October 15, 2012

The Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship Agreement

Last week, a joint statement was announced by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, a ministry to the homeless that claims membership in Bob Duncan’s Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh. The statement describes an agreement between the parties that allows Shepherd’s Heart to continue its ministry under the aegis of the Anglican diocese. The fellowship, of course, was part of the Episcopal diocese before the 2008 schism.

Both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review covered the story of the agreement. The Tribune-Review article gives a good sense of the nature of Shepherd’s Heart’s ministry.

Some of the real estate occupied by Shepherd’s Heart is owned by the Episcopal diocese, and some of it is owned by the fellowship. Apparently, all the property is mortgaged. The agreement, which will have to be approved by the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, contemplates the diocese’s transferring its property to the fellowship. Shepherd’s Heart will then refinance at a more favorable interest rate.

The agreement assumes that the ministry of Shepherd’s Heart will continue, supported not only by the Anglican diocese, but also by Episcopalians and members of other churches. (My own Episcopal church periodically serves meals to the homeless at Shepherd’s Heart, for example.) The statement declares
The agreement sets this issue [of whether the fellowship validly withdrew from the Episcopal diocese in 2008] aside in favor of mutually serving the homeless, the poor, and the addicted. Both parties recognize the new relationship between the Episcopal Diocese and Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship is not of an ecclesiastical nature, such as would normally exist between a diocese and a parish, but one of cooperation and collaboration in a specialized ministry. Because of this unique use of the Shepherd’s Heart property, the parties have agreed that this agreement should not be interpreted as a model for resolving other property disputes.

Obversations and Questions

It’s true that Shepherd’s Heart is not just another church that broke away from The Episcopal Church. It is a unique ministry supported by Episcopalians, “Anglicans,” and people from other denominations, though it is being run by “Anglicans.” (I am using quotation marks here because, of course, Episcopalians are Anglicans, and, if membership in a church of the Anglican Communion is required by your definition of Anglican, the people of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh are not Anglicans at all.) Had the Episcopal diocese claimed the fellowship’s property, it would have disrupted an important ministry and, most likely, received very bad press.

I actually believe that the agreement is reasonable, under the circumstances, and it is clearly not meant to set a precedent for settling other property disputes between the Episcopal diocese and congregations that have left the diocese but retained their property. An important ministry is allowed to continue without disruption and without threat of future litigation. The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is relieved of a financial obligation, though at the cost of its equity in the property. Nevertheless, this is the first time the Episcopal diocese has released assets to a breakaway group without financial compensation.

Certain facts about the agreement have not been disclosed, however, and it is unclear as to whether certain matters are covered by the agreement at all. Inquiries to the Episcopal diocese did not yield answers to my questions.

Here are some questions to which Pittsburgh Episcopalians might want answers:
  • How much is the Shepherd’s Heart property worth, and what assets does the fellowship have besides real estate?
  • How much equity does the Episcopal diocese have in the property, and what is the current mortgage payment?
  • Is the diocese renouncing its Dennis Canon claim to the property or only putting that claim on hold?
  • In particular, might the Episcopal diocese assert its trust interest in the property should that property ever be used for another purpose, say, if the fellowship folded or intended to sell the property and move elsewhere?
  • Might the Episcopal diocese assert its trust interest in the property should the ministry to the homeless ever become a minor use of the property, with its primary use being for some other purpose?
A full evaluation of the wisdom of the agreement would require answers to the above questions (and possibly to others as well).

Update, 10/15/2012, 3:30 PM: I will attempt to clarify the present financial arrangements, though I do not fully understand them. What I wrote above may not be totally correct. There is a mortgage on the main building of Shepherd’s Heart. The title to the property is held by the diocese (actually, the Board of Trustees), but the fellowship has been making the payments. There may be other outstanding loans, but I think there are no other mortgages. In refinancing the mortgage, it will be made clear to all parties what equity there is in the property, as it will have to be appraised. The Episcopal diocese views its role as investing in the Shepherd’s Heart ministry.

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