By Thomas Lambrecht
The third postponement of General Conference until 2024 and the announced launch of the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022, have set off a storm of interest and controversy. Faced with the reality that a new denomination is moving forward without the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, many questions answered by the Protocol are now uncertain.
Some individuals and churches are almost in panic mode, thinking that they have to make a decision right now (or at least by May 1). Others are just waking up to the fact that separation is taking place in the UM Church.
Important Timeline Considerations
First, it is important to understand that the launching of the Global Methodist Church on May 1 is just the starting point for that new denomination, not a deadline. Beginning May 1, the GM Church will be able to receive congregations, clergy, and annual conferences into its membership. There is no deadline for a congregation, clergy person, or annual conference to join the GM Church. It will be open to receiving members and churches from other denominations whenever they want to join, with no endpoint.
There are some local churches that have already withdrawn from the UM Church that will be positioned to join the GM Church on May 1. There may also be non-UM churches of a Wesleyan heritage who are also able to join on May 1. The vast majority of churches will take time over the next few years to move into the GM Church.
We understand that there are probably more than 100 churches across the U.S. that have already requested disaffiliation so far in 2022. These churches have been moving through a disaffiliation process guided by ¶ 2553 in the Discipline that requires apportionment and pension liability payments. These churches will need to have their disaffiliation approved by their annual conference meeting in May or June. They will not move into the GM Church until they receive that annual conference approval.
Now that the door is open to join the GM Church after May 1, there will be hundreds more local churches that will apply for disaffiliation over the next year. They will also have to move through the disaffiliation process set by their annual conference and bishop. This will again require approval by their annual conference, either at a special session called sometime near the end of 2022 or at their regular session in spring of 2023 (for the U.S. – the time frame for churches outside the U.S. may be different). Thus, this wave of churches would not be able to join the GM Church until the end of 2022 or the middle of 2023.
Then, as things develop for the GM Church and the UM Church has a chance to further define itself, there will be other congregations down the road that make the decision to move into the GM Church. It is important to note that the provisions of ¶ 2553 expire at the end of 2023, meaning that churches withdrawing under that paragraph need to do so before their annual conference session in 2023. However, there are other avenues in the Discipline that allow local churches to move to the GM Church (see below).
The bottom line is that there is no need to panic or make a rushed decision. Churches can take the time they need to evaluate their situation and the options available to them and make a prayerful, well-considered decision about their future. The doorway into the GM Church will always be open!
¶ 2553 Vs. ¶ 2548.2
There are two main ways that churches can disaffiliate from the UM Church and move into the GM Church: ¶ 2553 that was adopted at the 2019 special General Conference and ¶ 2548.2 that has been in the Discipline since 1948. What is the difference between the two?
¶ 2553 was adopted in 2019 as a way for churches that disagree with the denomination’s position on LGBT ordination or same-sex marriage (or with their annual conference’s response to the denomination’s position) to withdraw from the UM Church. The focus here is on withdrawing to become an independent congregation, after which the church might decide to align with a different denomination, such as the GM Church. Almost all the churches that have withdrawn under ¶ 2553 have become independent and not aligned with another denomination (so far).
¶ 2553 requires that the departing congregation pay two years’ apportionments and the total amount of its unfunded pension liability to the annual conference before departing. Approval for withdrawal requires a two-thirds vote of the church members voting at a church conference, the conference board of trustees, and a majority vote of the annual conference. The local church would then be able to keep its property, assets, and liabilities as it continues forward as an independent congregation or decides to align with another denomination.
¶ 2548.2 was originally adopted in 1948 to facilitate the transfer to other denominations of church facilities that no longer were able to serve a changing community by remaining United Methodist. The paragraph allows the annual conference to transfer (“deed”) the church’s property to a denomination represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission (five African-American Methodist denominations) or “another evangelical denomination.” Instead of moving into an independent status, the congregation would move from the UM Church directly into the GM Church.
¶ 2548.2 does not require specific monetary payments. Other paragraphs in the Discipline require the congregation’s share of unfunded pension liabilities be cared for. Wespath has expressed openness to these liabilities being covered by a promissory note secured by a lien on the church’s assets, rather than an upfront payment in full (see below). This approach would relieve one of the major financial barriers to especially smaller local churches wanting to move to the GM Church, but it requires annual conference approval of this approach. ¶ 2548.2 does not specify a threshold for local church approval of this transfer, so it could allow a simple majority vote by the church’s members. The transfer requires approval by the bishop, the district superintendents, the district board of church location and building, and the annual conference. The local church’s property, assets, and liabilities would be transferred to the GM Church, which would then release them to the local congregation because the GM Church has no trust clause.
Some annual conferences have put additional requirements on the disaffiliation process under ¶ 2553 (and could under ¶ 2548.2), such as an extended discernment period for the local church or payment of a percentage of the church’s property value. Some annual conferences at their upcoming sessions will be considering proposed policies that would govern the terms of local church disaffiliation under ¶¶ 2553 or 2548.2.
In the interest for an amicable resolution of our denominational division, the use of a promissory note for pension liabilities and the elimination of extra financial terms (additional apportionments, percentage of property value) would help by not placing undue hurdles in the way of local churches that want to move to the GM Church. With a vision for maintaining a heart of peace, it should be as easy and fair as possible for churches to move to where they want to be. Congregations should not feel as though they are being coerced into remaining United Methodist.
What about Pension liability?
In my Perspective two weeks ago, I wrote, “[¶ 2548.2] allows pension liabilities to be transferred to the local church or to the other evangelical denomination.” In another place, I stated, “a local church can carry its pension liability with it” into the GM Church. I need to clarify those statements, and in one respect, I was incorrect.
There are two ways that a church’s share of its annual conference’s unfunded pension liability (an amount roughly 4-7 times their annual apportionment) could be cared for. One way is an upfront cash payment by the church to the annual conference. Churches either would have to raise the money to make the payment or, in some instances, may be able to borrow that money as secured by their property.
The other way to care for the pension liability would be for the church to enter into a promissory note in the amount of the liability, secured by a lien on the church’s property. There would only be payments on that note if the annual conference needed to make payments to Wespath to cover unfunded liabilities. (This would normally only happen in case of a severe economic downturn.) The advantage of this approach is there would be no large upfront payment that could price many churches out of the possibility of withdrawing. Payments would only be made when there was a need for the money to cover pensions, which happens very rarely. The annual conference, as the pension plan sponsor, would need to approve this approach.
The UM annual conference would still have the pension liability, and the withdrawing local church’s share of that pension liability would still be owed to the UM annual conference. But with the promissory note approach, the church would only pay money to the annual conference when it is needed. In a recent FAQ document, Wespath allowed this approach. “While paragraph 1504.23 mandates a pension withdrawal payment, it does not address the timing of the payment under all potential paths of separation…. [U]nder paragraph 2548.2, while the payment is due in full, the annual conference in its sole discretion, may agree to adjust the timing of the payment.”
As currently envisioned, the Global Methodist Church would not assume any responsibility for unfunded pension liability. It would attach only to each local church, which would only make payments when the funds are needed. (I apologize for this incorrect information.)
As people process the options available to them, we will be dealing with many more questions that arise. There is no reason to have all the answers immediately. Take the time to research the answers. View the Global Methodist Church website for much information (globalmethodist.org).
See these two recent articles:
More articles from the GM Church will be forthcoming. Feel free to email us with your questions. Stay tuned for more informative articles in the future.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo from Shutterstock.