Thinking Through a Split

By Thomas Lambrecht –

The recently announced separation plan called the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” has aroused many reactions in and beyond the church. Some are satisfied and even hopeful that the long-running conflict in our church can finally be over and traditional and evangelical United Methodists will be free to pursue ministry without being hampered by discord or a dysfunctional denominational structure. Local churches will get to keep their buildings, property, and assets and will need to make no extra payments to move into the new traditionalist Methodist denomination.

Others are upset and angry over provisions of the agreement they believe are unfair. We have heard the criticisms of the plan. We understand them. Many of them are legitimate. Clearly, there are several unfair provisions.

The most common criticism I have heard of the agreement is that traditionalists are leaving The United Methodist Church, rather than it being an equal separation. The follow-up comment is that since traditionalists “won” the vote in the St. Louis special General Conference in 2019, it should be those who want to change the church who have to leave and start a new denomination, not those who want to maintain the current doctrine and discipline of the church.

This is a perfectly valid point. In an ideal and just world, those who want to change the church’s understanding of marriage and ordination would leave and those who want to keep the church’s long-standing teachings could remain. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect or just world.

This agreement did not come down from God on Mt. Sinai like the Ten Commandments. It is a negotiated agreement worked out between factions in the church that deeply disagree with one another and do not trust one another. Separation within The United Methodist Church has taken place over the last several decades; it has been brewing under the surface. The fact that there is an agreement at all is astounding and a testament to the dedication of the participants and the perseverance of the mediator.

In negotiated settlements, it is not what is right or fair that determines the outcome, but what is possible. This agreement is the best possible agreement that could be reached and is preferable to all other likely alternatives.

What happened in 2019? At the 2019 General Conference, traditionalists made a good-faith effort to bring about unity in the church through compliance with the Book of Discipline, the governing document of the church. It maintained the current teaching and standards of the church, while attempting to increase accountability of bishops and clergy to live by those standards.

Since February 2019, it has become readily apparent that this attempt at unity through compliance did not work. More than half the annual conferences in the U.S. declared their opposition to the provisions enacted in the Traditional Plan. A number of annual conferences and bishops have declared that they will not abide by the provisions of the Discipline. The Greater New Jersey Annual Conference is even trying to write its own Book of Discipline!

This widespread disarray indicates that the church cannot achieve unity through compliance. The gate-keepers on enforcing the Discipline are the bishops. If some bishops are unwilling to enforce the Discipline and plan to simply ignore its requirements, there is nothing the larger church can do about it. The accountability process for bishops envisioned in the Traditional Plan was ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. The accountability process proposed by Bishop Scott Jones and others that relies upon the Council of Bishops to hold other bishops accountable depends upon having a majority of the Council willing to exercise that accountability. At this point, and into the foreseeable future, the majority of the Council favors changing the church’s requirements and will decline to hold colleague bishops accountable.

Since unity through compliance is not possible, and unity through allowing for “local option” (each annual conference and local church making its own rules about marriage and ordination) does not have the votes to pass General Conference, the only apparent way to resolve the conflict is some form of separation. The recent agreement recognizes this fact and provides a way for the church to go in two different directions. We should not discount the fact that, for the first time, some of our leading bishops and other church leaders have finally acknowledged that separation is the only viable way forward for the church.

How to Separate. The fairest way to separate would be to dissolve The United Methodist Church and create two or more new denominations with new names. Such an approach is unworkable because it requires changes to the constitution, which needs a two-thirds vote at General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members (which could take up to two years). Most self-described centrists and progressives are against dissolving the church, as are many Africans and Europeans. Dissolving the church and starting over would most likely not reach even a majority vote, let alone the two-thirds vote required.

So any form of separation that General Conference adopts will have to have a continuing United Methodist Church and a group or groups that form something new. The closest to an equal plan of separation under this precondition is the Indianapolis Plan. However, that plan did not resolve the contentious issue of a division of assets. Furthermore, it encountered fierce opposition from key leaders in the centrist camp, who believe it comes too close to dissolving the denomination. To pass the Indianapolis Plan would require a major fight at General Conference, which could degenerate into a repeat of the vitriol of St. Louis. And its passage is by no means certain, as the margin for traditionalists is projected to be very slim.

The leaders of the Renewal and Reform Coalition decided that it would be better to support a plan that is less fair, but promised a definitive end to the conflict, was much more certain to pass, and would give traditionalists a way to separate while keeping their buildings and property.

Throughout the last year, many progressives and centrists have vowed not to leave the church, but to stay and continue to fight to change the church’s teachings and standards. It is true that a few very progressive annual conferences and a few high-profile progressive leaders have announced plans to prepare to possibly leave the denomination. But the vast majority would stay, and the fight would continue. It is therefore unrealistic to hope that most centrists and progressives would voluntarily leave the church. No matter what good legislation General Conference adopts, if there is no way to obtain compliance, the Discipline is not worth the paper it is written on. Any attempt on traditionalists’ part to keep on fighting for the current teachings of the church would entail another 20 years of conflict, rebellion, disobedience, and vitriol that would destroy the church.

If we were to fight to hang on to The United Methodist Church, traditionalists would also be saddled with trying to either maintain or reform an intractable bureaucracy that is often counterproductive to local church ministry. Every single general board or agency except United Methodist Communications endorsed the One Church Plan. Most of those boards and agencies are staffed by people who want to change the church’s teachings and do not share our traditional theological perspective. To reform and reclaim these agencies would be a monumental task that would again drain valuable resources from actual ministry. If we can drastically lower overhead in a new denomination, we can pour more resources into supporting our central conferences outside the U.S. and engaging in innovative, effective ministry to the unchurched and marginalized people in our world.

What about the money? Faced with the possibility of an impending split in the denomination, United Methodists are rightly worried about the financial impact of the separation plan. Giving to the denomination’s general apportionments fell immediately after the special St. Louis General Conference last February. A number of annual conferences are struggling to meet their budgets. The General Council on Finance and Administration has proposed an 18 percent cut to the quadrennial budget for 2021-24.

Many clergy, particularly retired clergy, are worried about their pension. The good news is that all the proposed plans of separation have made provision for continuing clergy pensions at the current level. Wespath has developed plans and legislative language that would allow clergy in any new Methodist denomination to continue participating in the clergy pension program. Earned benefits would continue at the same level as previously expected. Unfunded pension liabilities would be allocated between the post-separation United Methodist Church and the new Methodist denomination(s), with no payments for these liabilities required. The only exception to the continuation of pensions at the current level would be for congregations and clergy who go independent and do not align with a new Methodist denomination.

Financial Support for New Methodist Denominations

One of the aspects of the newly proposed Protocol agreement for separation that appears unfair is the allocation of $25 million to a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that forms and $2 million to any other new Methodist denominations that might form. Progressives complain that a denomination they believe unjustly discriminates against LGBTQ people should not receive any money upon separation. Traditionalists believe that the amount of money is just a drop in the bucket compared to the total assets of the general church.

It is important to note that the Protocol agreement is the only proposal that came to any agreement about the amount of funding for the new Methodist denomination(s). Where did the $25 million come from? Here is how that calculation was arrived at. According to the General Council on Finance and Administration, total assets held by the general church and its agencies amounts to over $1.536 billion dollars. But about half of that amount, over $753 million, is owed to others as liabilities. That leaves net assets of about $783 million. Of that amount, about $204 million is in buildings, property, and other fixed assets. Donor restricted assets total about $460 million. That leaves about $120 million in unrestricted assets that would be available for any kind of division of assets. (It proved unrealistic to expect to share in the proceeds of any buildings or property that might never be sold, and the mediation group did not want to cause the sale of buildings or properties. The legal complications that would be involved in trying to divide restricted assets proved to be too much to overcome, taking those assets off the table.)

The negotiation resulted in one-third of the $120 million being allocated for the new Methodist denomination(s), about $40 million. $2 million was set aside for potential other denominations that might form, while $38 million was set aside for a traditionalist denomination. Traditionalists agreed to forego one-third of their share ($13 million) to give it to fund ethnic ministry plans and Africa University. (The post-separation United Methodist Church agreed to set aside double that amount for the same purpose, $26 million, leading to a total of $39 million for ethnic ministry and Africa University. This represents continuing the current level of funding over the next eight years.) The goal with the ethnic minority funding is to ensure that some of the most vulnerable populations in our church are not harmed by the separation.

The $25 million that is left will be paid to the new traditionalist Methodist denomination over the four years 2021-24 in equal installments.

Apportionments. The General Council on Finance and Administration is looking at the possible impact on apportionments of a separation. It is undeniable that a significant loss of members and churches from the post-separation United Methodist Church would cause a decline in funding available to the general church agencies and programs. Since it is hard to forecast how many churches might separate, it is difficult for GCFA to budget for apportionments for the next quadrennium. The post-separation United Methodist Church will need to make adjustments to programs and denominational structure in order to account for reduced financial resources available.

By contrast, the new Methodist denomination(s) forming from this separation will be able to start with low overhead. For example, in its draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline, The Wesleyan Covenant Association envisions fewer and smaller agencies, capitalizing on partnerships with existing ministries. This would allow the denomination to care for essential functions, while preserving the ability to respond nimbly to changing needs of congregations and cultural circumstances.

A new future. Talking about money is difficult. Money is often a symbol of our values, hopes, dreams, beliefs, and power. Many traditionalist observers have voiced concerns that the amount of funding given to the new denomination upon separation is not commensurate with the resources that contemporary traditionalists and prior generations have contributed to the church over the decades. As legitimate as these concerns may be, the negotiated settlement was conceived in good faith based on the calculations and limitations shared above.

It is understandable for some to see it as though traditionalists will be “leaving” The United Methodist Church. A better way of describing it is that traditionalists will be separating from a denomination that has left them theologically and seizing this opportunity to create a new traditionalist Methodist movement. No, this agreement is not as fair to traditionalists as we hoped it would be. But it promises a definitive end to the conflict in our denomination and provides an unparalleled opportunity for a fresh start that can create a new denomination that can go forward in unity of belief, vision, and mission.

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

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