By Walter B. Fenton
When The United Methodist Church’s Commission on General Conference postponed the 2020 General Conference for the third time, theologically conservative local churches wanting to exit the denomination were forced to set their sights on their annual conference gatherings to gain some sense of how they might leave the denomination with all their property and assets.
It was widely believed the General Conference would, like many other large international gatherings, meet this year to approve a plan of separation called the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. The plan clearly spelled out how theologically conservative local churches could exit the UM Church and join a new Methodist body.
As the annual conference season unfolds for United Methodists in the U.S., local churches are learning provisions and terms for departing the denomination can vary widely among the 53 UM annual conferences in the U.S. Why the terms vary depends on the bishop who leads an annual conference. Clergy and lay leaders from thousands of theologically conservative local churches have shared exit terms that run the gamut from amicable and gracious to onerous and punitive.
Earlier this year the UM Council of Bishops “affirmed by an overwhelming majority” that a disaffiliation process approved at the 2019 Special General Conference “would be the primary [process] used for disaffiliation and separation.” This disaffiliation process is just one way local churches can exit the denomination, and bishops know there are alternative processes. The majority simply decided it was the process they wanted to use.
Bishops and annual conferences could just as easily allow local churches to move to another denomination (e.g., the Global Methodist Church) rather than disaffiliate. The terms in such a process could be clarified in a comity agreement that is fair to all parties, allowing for an amicable and orderly transfer of a local church.
In fact, Bishop Tom Bickerton, president of the Council of Bishops, immediate past presidents, Bishops Cynthia Harvey and Ken Carter, and other bishops worked for months with theologically conservative leaders to develop a comity agreement based on a provision in the UM Church’s Book of Discipline.
The parties entered the negotiations to create an amicable and orderly fallback plan annual conferences could use if the General Conference was postponed and the Protocol could not be approved. The negotiations only broke down when it became apparent that some bishops were insisting on terms not in keeping with the letter and the spirit of the Protocol.
“It was an opportunity missed,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the Global Methodist Church’s senior executive officer. “As originally conceived, the comity agreement adopted as much of the Protocol as possible so centrist, conservative, and progressive Methodists could go their separate ways sooner than later. Unfortunately, what is now unfolding are sundry approaches to separation, some laudable, but others appear driven by exacting as high a price as possible for local church exits.”
In annual conferences where exit terms are reasonable, theologically conservative local churches are planning to accept them as soon as possible. They typically allow churches to disaffiliate after paying apportionments, pension payments, and other nominal fees, in return for clear title to all the local church’s property and assets.
Where terms are officious, burdensome, and impose prohibitively high financial costs, many theologically conservative local churches have decided they have no choice but to remain in the denomination to work for the passage of the Protocol at the 2024 General Conference, and failing that, return to the long battle for a reformed UM Church where leaders abide by its teachings and hold others accountable to them. The only other alternative is to resort to litigation in the secular courts.
“I am very grateful the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Legislative Assembly decided to push forward on behalf of these trapped local churches,” said Boyette. “I know Africa Initiative, the Confessing Movement, Good News, and UMAction will come alongside them to do the great organizing they’ve always done on behalf of theologically conservative United Methodists, particularly those in annual conferences with bishops exhibiting a heart of war rather than a heart of peace.”
Considering the haphazard approach the UM Church has adopted for allowing theologically conservative local churches to leave the denomination, the 2024 General Conference is likely to be an ugly repeat of the infamous 2019 special General Conference. Centrist and progressive United Methodists erupted in anger when a coalition of international delegates from Africa, Europe and Eurasia, the Philippines, and the U.S. soundly defeated a plan to liberalize the UM Church’s sexual ethics that was championed largely by denominational elites and progressives based in the U.S.
“It makes no sense to me to drag out a bitter conflict that continues to drive down UM membership, worship attendance, and financial support, but that’s the UM bishops’ decision, not mine,” said Boyette. “For our part, we in the Global Methodist Church will continue to welcome new congregations and pastors to the fledgling denomination. We stand ready to do whatever we can to assist them as they seek to exit the UM Church.”
Theologically conservative local churches wanting to explore the steps necessary to join the Global Methodist Church should visit the Frequently Asked Questions section of the new denomination’s website, giving particular attention to the second question and the helpful links included in the answer. Learn more about the Global Methodist Church by exploring its website.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Deputy Connectional Officer for the Global Methodist Church. Image: Marianne Bos/Unsplash.