Estonian Churches Withdraw —
By Heather Hahn (UM News) —
The 23 United Methodist churches in the Baltic nation of Estonia are leaving the denomination to form the independent Estonia Methodist Church.
By a 97 percent majority vote on June 16, the Estonia District affirmed the churches’ decisions to disaffiliate. The district’s voters then directed that church property and assets be transferred to the autonomous Estonia Methodist Church as of July 1.
Among the assets going with the newly created Estonia Methodist Church are several diaconal institutions and the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.
United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted, who leads the Nordic-Baltic-Ukraine Episcopal Conference, described the district conference as solemn and prayerful but also very emotional.
“Personally, the disaffiliation grieves my heart – I find it unnecessary, and I believe it is a loss to the Methodists in Estonia as well as to the entire UMC,” he said in a press statement.
“Nevertheless, I respect and honor the decision made by the Estonia Methodist Church, and I stand with my commitment to help all annual conferences, districts and local churches in the Nordic, Baltic and Ukraine episcopal area to live into a future, where they believe they can serve with integrity.”
The district, which has about 1,500 members, is part of the larger Baltic Annual Conference that includes United Methodist churches in Lithuania and Latvia. Remaining in the conference are 18 churches with about 870 members total. Annual conferences are The United Methodist Church’s basic organizing units around the globe.
In 2019, General Conference – the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly – approved a policy that allows churches to leave with property “for reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality if they meet certain procedural and financial obligations.
Since the church law took effect, [more than] 6,000 United Methodist churches in the United States, about 20 percent of U.S. churches, have received the required approvals to disaffiliate. But that policy – the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2553 – only applies in the U.S. and is set to expire at the end of the year.
Under Estonian civil law, the church in Estonia could simply leave with property, Alsted said. But Estonian church members wanted to leave “in a peaceful and respectful manner,” the bishop added.
To accommodate that goal, the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference held a special session online in March to vote on a process that would allow for Estonian churches to exit in an orderly way this year.
The central conference approved a process that required each Estonian congregation support disaffiliation by at least a two-thirds vote. At least 30 percent of a church’s professing members needed to be present when the vote took place. Most votes were unanimous for withdrawal, Alsted said. The district then confirmed the separation when it met in June.
The disaffiliation process also requires the exiting Estonian United Methodist churches to be up-to-date in paying their apportionments – shares of church giving that support ministry beyond the local church. Beyond that, the Estonia Methodist Church does not have to pay any additional compensation.
At the district conference in Tallinn that marked the Estonian churches’ disaffiliation, Alsted and the Rev. Robert Tserenkov, Estonia’s district superintendent, signed an agreement of mutual recognition between United Methodists and Estonian Methodists.
“Each recognizes in one another that they are constituent members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church as expressed in the Scriptures, confessed in the Church’s historic creeds, and attested to in our common doctrinal standards,” the agreement said.
The agreement also commits the central conference and new independent church to collaborate wherever possible in mission and ministry and to welcome each other’s members.
Tserenkov, who will lead the new denomination alongside an elected council until it elects a bishop, expressed his hope for the future. “May God bless and guide the Estonian Methodist Church forward, as he has done by his grace for 116 years!”
During the district’s ordination service, Alsted offered his hope that the two churches will be like Paul and Barnabas in the Book of Acts after they went in different directions.
“Despite their sharp disagreement and their decision to part ways, God continued to bless them and make their separate ministries fruitful,” Alsted said. “I pray that the decisions made this weekend, as difficult as they were, will lead to fruitfulness.”
Heather Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. This article was distributed by UM News. Photo: Nordic-Baltic-Ukraine Area Bishop Christian Alsted, left, and the Rev. Robert Tserenkov, Estonia District superintendent, sign an agreement of mutual recognition between the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference and the Estonia Methodist Church. The 23 United Methodist churches in Estonia are leaving to form the Estonia Methodist Church, which Tserenkov will lead alongside an elected council until the new denomination elects a bishop. Photo courtesy of Bishop Christian Alsted via UM News.