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Notebook Religion


St. Laurence Episcopal Church in Southlake, Texas (Handout)


Anglicans and a Supreme Court victory in North Texas

Conservatives seeking to retain church property score a rare legal win

Doctrinally conservative Episcopalians have rebranded as “Anglicans” in many parts of the United States, but some are still holding on to the name “Episcopal”—and not just as a matter of branding. In North Texas, two groups call themselves the “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.” Each claimed rightful ownership of some 60 church properties worth over $100 million.

The Texas courts were forced to decide: Which was the real Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, and which, in effect, was the imposter?

After a decade of litigation, the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter unanimously on May 22. The conservatives, it ruled, get to keep their property.

The Fort Worth case is a rare legal victory for Anglicans who left The Episcopal Church (TEC) over a decade ago. Several other dioceses that left the national denomination have lost substantial amounts of property. In South Carolina, litigation is pending over some of the oldest churches in the United States. 

At the root of these property disputes are doctrinal differences, including over same-sex marriage. TEC performs same-sex marriages, whereas the Anglican Church in North America affirms a Biblical definition of marriage. But the case also highlights the denominations’ divergent views over church government, which have grown more pronounced over a decade of separation. 

If the Fort Worth ruling had gone the other way, conservative congregations throughout North Texas would have been tossed out of their churches, said Scott Brister, the attorney who argued the winning side and who is himself a former state Supreme Court justice.

Churches elsewhere have been sold or stood vacant for years after TEC won similar lawsuits against wayward parishes or dioceses, including in California, Connecticut, and Wisconsin. “The risk was that the majority of these churches would just close,” Brister told me. 

That assertion is borne out by statistics published by TEC’s New York headquarters: The loyalist diocese in Fort Worth lost 79 percent of its Sunday attendance in the decade since the schism, falling to 1,392 attendees by 2018, less than a third the size of the breakaway diocese.

Not all Anglican churches have gone through years of litigation. Commonly, dissenting congregations left TEC individually, sometimes leaving behind their sanctuary, sometimes negotiating an exit amicably. 

The dispute in Texas dates to 2008. A convention of the then-united diocese, led by Bishop Jack Iker, voted to disaffiliate from TEC, taking with it most of the diocese’s property, members, and clergy, before going on to help establish the ACNA. The national Episcopal church rejected the decision, installed its own bishop over the remaining loyalist congregations, and sued to recover the property. 

In the May 22 Texas Supreme Court ruling, Justice Eva Guzman stressed the court wasn’t making an “ecclesiastical” judgment as to which faction was the true Episcopal Diocese. That kind of ruling would put the court afoul of First Amendment protections against state involvement in church affairs.

Guzman pointed to a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case, Jones v. Wolf, that prohibits courts from settling church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine or practice. But Jones allowed judges to apply “neutral principles” to examine the language of deeds, local church charters, and provisions of a denomination’s constitution.

Nothing in the organizational documents had prohibited the Diocese of Fort Worth from withdrawing from the denomination, Guzman wrote. “Under Texas Associations law, control and governance are determined by the terms of the Fort Worth Diocese’s charters. … Having complied with the diocese’s charters, the majority, not the minority, constitutes the continuation of the Fort Worth Diocese under the terms of its charter.”

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Kevin Schoen

(Kevin Schoen)


Friends and farewells

For Maynard and Joan Schoen, the more years of church ministry, the harder the goodbyes

Fourth in a series on long ministry

Fresh out of seminary, Maynard Schoen arrived with his wife, Joan, in Jonesville, Mich., in 1961 to pastor a small church there. The church had 40 people and no bathroom—only an outhouse. Maynard devoted himself to his new role and made friends among the congregation, but he wasn’t destined to stay: After a few years, another church asked him to become its pastor. 

The Schoens moved to the second church, one hour east of Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1968. Maynard remembers noticing the church’s outstanding music, friendly people, and basement full of salamanders. Maynard and Joan loved that small church and stayed for 39 years. Their ministry involved great joy but also growth challenges and painful losses.

When the Schoens arrived, the church had plans to build a new auditorium. The church did not want to take on debt, but inflation was eating its savings every year. A year and a half after Maynard arrived, the elders realized their plan was not feasible and agreed to borrow the money and then repay it quickly. They purchased a cherry orchard, 32 acres for $10,000, and eventually built an auditorium and a center with a gym and education space on the land. By the time the Schoens left, the church had paid off the debt and grown from about 120 congregants to 500.

We lost some people through death that were devastating.

Pastoring could be difficult: Initially, Maynard wore a lot of hats, acting as the preaching pastor, youth pastor, Sunday school teacher, and organist. After a few years, the elders eased his burden by hiring a youth pastor. Such hires didn’t always work out, though. The elders hired a new seminary graduate to serve as an associate pastor, but soon dismissed him when his ministry style clashed with the other pastors.

But the biggest challenge of Maynard’s ministry involved the biggest blessing—close relationships that came with painful goodbyes. “We lost some people through death that were devastating,” Maynard said. “Those are things where if you’re only going to be in a church five years, six years at most, you can ride those storms with little trouble. But these are people we’ve gotten to know and love dearly.”

The Schoens tasted this pain in their first church: A friend named Shirley Havens developed leukemia and died within two months. Maynard remembers putting away her husband’s boat for him, sitting on the bank, and asking, “Lord, what are you trying to do? I needed Chuck and Shirley.”

Maynard retired in 2007, bringing more painful goodbyes. The Schoens decided to change churches so the congregation would not feel divided between the old and new pastors. Two years passed before Joan said the new church felt like home. But in the last 13 years, they have found their place at their new church: Maynard has taught adult Bible classes, and Joan has taught the Bible for second graders. They occasionally see friends from their church of 39 years. They say they still miss and love them like family.

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Sharon Dierberger

Dr. Tom Blee (Sharon Dierberger)


Trauma surgery and soul surgery

A Minnesota doctor’s nonprofit offers hope to former gang members and addicts

Dr. Tom Blee, wearing teal green scrubs, receives smiles from staff members as he walks the stark hallways of Regions, a major hospital in St. Paul.

The Minnesota trauma surgeon discovered that healing involves more than stitching up gunshot injuries or resecting a damaged colon. After professing faith in Christ in 2014, he began pointing patients, their families, and co-workers to the True Physician. He also co-founded LIFEteam, a ministry to bring lasting hope to the young gang members who often end up in his operating room with bullet or knife wounds.

The original purpose of LIFEteam—Leadership Impacting the Family Environment—was to help young men who wanted out of gangs. Today its clientele has grown to include anyone who wants to leave behind violence, addiction, or despair. Blee helped start the nonprofit along with a former Minneapolis gangbanger turned minister, John Turnipseed, and two others.

The group’s work covers an informal 50-mile area from Regions in St. Paul southeast to Red Wing, the town where Blee lives. It provides Christ-centered mentoring and connects individuals to resources like counseling, fathering classes, attorney referrals, and protective housing. Sometimes LIFEteam staff members supply the mentoring, counseling, or support meetings, and other times they are a bridge to other ministries or organizations. 

“Many of the young men we see have no father, no male role models,” explains Blee. “We try to build a team around them to start helping.”

When Blee identifies a patient he thinks is in a spiritually dark place, whether a gang member, addict, or other trauma patient, he tries to arrange a meeting away from the hospital. He focuses on building a relationship.

As he discerns struggles, Blee plugs the man into the right LIFEteam resources and continues meeting for accountability. LIFEteam’s main goal, he says, is “to establish hope.”

I was torn down to absolutely nothing and had to be rebuilt.

Blee, 50, did not always have hope. He grew up with an alcoholic mother and a workaholic father. Turned off by an early church experience he said left him feeling condemned, he buried himself in his education and became a successful surgeon. He was eventually named director of acute care surgery at Regions.

But his life was proverbially flatlining. His marriage was crumbling, and he felt overwhelmed by daily medical decisions. He was miserable and empty. 

“My sister told me what she was always telling me: You might want to get to know Jesus,” says Blee, with a laugh. He finally did just that, kneeling and asking Jesus to show Himself and help.

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