What Separation Means for U.S. Churches

General Conference 2019. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

By Tom Lambrecht –

The legislation that would implement the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation has been completed. It has been sent for formatting and will be forwarded to several annual conferences that are supposed to have special sessions in order to adopt the legislation and submit it to General Conference. Those sessions need to occur before the middle of March, so that the legislation can be submitted before the 45-day deadline prior to General Conference.

As the legislation is released publicly, probably within the next week, more details will be available as to how separation would work under the Protocol. Future articles will address various aspects of the Protocol plan in coming weeks. This article will look at how separation might affect churches in the United States. Note that nothing has been decided or will become final until General Conference takes action on these proposals in May. The delegates may choose to change some provisions of the Protocol Plan (although the mediation team hopes that it remains relatively intact as it is).

Annual Conference Action

The first decision regarding how churches will align, whether with a New Methodist Denomination or with the continuing United Methodist Church, will be made in some annual conferences. The Protocol requires a 57 percent vote by an annual conference in order to align with a New Methodist Denomination. If the conference does not vote (a vote is not required) or does not achieve 57 percent, it will remain in the post-separation United Methodist Church.

In order to be eligible for annual conferences and local churches to vote to align with a New Methodist Denomination, a leadership group that is promoting such a denomination must register with the Council of Bishops prior to May 15, 2021. The leaders of a New Traditionalist Methodist Denomination will be ready to register on the day General Conference adjourns (May 15, 2020), so that annual conferences and local churches can consider aligning with that traditionalist denomination very soon.

There is a reasonable chance that up to a dozen U.S. annual conferences could achieve a 57 percent vote to align with a New Traditionalist Methodist Denomination. There might be a few annual conferences that could achieve a 57 percent vote to align with a New Progressive Methodist Denomination, but that is less likely. A number of annual conferences have already tentatively scheduled special one-day sessions of annual conference to consider a vote on alignment. Since nearly all U.S. annual conferences meet within six weeks of the adjournment of General Conference, it would be wise to postpone the annual conference’s decision on this important matter until later in the summer or fall, in order to give members a chance to learn about the options and carefully consider their decision.

An annual conference must take a vote where a motion to take such a vote receives the support of at least 20 percent of the annual conference members. Alternatively, an annual conference can decide to take a vote by its own normal processes. Where an annual conference is clearly not going to achieve a 57 percent vote to align with a New Methodist Denomination, it does not make sense to push for a vote of the annual conference. That would only foster divisiveness and hard feelings to no purpose. Annual conferences in the U.S. have until June 30, 2021, to take a vote. Otherwise, they will remain in the post-separation United Methodist Church.

All annual conference property, assets, and liabilities would go with that annual conference into the new denomination. This includes all local churches within that annual conference, unless a church votes to remain in the post-separation United Methodist Church or align with a different New Methodist Denomination. The only local churches that would need to vote are those that disagree with the alignment decision (whether by vote or by default) of their annual conference.

Local Church Action

Local churches in the U.S. can begin voting on alignment by late summer of this year. They do not have to wait until their annual conference has voted. Where an annual conference will likely remain part of the post-separation United Methodist Church, a local church in that conference need not wait until the June 30, 2021, deadline has passed in order to take a vote to align with a New Methodist Denomination. Where an annual conference has a reasonable chance of achieving the 57 percent margin to align with a New Methodist Denomination, local churches ought to wait until after the annual conference has voted before they take a local vote. If the annual conference aligns the way the local church would, the local church then would not need to take a vote. And that local church’s representatives at annual conference would be needed to reach the 57 percent.

The local church decision would be made by a meeting of the church conference, which includes all professing members present and voting (no absentee ballots). The district superintendent must call such a church conference within 60 days of a request by the pastor or the church council (or equivalent leadership body). The church council would need to decide ahead of time whether the margin for a decision to align differently from the annual conference would require a simple majority or a two-thirds vote, based on that local church’s context. If the highest value in that local church is unity, it might choose a two-thirds vote. If the highest value is honoring the convictions of the majority of the congregation, it might choose a simple majority vote.

If a local church votes to align with a New Methodist Denomination, it would take its property, assets, and liabilities with it into the new denomination. The local church’s share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities would be transferred to the new denomination. The local church would not need to make any payments in order to align with a new denomination. Representatives of the local church and the annual conference would need to negotiate and sign a Separation Agreement that cares for the legal details, including the release of the trust clause. Terms of such an agreement would be strictly limited to impose no financial or other barrier to realignment.

Under the Protocol Plan, the earliest an annual conference or local church could effectively move into the new denomination would be January 1, 2021. Until then, local churches are expected to continue paying their apportionments and other obligations (pension, health benefits, etc.) to their current annual conference. As a matter of integrity, such payments should continue, since there would no longer be a need to use apportionments as a tool to leverage a desired outcome (for either side). On the agreed Separation Date, the local church would no longer pay apportionments to their UM annual conference and would begin paying apportionments at the level set by their new denomination.

Local churches would have until December 31, 2024, to take a vote on aligning with a New Methodist Denomination.

Churches that Become Independent

The Protocol Plan also contains provisions allowing local churches to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and become independent, not aligning with any New Methodist Denomination. These provisions are necessary because ¶ 2553 passed by the St. Louis General Conference last February is being challenged due to voting irregularities.

The provisions for churches to become independent are similar to what was passed in ¶ 2553. Such a decision would require a two-thirds vote of the church conference (all professing members present and voting). The local church would keep its property, assets, and liabilities. The local church would have to be current on the previous 12 months’ apportionments and pay an additional 12 months’ apportionments. It would also have to pay its share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities, an amount that can run anywhere from roughly three to six times their annual apportionment. Pension provisions adopted in St. Louis provide for the possibility of a payment plan for these liabilities.

Obviously, it is better financially for churches to align with a New Methodist Denomination than to become independent. However, churches should not believe that they could align with a new denomination and then change to become independent without paying anything. The new denominations will have provisions requiring at least the recovery of the church’s share of unfunded pension liabilities before allowing a church to exit and become independent.

Local churches would have until December 31, 2024, to vote to become independent.

Questions?

This article gives the basics of what the separation process would be in the U.S. There may well be additional questions that are not answered here. I invite you to send your questions via reply email, and I will try to address them in a future article.

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

Comments

  1. Debbie Bell says

    What happens with the Pastors of the new traditional Methodist church? Seems this puts them in a precarious position.

  2. Thomas E Thies says

    What provisions will be made for transfer of ordination if so desired?

  3. “Where an annual conference is clearly not going to achieve a 57 percent vote to align with a New Methodist Denomination, it does not make sense to push for a vote of the annual conference. That would only foster divisiveness and hard feelings to no purpose. ”

    I disagree. The hard feelings are already there so this really would not increase those at all. It would however, serve to send a signal to the traditional churches in a progressive conference that they are not alone and might serve as an organizational catalyst.

    At what point do the ordained clergy make their choices? If a pastor is going in a different direction from the congregation this is something everyone needs to understand.

    • The 2nd paragraph of Kevin’s post above is a great and incredibly important point.

      Evangelicals have quite simply erred in going overboard, beyond the totality of scripture, in gentility and graciousness over the past 50 years. “Turn the other cheek” was spoken in the context of relationships within the body of Christ, with our brothers/sisters in faith – not in the context of resistance to evil and clarity of doctrine. We do understand this, correct?

      • Dave,
        Yes, traditionalists have been taken to the cleaners these past 50 years. Each concession granted resulted in another demand as we evolved into unparalleled pretentiousness. We became a pretend church. We held General Conferences, passed legislation, wrote said legislation into our Book of Discipline, then pretended the Book of Discipline was our law book —- especially with relation to sexual ethics, marriage, and ordination standards. The concessions bucket is now completely empty as pretentiousness has run its course while the demands bucket is still not full because of continuing, endless demands. No, the stark reality of this schism —- misplaced grace, erroneous neighborly love, the turning of the other cheek while compromising of the faith, practicing the Golden Rule as a means of going along to get along minus defending the Word of God, adhering to Christian doctrine, and maintaining church discipline backfired.

  4. Steven Swenson says

    Steve Swenson says:
    I have not seen any info about pastors, whether they are ordained elders or Licensed Local Pastors and what they need to do to stay or go.

  5. Jeffrey Parker says

    How and when will the progressives change marriage definitions etc. in the Discipline?

    It appears that traditionalists must support, finance and worship in a denomination that has embraced the progressive culture for anywhere between 7 months to 4 years while waiting for a path out of their exile. Is that a reasonable supposition? If not please explain.

    Thanks & Blessings
    Jeff

  6. David Miller says

    What happens to laity trapped in Progressive Conferences? I am in the New York Annual Conference and it will vote to remain. Most Congregations will not vote to leave. What happens to Traditionalist members then? I surely feel like a soldier at Bataan. Left behind to fend for myself. Not good.

    • That is going to happen all over the country. Not pleasant to think about. You will have to live with what your church does or walk away. Maybe something new and fulfilling will spring up. We can only pray and hope.

  7. Posted on the UMC North Georgia Conference website (below). This conference is under a liberal bishop. She controls the messaging. This description of the Protocol Plan follows the usual and customary tactic of communication —- DECEPTION (my other choice words here would be censored)

    As a member in this conference, I am infuriated with POINT #2, one of the “clarifying points”. POINT #3 is beyond reproach in trivializing the convictions of “those”.

    Please offer me any feedback. Am I overacting to that statement and what it is attempting to communicate? If this is the opening salvo, this bishop and her cabinet will be doing everything at their disposal to keep this conference affiliated with the UMC if this plan passes. It will not be a fair and equitable process in North Georgia.

    SOS to the Wesleyan Covenant Association – all the aid that can possibly be mustered will be needed here to aid the traditionalists in getting the TRUTH out.

    ————————————————————————————

    MESSAGE FROM DISTRICT SUPERINTENDENTS ON THE PROTOCOL OF RECONCILIATION AND GRACE THROUGH SEPARATION
    1/16/2020

    North Georgia Conference’s appointive cabinet met this week and discussed the recently-released Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. They shared the following message from their time together:

    A diverse group of 16 United Methodist leaders from around the world has collaborated on a proposed path forward for The United Methodist Church that has the unanimous support of all the parties involved. The agreement is the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.

    On Monday, the North Georgia Cabinet and Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson watched a live stream broadcast of a panel interview with the participants in the mediation process who developed the Protocol. Afterward, we discussed the importance of this document, what the Protocol means to us here in North Georgia, and the widespread misinformation we have encountered. We offer you the following clarifying points from our discussion.

    1. The participants in the mediation represent centrist, progressive, and traditionalist perspectives, and come from the United States, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines. These leaders came to unanimous agreement on the Protocol.

    2. This Protocol offers a path for The United Methodist Church to continue to be a denomination for those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives. The post-separation United Methodist Church will continue to have room for divergent perspectives and value diversity as an essential component of our faith.

    3. The Protocol also offers a path to separate for those whose convictions do not allow them to continue to be United Methodist.

    4. The mediation participants are now developing legislation that mirrors the Protocol. This legislation will be considered in May by the 2020 General Conference. It is expected that this legislation will be considered ahead of all other legislation.

    5. What we hold in common, above all else, is our call to reach those who do not yet know Christ’s love.

    • Feedback: You are not overreacting, and likely correct in your conclusions. Point 2: “We value diversity as an essential component of our faith” is a dead giveaway setting up Point 3, which essentially says if you don’t want to be part of a church that doesn’t even exercise judgment in who qualifies for leadership, you are not part of the faith and you should be ashamed, heathen bigot!
      Counterpoints are United means sharing the same faith and agreeing on purpose, and diversity past the purposes of Gal. 3:28 and Gen. 1:20 in some ways makes that impossible. Anti-discrimination is another religious tenet of the sect that holds diversity as a tenet. Behavioral discrimination, really qualification, is an imperative of the entire Bible for leadership. People who believe it is essential to come out from under leadership with different faith touchstones lest they participate in her sins are not bigots in any way.

  8. With the spreading of the coronavirus, what if a Travel Ban interferes with out-of-country General Conference delegates coming to the US? What happens, then, to the proceedings and Protocol?

  9. A key aspect of the Protocol should have been a mandated vote by every congregation on this issue. Leaving the initial decision to delegates at Annual Conferences may not be representative of the greater community. The delegate selection processes in the UMC tend to lean heavily progressive in some ares, meaning traditional minded churches may not have voice at all.

    This sets up many church congregations for a confrontational internal conflict with church leadership, district superintendents and the conference. There will be very little “peace” in this scenario.

    The Wesleyan Covenant Association would be wise to insist that every congregation be required to vote by a prescribed date would prevent allot of pain and adversity later … it also would ensure the Protocol of Separation is done so in the open and in all fairness.

    • Here’s another idea. To ensure a truly democratic vote by the annual conference, have every congregation vote (a total tally of each congregation’s members who are present and vote) to determine which future denomination the local churches want their Annual Conference to join.

      For example, if a local UM church has 87 members vote traditional and 45 members vote progressive, those votes are sent in to the Annual conference as part of the total conference vote. This would be pure democracy in the Annual Conference, rather than the skewed (very progressive) outcomes we get now when clergy get half of the votes in the A.C. while local churches only get one vote, no matter how many members they have.

      Then, after the churches have all voted, if the Annual Conference is going one way (say traditional), and a local church realizes it voted “majority progressive”, it could take another vote to leave that A.C. and join the progressive church.

      I suspect we would see some very different outcomes in our Annual Conferences if we allowed ALL the laity (present at a called charge conference meeting) to vote!

      • I believe we will all vote. It’s just that some of us will vote with our feet. I just hope there’s a way going forward so that anyone can know when they consider a Methodist church which way its doctrine goes before they attend. The new name for the Traditional Methodists will help

      • To Which Methodist Denomination Do You Wish To Belong?
        Please Check ✔️ One

        ——— A Progressive Denomination

        1. LGBTQ people welcomed into full-inclusion and their committed sexual relationships affirmed, thus freeing them from the call of repentance for the forgiveness of what was previously considered sins —- a revised understanding of love and grace derived from new, progressive perspective , contextual, and evolving Biblical interpretations — while having an undefined position regarding the sexual practices and lifestyles of the heterosexual community outside those of heterosexual marriage.

        2. Believe in a new understanding of marriage to include same-sex marriage derived from new, progressive perspective, contextual Biblical interpretations, and the offering of said marriage ceremonies inside the sanctuaries of the church conducted by the clergy at their discretion.

        3. Full inclusion of LGBTQ candidates seeking licensing and ordination into the ministry who are in committed LGBTQ sexual relationships while having an undefined position for heterosexual candidates engaged in committed sexual relationships outside those of heterosexual marriage.

        ———- A Traditional Denomination

        1. LGBTQ people and heterosexual people equally welcomed into full-inclusion (Wesleyan Prevenient Grace) in order to partake of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, including the sins of sexual immorality, and be recipients of salvation preached in Jesus’ name (Wesleyan Justifying Grace), thus becoming anew or born again in Jesus in order to pursue, with the help of the Holy Spirit, holiness (Wesleyan Sanctifying Grace) — the historic, universal, and Wesleyan Christian understanding of the Good News Gospel.

        2. Believe in God’s created order for marriage as only that between a man and a woman as Jesus described and emphasized when he said, “haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female — for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate”.

        3. Believe in the traditional, historic, universal, and Wesleyan Biblical standards of sexual behavior for candidates seeking licensing and ordination into the ministry as those practicing fidelity in heterosexual marriage and celibacy in singleness.

    • Agree, every charge should have to vote. And all sides of the discussion should be presented fairly, and be individuals well qualified to discuss the traditional, centrist and progressive view points, without be ing derogatory to the other view points. Known as an adult discussion.

      • The affirmation of homosexuality as anything other than sinful rebellion, along with homosexual marriage, ordination, and worst of all – adoption of children – are not view points, and cannot be discussed in the Church in anything but a derogatory context. These things can only be discussed or presented in the contexts of (a) repentance, or (b) discipline. I’m sorry.

  10. Richard Sheesley says

    Could someone please help me to understand what happens to a church that doesn’t vote? Is the “post-separation” church part of the current “traditionalist” structure? I guess the question is which group, traditionalists or progressives, are retaining control of the current UMC? Thanks.
    Quote from article above: “If the conference does not vote (a vote is not required) or does not achieve 57 percent, it will remain in the post-separation United Methodist Church.”

    • Michael McInnis says

      Richard,

      You’re on the right track. The choice NOT to take a vote by an Annual Conference means they would stay in the “Post Separation” (“PS” or progressive/liberal) United Methodist Church.

      If an Annual Conference decides NOT to vote, then local churches can vote if they want to leave and join the new traditionalist denomination.

      There’s a great deal of “sausage making” that still has to occur at General Conference in May – we have no guarantee yet that the Protocol is going to pass in some form similar to what it contains right now.

      The African delegates hold the key to our future, and no one can yet predict what they will decide to support, since same-sex marriage and homosexual ordination is not “their” issue (since in most African nations it is illegal to practice homosexuality, let alone have a same-sex marriage).

      If they want to keep the denomination together for another 4-8 years until they have complete control (through a growing number of delegates from their growing part of the church – while the U.S. church continues to shrink and lose delegates), they can do that…but it will mean ongoing bloody fighting between U.S. progressives and traditionalists because nothing here will have changed.

      It’s going to get real interesting in May…

  11. Richard Sheesley says

    I agree with the above writers that the Traditionalists should not have to bear the burden of the separation. The Progressives are violating scripture. I can’t imagine conservative “sheep” in the congregation going against a progressive pastor. I think they will just leave the church. I wish, and hope, that the controlling bodies in the UMC will take decisive action to encourage the progressives to go ahead and leave the church. But I understand that the emotional “cost” would be very high. To hold people and churches accountable after this much water under the bridge is very difficult. It has been said that it is easier to birth a new baby than raise the dead (something like that). It seems to be the current path. One advantage would be the review and clean out of dead wood and practices.

  12. Joseph Stains says

    The 57% benchmark for Annual Conferences (and the much higher 67% benchmark for central conferences!) must be revised. Every Annual conference needs to be able to claim with integrity its own center of gravity.

    Suppose an Annual Conference has a clear 55% majority. It then becomes hostage to a minority vote for its future identity and ethical framework going forward. This is clearly a bad idea.

    The 57% benchmark did not come from any divine wisdom. It was a splitting of difference between two sides in a closed environment when the clock ran out for the group.

    The 16 members of the protocol group covenanted to support every outcome unanimously, and to call for absolute endorsement of every point of the protocol by the general church, projecting visions of miserable chaos at General Conference if even a single point of the protocol is compromised. The protocol group has the right to set its own internal ground rules. It does not have the moral right to insist on those ground rules, in whole or in part, upon the governing body of our church, by conjuring visions of disaster with anything less than full compliance.

    This is manipulative leveraging, and disrespectful of the purpose and responsibility of General Conference.

    Our delegates are entrusted with the management of inflowing recommendations, the perfecting of proposals. They deserve our prayerful support in discerning what is right, just, and faithful.

  13. Richard Sheesley says

    As I continue to think and pray through this issue I think the homosexual issue is just the “straw that broke the camels back”. The issue is real but the true question is whether people will honor God and the truth He has communicated in the Bible. The Traditionalists/Conservatives are attempting to stay true to scripture and a faithful following of God from a pattern established two thousand plus years ago. The Progressive/Liberals seem to want to make Christianity what feels good in their own minds. The way of faithfulness is well documented and established. The way of progressives leads down a familiar path where increasing and additional separation from God and His truth becomes entrenched. It would seem the homosexual issue would lead into support for abortion, a movement away from the inerrancy of scripture, etc. in a downward spiral.

  14. The Book if Discipline specifies the UMC standards for homosexual practice. As all know, it has not been enforced. Was Petition 90041 the method attempted to establish the procedure for accountability and the means to begin the enforcement? If I understand correctly, it was not passed into policy. Do you know if there is a defined method/process in place (or at least in planning) to begin action to separate progressives from the UMC (with or against their will)?

  15. Dear Tom,

    Will there be a guide for a Separation Agreement for congregations with Annual Conferences, if the Protocol passes? If so, how would that be shared?

    • Gene Samuel says

      Dear Bryan,

      I had the same question. Tom shared with me the following:
      “Hi, Gene. The GCFA and the annual conference will prepare the Separation Agreement in negotiations with the local church. The LC won’t need to draw up a Separation Agreement by itself.”

      Hope this helps,
      Gene

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