Will the Trust Clause Soon Be Broken?

QuarryvilleBy Donald W. Haynes –

As the United Methodist Church approaches the 2016 General Conference, so much of the agenda’s “die is cast.” The delegates are elected and most have stated their position on some of the most divisive issues. “Movements” and “caucuses” on the theological left and right of key social justice concerns are working on options they might exercise if their position is not supported.

In the 1844 General Conference, the underlying divisive issue was the south’s surrender of its social justice conscience to slavery. The delegates elected from free states in 1843 were markedly different from those elected in 1839 to the “do nothing” 1840 General Conference. Bishop Holland McTyeire of the south commented that the southern delegates did not know the new constituency as they made their way to Green Street Methodist Episcopal Church to convene what would be the last conference of the ME Church as a nation-wide legislative body.

Bishop James Andrew, citing the law of the state of Georgia, said he could not free the young man left him by a layman so the slave could be treated well and educated. The ensuing debate was on a technical point of polity. Bishop Joshua Soule of Maine contended that Bishop Andrew could not be “deposed” by the vote of the majority of General Conference’s elected delegates. Rather, Soule insisted that General Conference did not have the right to depose Bishop Andrew without due process of a trial. His position did not prevail. Bishop Andrew was deposed, a Plan of Separation was drawn up, and the church was again divided.

Division was not new. Some of them had been the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion in 1820 the formation of the Methodist Protestant Church in 1828; and the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843. It would divide again in 1894 with the formation of the Nazarene Church. Several holiness churches have Methodist roots and heritage.

In 1844, the “stickiest wicket” of the Plan of Separation was church property. That debate cost multiple thousands of dollars in legal fees and was resolved only by the Supreme Court in 1854.

If there is no real holy conferencing, and if a spirit of division prevails to the point of institutional rupture, we shall once again move quickly beyond the prevailing motion at General Conference. That is, we shall once again become entangled in very costly legal wrangling and civil court cases regarding property…and perhaps, pensions. The sticking point will be the famous “trust clause” included in most UM property deeds.

Professor Thomas Frank has done the most definitive job of defining the polity of United Methodism. In the first edition of his book, Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church, he clarifies the ecclesiastical and legal status of church property in the UM Church. He stipulates that though property laws vary in other nations where United Methodism exists, the property laws of today’s UM Church in the United States have not changed since formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. Indeed we basically still follow the “Model Deed” drawn by Wesley for the Methodists in England who were a movement within Anglicanism, not a denomination.

The most commonly known and debated property language among the children of John Wesley is called the “trust clause.” It was first used in 1746.  That clause is supposed to be in the deed of every parcel of church owned real estate. Interestingly, Dr. Frank points out that Wesley’s rationale for the trust clause was not conference ownership of property, but conference ownership of the pulpit! Frank teaches us that the trust clause was placed in deeds so that, “Local trustees could neither bring in unapproved preachers or exclude preachers duly appointed.” Most specifically, in the context of his time, Wesley wanted to insure that no dissenting preachers be in Methodist pulpits that might advocate separation from the Church of England.

In 1784, in Britain, the trust clause was amended to include the words, “…provided always, that the persons preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament and four volumes of his sermons.”

In America, the first instructions for deeds was in the Book of Discipline (1796). It reserved church property “for the use of members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA, according to the Rules and Discipline which from time to time may be agreed upon and adopted by the ministers and preachers of the said Church; and in further trust and confidence that (the trustees) shall at all times, forever hereafter, permit such ministers and preachers, belonging to the said Church, as shall from time to time be duly authorized by the General Conference…or the yearly Conferences authorized by the said General Conference, and none others, to preach and expound God’s Holy Word therein.”

Frank points out the oxymoron that at no time did the General or Annual Conference hold title to local church property, but that said conferences had sole determination of how Methodist property would be used! The language of the famous “trust clause” was more directed at “doctrine” than at polity, but its legal usage in recent times has been directed at property ownership rather than at what was preached in the pulpits! (Our last heresy trial was in 1904 and Borden Parker Bowen was acquitted.)

All local church property deeds are in the local church’s name, usually naming the incumbent trustees and those who follow them in that office. Bank loans are made to the same – local churches with their trustees as signatories. Frank states, “Management, upkeep, and initiatives for renovation or expansion of the property are determined by the local trustees or church conferences.” The caveat is that property ownership or major changes must be approved by the District Committee on Church Location and Building, and the District Superintendent. Another unusual factor is that while the deed is in the name of the local church, if it is discontinued, the real and liquid assets revert to the annual conference! This implies conference “ownership.”

All deeds state that property is held “in trust” for the denomination, but the question remains as to the technical legal meaning of the word “The United Methodist Church.” Pursuant to a lawsuit following the bankruptcy of a UM retirement home in California, the denomination has taken great pains to clarify in the courts that “The United Methodist Church” is not a legal entity that can be sued. Dr. Frank wrote, regarding the term “in trust” that “being held in trust for the UMC does not mean that the denomination as a whole owns the property.” He concludes his argument with these rather confusing but accurate words: “What exactly the trust clause means in referring to the uses of property’s being ‘subject to the Discipline’ remains undefined.”

The last associate justice of the United States Supreme Court who was a Methodist was Harry Blackmun, most famous for writing Roe vs. Wade in 1973.  The late Bishop Earl G. Hunt once told this writer that Associate Justice Blackmun told him that if a well funded class action law suit involving a large number of local churches with superb legal counsel ever challenged the trust clause, he feared its survival. His logic was that the jury would hear questions asked such as, “Who bought or was given this property originally – the local church or the annual conference?” and “Who has maintained the property,” and “Who has insured the property?” and “Who has paid the church’s budget including the compensation of pastors?” To these and similar lines of logic, the answers in most instances would be “the local church.” Only churches that were organized by the annual conference “congregational development” funds would have different answers.

Then, Blackmun said to Bishop Hunt, “It will then go to the jury, most of whom will not be Methodists.” Catholics and some Presbyterians and Lutherans might understand “connectional property ownership,” but many would be from churches of congregational polity or from no church membership. The question must then be posed, “What would be the jury’s verdict?”

Still another troubling issue exists. In the event an annual conference forbade a local church to claim ownership of real property as it left the communion of United Methodism, “What if the church has a substantial indebtedness?” Would the annual conference have the fiscal reserves to assume responsibility for amortizing that debt?

What would be the ethical dimension of the conference’s seizing the local church property and subsequently selling it to a religious institution whose doctrines were far afield from the grace theology of United Methodism? Does an annual conference have any moral responsibility to a community whose people have cherished a Wesleyan witness for generations?

Does not the conference Board of Trustees have an obligation to let the plenary session of annual conference vote on the sale of local properties?  Ethically, if property has been purchased and maintained by the local congregation; if the church has paid its apportioned funds; and if the local church has loyally paid the fiscal compensation for the pastors sent by the conference; should that not constitute de facto local church ownership of the property? If not, where in such action would one see our esteemed grace theology on the part of the annual conference? Where is the social justice in sale of property honored for generations as a place where “the Word of God has been preached and the sacraments duly administered” in keeping with the requirements of Wesley’s trust clause?

In the sad event of ecclesiastical division, some document such as the 1844 “Plan of Separation” would logically be drawn and adopted by the same session of the General Conference that saw the departure of jurisdictions, annual conferences, or local churches. Would entire annual conferences vote to “stay or leave? Would every local church have the option of remaining with the General Conference majority? Or, if they dissented from the GC majority vote on the prevailing motion, could they “take their property” as the southern churches were allowed to do in 1844?

Dr. Steve Harper’s recent book, For the Sake of the Bride, calls for reconciliation rather than division of the UM Church over the issues related to homosexuality and gay marriage. He writes, “It is time to release ourselves from the grip of decades-old controversy,…when the old default button of schisms (even when called an ‘amicable separation’) is thought to be the best we can come up with. One of my major points in this book is that this kind of thinking is driven, in part, by our unwillingness to gather at the round table, where some other option might be given to us by the Holy Spirit.”

I agree with Harper in principle. The Rev. Walter Fenton, writing in the May/June 2015 issue of Good News, disagrees with Harper’s reasoning, calling it impractical. He calls Harper’s prescriptions “pious platitudes.”

Fenton quotes Dr. Maxie Dunnam as “raising” the question of “amicable separation” in the spring of 2014. Fenton asks, “Is the church so frail and fragile that it cannot, after nearly 50 years of debate, even consider a plan of separation?”

My own opinion is that the next General Conference will, in Shakespeare’s language regarding Caesar’s army marching from Gaul to Rome, “cross the Rubicon.” If that occurs, and we must “think alike to love alike,” then, schism may come. If that happens, “Katy bar the door.”

Donald W. Haynes is a retired United Methodist clergyperson, former writer of “Wesleyan Wisdom,” author of On The Threshold of Grace – Methodist Fundamentals, and adjunct faculty in Wesleyan Studies at Hood Theological Seminary.


  1. The congregation from prior to, in1882 when our church was built and the congregations following 1882 paid to have our Church built. For the last 135 years we have maintained by the property; we have paid our apportionment’s (most years in full); and we have loyally paid the fiscal compensation for the pastors sent by the conference. Any monies or property donated were donated to The EAST QUOGUE united methodist CHURCH; therefore I feel that constitutes de facto local church ownership of the property. I feel we have the right to dispose of all or part of the property, refurbish as we see fit, and even become an independent church if we thought that was the best way to follow Jesus. We have adhered to the UMC Discipline because we allowed them to “own the Pulpit”, however we could disallow that ownership also. My words do not means that we intend to change our designated domination we chose prior to 1882, they just mean I feel that the right to change is our local congregation choice only!

  2. Sonja LeVan says

    The Church building belongs to the Local Congregation because the higher ups have broken the contract with Evangelical United Methodists…by not preaching the True Word of God…..they have twisted God’s word and used portions of verses to support the demented belief that the LGBTQ is just in being a part of the denomination and that being gay or homosexual is not a sin…..The word has been changed and added to which is a direct violation of God’s Word…..So the contract has been broken by the Conference!……THE TRUST HAS BEEN BROKEN BY THE CONFERENCE…Therefore VOID!!!!!…Depending on what happens at the 2016 Conference…..Evangelical United Methodists are ready to go as a group of church’s to Conference and fight for our churches in court….Is the conference ready to fight Groups of churches in Court…..I think not!!!!

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