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

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

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Savannah, Georgia (WTOC)-Churches in Georgia are fighting in court for the right to sell their property. Their opponent? Their own current larger church organization.

Members of the Lutheran Church of St. Luke in Thunderbolt say they are devastated. Churches with less than 12 members have been members of the Evangelical Lutheran American Church (ELCA) for decades.

However, Rev. Steve Schulte told WTOC that as soon as a larger church organization found plans to sell and shrink their property, they expelled the congregation from the sect, sued them for property, and effectively blocked the sale. Told.

Rev. Schulte says that more than a year after this battle, it is now larger than their church.

“We are fighting for all the little congregations out there,” Schulte said. “A bishop can come in and close you and rob you of your property, and you have nothing left.”

Schulte has led St. Luke’s for almost 30 years. Schulte was founded as a Lutheran church in 1931 and says that the congregation joined ELCA when it was founded in 1988.

St. Luke’s was a member of another Lutheran organization that merged to form ELCA that year.

Like many other churches, the body of St. Luke’s Church has shrunk over the years. Currently, there are only 8 members. The congregation sold off much of its former property in a year, including the old place of worship.

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

“By courtesy, we informed the bishop that we would sell the property. We have never had the bishop’s approval in the past,” Schulte said.

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

He says Strickland asked ELCA to manage 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 the transaction, potential buyers withdrew for fear of proceedings.”

A proceeding filed by ELCA in the Chatham County High Court last June alleges that St. Luke’s “has ceased to be meaningful.” ELCA also states that it is appealing to “orderly protect and preserve undisposed assets.”

Schulte thinks it’s all about money.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the closure of a small church is another way for a large church to make money.”

But not everyone sees it that way. Rev. Steven Martin, the founder of the Lakelands Institute … a national consulting firm for the church … he says he is familiar with this type of controversy.

“I question the story of ELCA canceling and expelling the church,” Martin said. “It’s always more complicated than that.”

Martin says major churches like ELCA are not willing to benefit from the closure of the church.

“It’s really a minefield for them, and selling church assets or redeveloping church assets is never easy,” he added.

Schulte says it’s not a matter of money for his little church. It’s about staying true to their Christian principles.

“I was a Lutheran for the rest of my life,” Schulte said. “These people here have been Lutheran for a very long time, and to someone come in and say,” You are out of here! ” It’s just wrong. “

On Thursday, WTOC was contacted by an ELCA lawyer representing Bishop Kevin Strickland.

Charles Bridgers said: “We can see that the final document was carried out by St. Luke and the Synod. St. Luke is no longer a congregation within ELCA. Mr. Schulte is no longer on the list of ELCA ministers …”

The WTOC pressured Bridgers, saying he agreed that both sides would not share any further details on the agreement. I also contacted St. Luke’s, but I didn’t get a reply.

This story is part of the church’s tendency for property disputes. Just last month, the South Carolina Supreme Court returned the property of 14 churches to Episcopal Church, but ruled that 15 other churches could retain the property.

The State High Court ruled that these 15 churches did not build trust in favor of the National Church … therefore, they were able to maintain their real estate.

The Lakelands Institute predicts that as many as 100,000 churches could be closed nationwide in the coming years. They say the pandemic has accelerated that trend.

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