By Thomas Lambrecht
It was announced this week that 106 United Methodist congregations in Florida have filed lawsuits against the annual conference after invitations to negotiate an amicable exit were ignored and rejected by the Florida Annual Conference. The purpose of the lawsuits is to gain reasonable terms for the departure of these congregations in order to join the Global Methodist Church.
These congregations represent 19 percent of the 560 Florida UM congregations. The separation of 13 additional congregations was approved at the 2022 annual conference session.
“The continued disobedience to and selective enforcement of our denominational covenant contained in the Book of Discipline by denominational leaders, and the continual degrading of traditional Methodists within the [Florida] Conference, leave traditional churches no other option if they want to live out and contend for their orthodox faith — they sadly must leave the denomination,” said the Rev. Jeremy Rebman, president of the Florida chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
Based on their press release, the churches taking legal action want to use ¶ 2548.2 of the Book of Discipline for disaffiliation, which would allow the conference to permit the payment of pension liabilities over time, rather than as a lump sum payment up front at the time of departure. The current pension liability figure in Florida is running about 5-6 times a church’s annual apportionment. For many smaller churches, this lump sum is unaffordable.
However, from what I have been told by leaders in the Florida WCA, the sticking point that is preventing most of the churches from disaffiliating relates to a unique requirement imposed by the Florida Conference trustees. Due to the prevalence of hurricanes, the Florida Conference self-insures all its churches for property and liability. The churches pay their insurance premiums to the annual conference for this required coverage.
The conference trustees are requiring any local church that disaffiliates to renounce the liability insurance they have already paid for in the past and purchase new private insurance to cover the past three years. Churches would not be allowed to file any claims for insurance coverage from the past, dating back to at least 2009, even though they paid the premiums to obtain that coverage over the years. That means if an allegation of negligence or misconduct surfaced for an occurrence more than three years ago, the church would bear the entire risk and need to pay for its own defense against that claim. In today’s litigious climate, million-dollar awards are fairly common, which could bankrupt the local church. The legal expenses alone in defending against a claim could equal a small or medium-sized church’s annual budget.
Under normal circumstances, it would be irresponsible of local church leaders to assume that kind of risk on behalf of the congregation. And they should not have to. The local church already paid for that insurance coverage for all previous years. They should be able to avail themselves of the insurance coverage they purchased.
To add insult to injury, the conference is requiring local churches to purchase private liability insurance retroactive for the previous three years. Such coverage must also cover the conference and its leaders, even though (again) the conference insurance already covers those years. There is only one company doing business in Florida willing to write retroactive liability insurance. And the premiums for such retroactive insurance are steep. One church found that the cost would be $130,000 per year for three years, with the ability to obtain such insurance doubtful.
So the local churches seeking disaffiliation are essentially required to forgo insurance they already paid for, leaving them on the hook for years of potential liability claims. And they are required to pay double insurance premiums for the past three years, including covering the annual conference and its officers on behalf of the local church.
I have been told that some of the 13 churches already approved for disaffiliation in 2022 may not be able to complete their disaffiliation due to being unable to obtain that retroactive insurance. The simple unfairness of being unable to avail themselves of insurance already paid for is enough to justify an attempt to gain more favorable terms, let alone the unfair requirement to pay double for three years’ retroactive insurance.
The 106 churches desire to amicably separate from the UM Church. The Florida Conference is making that nearly impossible. The lawsuits are aimed at moving the needle toward a negotiated settlement that is more reasonable and would allow the churches to disaffiliate without jeopardizing their future ministry through insurance risk and financial costs.
“These churches are merely asking for an exit that is ‘in the spirit of the Protocol’ which is a phrase Bishop [Ken Carter] frequently uses,” said Rebman. “We pray for the softening of hearts within the leadership of the Florida Conference. We pray that they will bless traditional Florida churches by allowing them to depart amicably, without paying exorbitant amounts of money that would all but collapse most churches. This was what the Protocol called for; this is what Bishop Carter signed onto when signing the Protocol. This is what we pray will result from the legal action taken today. Let us go!”
Florida Conference leaders, including Bishop Carter, have called for an amicable process of disaffiliation. Let’s hope they will reconsider their current approach and work out an amicable settlement of these lawsuits that would allow both the 106 congregations and the annual conference to move unhindered into their best future.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.