luke’s had been a member of a different Lutheran organization, which merged to form the ELCA that year.

Like many other churches, St. Luke’s church body has shrunk over the years. They’re now down to just 8 members. The congregation has sold-off much of its former property over the year, including its old place of worship.

But now, Schulte says the congregation is too small for its current place of worship. So, when a neighbor offered to buy the property for $200,000, Schulte said they jumped at the opportunity.

“Out of courtesy we informed the bishop that we were going to sell the property. We have never had a bishop’s approval in the past, ever,” Schulte said.

The church owns the deed to its property, and its constitution states that it has the right to sell it. But Schulte says that wasn’t enough for Bishop Kevin Strickland, who oversees the ELCA’s Southeast region.

He says Strickland asked them to let the ELCA control the sale - and the money from it.

“And we said to him, no. We are not going to listen to you,” Schulte said. “And when he interfered with that transaction, the potential buyers backed out for fear of lawsuits.”

The suit, filed by the ELCA last June in Chatham County Superior Court, alleges that St. Luke’s has, “ceased to meaningfully exist.” It also says the ELCA is suing to, quote, “protect and preserve any undisposed assets in an orderly manner.”

Schulte thinks it’s all about the money.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if small churches closing is another way for big churches to make money.”

But not everyone sees it that way. Reverend Steven Martin, founder of The Lakelands Institute... a national consulting firm for churches... says he’s familiar with these kinds of disputes.

“I would question the narrative that the ELCA just kind of canceled and kicked out a church,” Martin said. “It’s always more complicated than that.”

Martin says he doesn’t think a major church like the ELCA would try to profit from church closures.

“It’s really a minefield for them. And selling church property, or redeveloping church property, is never ever a simple matter,” he added.

Schulte says, for his small church, it’s not about the money. It’s about staying true to their Christian principles.

“I have been a Lutheran my entire life,” Schulte said. “These people here have been Lutherans for a very long time. And for someone to come in and say, ‘you’re out of here!’ is just wrong.”

On Thursday, WTOC heard from the ELCA’s attorney, who represents Bishop Kevin Strickland.

Attorney Charles Bridgers said, quote... “I can confirm that a final written document has been executed by St. Luke’s and the Synod. St. Luke’s is no longer a congregation within the ELCA. Mr. Schulte is no longer on the of ELCA roster of pastors...”

WTOC pressed Bridgers, and he said that both sides have agreed not to share any more details about the agreement. We also reached out to St. Luke’s, but have not heard back.

This story is part of a trend of church property disputes. Just last month, the South Carolina Supreme Court returned 14 church properties to the Episcopal Church - but ruled that 15 other churches could keep their properties.

The state’s high court ruled that those 15 churches had not created a trust in favor of the national church... and therefore could keep their real estate.

The Lakelands Institute predicts as many as 100,000 churches could close across the U.S. over the next several years. They say the pandemic has accelerated that trend.

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