The United Methodist Reporter recently reported that the North Georgia Annual Conference is considering whether or not to sell the Simpsonwood Retreat Center located near Atlanta. The 227-acre property has been used for 40 years by the church as a setting for a retreat ministry, as well as the annual conference offices. Members of the community have also enjoyed its walking trails and outdoor picnic pavilion, and groups like the YMCA and Girl Scouts have used its facilities for their programming. The property is thought to be extremely valuable for development into a housing tract because of its pristine character and location along the Chattahoochee River.
What makes this case significant is that, in order to sell the property, the North Georgia Annual Conference had to go to court to remove deed restrictions placed on the property by the original giver of the land. Miss Ludie Simpson sold the land to the conference for $1.00 in 1973, provided that the North Georgia Conference “shall hold the property conveyed herein intact except [it] may deed property without cost to Wesley Homes, Inc.” In August of this year, the conference went to court to have the restriction removed, claiming that the covenant is “no longer valid.” A judge agreed. Local residents are now attempting to fight that decision.
I am not qualified or informed enough to comment on the legal aspects of this case. What troubles me, however, is the ethical issue of breaking a trust. When people give gifts to the church, they expect that any conditions placed upon that gift will be honored. Since they will not be around to ensure that those conditions are honored, they “trust” the church to do so in their absence. That is why gifts like these are called a trust.
What happens when the church cannot be trusted to keep its word?
Just a few years ago, there was a dispute over the trust created by people who gave the United Methodist building in Washington, D.C. to the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). The building and its proceeds were to go toward advocating for abstinence from alcohol and related problems. Instead, for many years, GBCS used the proceeds to support all of its many programs of advocacy on a wide variety of issues, of which abstinence from alcohol or drugs was a very small part.
GBCS also went to court to remove the restrictions on the building and its proceeds. They were opposed by some then-current and former GBCS board members, as well as the district attorney for D.C. The judge, however, sided with GBCS and broke the trust, removing the restrictions.
As the United Methodist Church’s financial situation gets tighter in the years ahead, due to falling membership and revenue, the temptation will be there for congregations and church agencies to access resources that have been restricted. We need to consider very carefully the ramifications before taking such a course.
First, there is the moral issue of keeping our promises to people. In Psalm 15, David asks, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” The answer, in part, is “He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart … who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” Keeping our promises is part of the bedrock of moral integrity and one of the characteristics of a righteous life.
Second, if our people begin not to trust that we will honor the promises we make when we receive their gifts, they will stop giving them. People will not entrust us with their resources if they do not trust that we will use them as we say we will. Breaking trusts might free up some resources in the short run, but it will dry up the flow of resources to the church in the long run. Once the church has lost that trust, it will take a long time to restore it.
There are times when a trust’s conditions are no longer able to be fulfilled and that trust needs to be broken. I question whether either of the situations above meet that “last resort” criterion. One instance of breaking a trust is an incident. Two instances indicate a trend. More instances would establish a pattern—one that we should be very reluctant to establish. What do you think?