Lee Smith thought he knew the name of the church cemetery.
He was pretty sure. But in his years as pastor at Mt Joy in southwestern Pennsylvania, Smith had never actually checked that the legal name of the burial grounds was the same as the name it was commonly called.
“We thought it was called Mt Joy Cemetery, and if that’s the case, there’s no need to change the name,” Smith told CT. “However, there are some forms for purchasing cemetery plots or deeds that say, ‘Mt Joy Church of the Brethren Cemetery’ on them. So we’re still trying to figure that out.”
Add that to the long list of suddenly important details that have to be dealt with when a congregation leaves a denomination.
Mt Joy is one of 52 churches across eight states and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that have separated from the Church of the Brethren and joined the newly formed Covenant Brethren Church in response to an ongoing dispute over homosexuality and the historic peace church’s theological commitment to not enforcing denominational policy.
The Pietistic-Anabaptist denomination is not the first to quarrel over the question of same-sex marriage and the affirmation of LGBT identities. Hundreds of congregations left the Episcopal Church after the ordination of an openly gay bishop in 2003. The United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA) are negotiating similar splits.
But while the theological differences are well rehearsed, the actual legal details of division are much murkier. Many departing Episcopal congregations ended up in interminable lawsuits over property. UMC and RCA leaders are trying to figure out what a split means for denominational entities funded by generations of giving. And the Covenant Brethren are researching lots of little details, like the legal names of their graveyards.
Months after the Mt Joy congregation voted unanimously to leave the Church of the Brethren, Smith said the church still has a long list of legalities to straighten out.
The process is time consuming, if not actually difficult, according to Smith and others who are in the process of joining the new denomination. The Brethren, in keeping with their traditional claim that there should be “no force in religion,” are not fighting the departures or doing anything to make them more difficult. The Covenant Brethren, for its part, is encouraging interested congregations not to undertake the move without overwhelming support. The official recommendation is a 90 percent vote in favor, though the voting process and technical requirements vary depending on church district.
After Mt Joy voted to join the Covenant Brethren in April 2021, Smith started working on changing the church’s legal name, getting a new federal tax number, incorporating in Pennsylvania, and updating the church’s bylaws—not to mention changing the name on all the social media accounts.
“Actually, we’re still waiting for some of that,” Smith said.
Two months after sending in paperwork to amend Mt Joy’s incorporation documents with its updated name, Smith discovered a problem—one number in the church’s address line filled out by the state was wrong. Another two months later, after filing corrections and signing the forms again, Smith was told the state had sent the church the wrong form to be corrected.
“It’s almost a comedy of errors,” Smith said. “It’s been a longer process than it probably should have taken—we should have had it done a month and a half ago.”
Mt Joy is still waiting for state recognition of its new name: Mt Joy Covenant Brethren Church. When that happens, the church can start the process of changing the bank accounts. In the meantime, a Mt Joy trustee raised the issue of the cemetery’s official name, which could create an issue if the cemetery is technically owned by the Brethren and Mt Joy fails to transfer ownership.
Craig Alan Myers, an executive board member of Covenant Brethren, went through a similar experience after his congregation in Columbia City, Indiana, voted to leave the Church of the Brethren after 31 years.
“There’s just a lot of little things that you can’t imagine,” said Myers, whose church is now called Blue River Covenant Brethren Church. “We have a transition team. And we’re just taking things as they come. But there’s just a lot of things you don’t even think about when you start. I mean, what about your church sign? Who’s going to handle that?”
Some of the changes, according to Myers, aren’t that different from what a business would go through if it changed its name. But there are also details that are specific to churches.
Myers was recently preparing for a funeral when he realized the funeral home might not be aware of the church’s new name. He had to contact the funeral parlor to ensure the obituary and funeral programs would be printed correctly.
As a new denomination, Covenant Brethren tries to help joining churches anticipate some of the steps involved in switching. But the rules are different in different states and different Church of the Brethren districts, so official case-specific guidance is limited.
Brake Covenant Brethren Church in Petersburg, West Virginia, is still waiting for approval from the IRS for its name change on its employer identification number. The IRS website says churches can request a name change instead of closing and opening new bank accounts, but church business is pretty much on hold until it receives confirmation.
Craig Howard, pastor at Brake, said the church is also working with an attorney for a quitclaim deed to transfer church property.
In the West Marva district, where Brake Covenant is located, church property officially reverts back to the denomination if the congregation disaffiliates. But the district has agreed to sell the property to the congregation for $1, “just to make it a legal transaction,” Howard said.
Other districts have asked for a percentage of the property value to release the deed, or set a price per member for a property sale.
But even for $1, lawyers have to be hired and paperwork processed. The cemetery next to Brake Covenant is incorporated separately, so the church doesn’t have to worry about that detail, but it does have to reapply for its
Beyond that, the church shut down its former website, and the new one is still underway. Staff are still getting new email addresses, and the bylaws have to be changed to include the church’s new name.
“It’s just a lot of little details. You make a list and start checking it over,” Howard said. “It’s not hard, but it does take somebody putting in some serious amounts of time.”
Hannah McClellan is a reporter in North Carolina.
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