Conferences Play Hardball with Exiting Churches

First United Methodist Church, Louisville, Mississippi.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

Much has been made of the ability of congregations to leave The United Methodist Church with their property through a negotiated settlement with their annual conference. Some bishops are saying that the Book of Discipline already provides an exit path for congregations desiring to leave, and that no further provisions for exit are needed. (For Discipline nerds, they are referring to ¶ 2548.2, which allows an annual conference to instruct local church trustees to deed church property to an “evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement.”)

Some point to the example of two large churches in Mississippi and one in Eastern Pennsylvania that were able to negotiate withdrawal for the payment of one year’s apportionments. What all three churches had in common was a high level of debt, which the annual conference was unable financially to assume. The annual conference then had basically no choice but to allow the congregations to leave with their buildings.

Recent events have shown that such a “gracious exit” will not be allowed for most churches seeking to leave the denomination under current rules, particularly if they are a typical, average-sized congregation.

First United Methodist Church of Louisville, Mississippi, voted in March by a margin of 175-6 to leave the denomination. In May, the conference announced it was going to keep the church buildings and appoint a new pastor to preserve a congregation in Louisville. As a result, the congregation has sued the conference and won a temporary restraining order to keep doing ministry in the building. The dispute will now go through a court process to determine whether the congregation can keep its building while departing from the denomination. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Mike Childs, has a long record of effective service and was a current General Conference delegate. He has now surrendered his credentials. The fate of the Bevil Hills UM Church, yoked with Louisville First, has not yet been determined. That congregation’s 22 members voted unanimously to leave the denomination.

In an even more egregious example, Oakland United Methodist Church inCharles Town, West Virginia, voted in April by a margin of 81-16 to begin the process to leave the denomination. They sought negotiations with the Baltimore-Washington Conference of which they are a part. Instead, a district superintendent showed up unannounced in worship on Easter Sunday and demanded to read a letter from the bishop to the congregation rebuking them for their desire to leave, according to the co-pastor, the Rev. JoAnne Alexander. (Alexander is married to the Rev. Mike Tice and they serve the church as pastors together, although Tice was the only one appointed to the church.) One can only imagine the impact such a letter had on the celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the many visitors in the congregation who knew nothing of what was going on. So much for pastoral sensitivity on the part of the annual conference.

According to Alexander, the week after Easter, all of the church council members received a letter from the conference chancellor (lawyer) reminding them that the church property is held in trust for The United Methodist Church, that congregations are not free to leave, and that the annual conference “stands ready to take all appropriate steps, including the prosecution of civil judicial proceedings, to ensure that those principles are honored by all local church officers.” (Perspective was provided a copy of the letter.) The members of the church council read this letter to be a threat to sue them individually for their action to allow the congregation to begin a process to leave the denomination.

In early May, the bishop called Tice in for a meeting, stating that if he did not show up at the assigned time, he would be removed as pastor. Alexander told Perspective that Tice was accompanied by another elder who was not allowed to speak in the meeting. During the meeting Tice was summarily removed from his appointment and forbidden from setting foot inside the church building without the district superintendent being present. (Tice had retired earlier this year and hoped to serve in retirement until after the 2019 General Conference determined the future direction of the church.)

Oakland United Methodist Church, Charles Town, WV

By the time that Tice had driven back to his home, the locks on the church were already being changed by the conference, and all leaders and members of the church were locked out of the building. According to Alexander, no one was allowed to remove any personal property. They were informed that the district superintendent would decide what items they were allowed to take out of the church, including many items made by church members for use in the church and the pastor’s personal property. Previously scheduled ministry events, including a regular Friday evening community dinner, had to be canceled.

Tice and Alexander (also an ordained elder), have served in ministry at the Oakland UM Church for 32 years. When Alexander began at the church, it had an attendance of 17. Before the recent conflict, attendance had risen to 250. However, in the last several years a number of families had left the church in response to the Frank Schaefer trial (where a United Methodist clergyperson was defrocked for performing a same-sex wedding, but then reinstated on appeal) and the fallout from the 2016 General Conference. The church building had been literally built by the parishioners themselves, but has now been taken from them.

The congregation, now called Oakland Community Church, has declined to sue the conference to keep its building. They believe it is more important to move on in ministry to the community. Its first worship service was at a funeral home, and nearly 100 people attended. Fittingly, the last article posted (from December) on the church’s United Methodist website was entitled, “True Love Means Sacrifice.”

These two examples demonstrate the need for a prescribed exit path in the Book of Discipline for congregations (whether liberal or conservative) who cannot in good conscience remain in The United Methodist Church. We simply cannot trust that the bishops and annual conferences will provide a way at all, let alone a gracious way, for churches that want to leave to keep their buildings and property.

It seems fair and reasonable to require congregations to pay their fair share of unfunded pension liabilities, since these liabilities are the result of the pastors who served each church down through the years. But it is unjust and unacceptable for annual conferences to hold congregations hostage to their buildings in order to force them to compromise their consciences.

That approach is morally questionable and it will only precipitate numerous legal conflicts that burn up millions of dollars that should be going toward the mission of the church. These heavy-handed tactics are symptomatic of a heart at war, not a heart of peace. And they demonstrate church leaders saying one thing, but doing another. It’s a good way to tear down what little trust remains in a denomination about to come apart at the seams. 

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

Comments

  1. James Wilson says:

    Until tthe language of tyhe book of dicipline is officially changed it is the duty of the officials to see that it is upheld.. They failed miserably to do that. Breach of Contract pure and simple. They are the ones who broke the agreement. They have no right to keep they property of the individual churches.

  2. The bishops will hold on to the churches at any cost because income from local churches is their source of power. Unless scared at losing their power they will not change. The church ducked making the moral choice of banning slavery in 1840, only after a number of churches left after the 1836 AC did not take a stand on slavery. Thus was born the Wesleyan church and the lose of churches scared the church into finally banning bishops who owned slaves. Money and power is what they understand and until they believe their stands will cost them money, they will not change.

  3. Bill Fitzgerrel says:

    My experience is very minor compared to the ones in the article. Our annual conference (Great Plains) scheduled an event the afternoon before Conference was due to begin. This was to be a “listening event,” also labeled a “town hall type meeting.” Actually it consisted of a brief liturgy and then an extended lecture by Bishop Saenz. This was, I thought, fairly balanced. He was forthright in saying the One Church model was favored by the bishops. He did describe the other models. He gave opportunity for us to discuss with our neighbors, briefly, throughout the presentation. On the day before, we were emailed and told that we could submit questions by email that would be addressed. So, I submitted a question that went something like this: “Will the models presented for consideration to General Conference include a ‘gracious exit’ provision? If they do not, will it be possible for such a provision be offered as a stand-alone provision?” I identified myself clearly at the end of the question. The next day, at the end of the bishop’s presentation he went through the questions. He said he omitted “questions” that were really comments. I noted that my question was not listed. I wondered if it was considered to be divisive.

    • Gary Starr says:

      Let me add my perspective of what happened at the Virginia Conference to help you with your perspective. A resolution to encourage the general conference to consider a “gracious exit”. During the resolution time, the Bishop informed the conference that resolution 6 was deemed unconstitutional and would not be considered. The writers said they would remove the portion that was unconstitutional. The next day in during closing business the writers again, presented a motion for a gracious exit. I had taken an hour to put on paper my argument for the motion, in support of my congregation, which has faithfully contributed to their building over the past 60 years. I don’t even know that they would vote to leave the conference, but its only right for them not to be coerced against their conscience. Before I could be called on, the motion was tabled. As I thought about it, I found it very interesting that with all of the parliamentary rule following, that the conference would not screen a resolution before it was placed in the book of reports so that the authors could correct it prior to annual conference. Especially when we voted on at least five errata sheets. I am a recent lay representative to the conference, so I do not understand all of the procedures. But what is beginning to stand out, is as another post stated the “One Church” plan preserves the current financial structure. In our conference over 50% of our budget goes to the pension plan. I am a retired military officer, so I fully understand the desire to protect one’s pension. But I was truly disheartened. I apologize if I’ve offended any clergy on this site, but its only right that the laymen’s financial interest in their church buildings be respected if they choose to exit the conference.

      • Bill Fitzgerrel says:

        Thanks for sharing your experience. The UMC requires all churches to have a “trust clause” in their deeds. This means that a local church that leaves the denomination may not keep their property. It was originally designed to prevent renegade groups from taking over a local church and teaching doctrines and polity contrary to the Discipline. In the current controversy, that rationale has become moot. For example, if progressives were to “win” in 2019, and if a conservative congregation left the denomination, the conservative congregation would be in conformance with the present Discipline and the progressives would be in defiance of it. So, why should the property stay with the group that is in disobedience of the historic doctrines and polities of the denomination? Rather than fight all that out, it makes more sense to suspend the trust clause provision and let people take their property if they leave, no matter which “side” they are on.

  4. “Rather than fight all that out, it makes more sense to suspend the trust clause provision and let people tale their property..” That makes the most sense to me.
    The notion of owning emptying buildings is short sighted. In today’s environment, buildings are easy to find. To claim Congregations are not free to leave is shortsighted. Once nobody shows up for church collections are gone also.

  5. Carolyn says:

    If there are no members in attendance, the church can keep the debt and hope to re-populate the church. What a lack of Christian values and behavior. Disgusting.

    • There would be no “re-populating” buildings. Some of them would be the object of a fire sale to a independent congregation.

  6. I am not interested in freedom without responsibility and the resulting promiscuity and diseases and oppression that accompany the politically correct, sexually promiscuity of liberal morality. Instead, I’ll follow my Lord, who calls all to repentance (Acts 17:30), myself included. It is a shame that the Methodist denomination has refused to embrace all opinions at the table resulting in ostracizing those that would take of their time to voice how they feel differently. Call me what you will but I refuse to give in to believing my Bible is less than what it is. Giving that I must adhere to its direction and instructions ie; Psalms 66:18, Romans 1:26-28 I will pray you will do the same instead of turning a blind eye. I do not believe in “the way forward” as it is outlined currently nor do I believe in not following the path already outline in the book of discipline.

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