Fighting for Fairness

By Thomas Lambrecht

Some have wondered why Good News is still around. Now that disaffiliation is “over,” shouldn’t Good News just go away?

The Council of Bishops and other UM leaders are anxious to put disaffiliation in the rear view mirror. Advocacy groups like “Mainstream UMC,” a “centrist” caucus group, are stridently opposing any renewal of disaffiliation options at the upcoming 2024 General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Throughout the disaffiliation process, Good News has been advocating for a fair process to be used. We have wanted to honor the decisions made by local churches, whichever way they decided, as long as the process was fair. But has the disaffiliation process really been fair?

Unfortunately, disaffiliation is not “over.” Although Par. 2553 in the Book of Discipline allowing local churches to disaffiliate expired at the end of 2023, not all churches have had a fair opportunity to disaffiliate. Until they do, Good News will continue to stay and advocate for a fair disaffiliation process for all.

Why Central Conferences still need a disaffiliation process. Par. 2553 provided a process for local churches to disaffiliate and retain their buildings and property. This paragraph was intended to apply to all parts of our global denomination.

However, the Council of Bishops has stated that Par. 2553 does not apply outside the United States. They point to new language adopted by the 2019 General Conference that states, “Legislation passed at the 2019 called session of General Conference shall not take effect in central conferences until twelve months after the close of the 2020 General Conference …” This provision was added to allow central conferences (parts of the church outside the United States) to hold their regular sessions and make any necessary adaptations to the Discipline before it takes effect.

Because of the Covid pandemic, the 2020 General Conference was never held, so Par. 2553 never took effect for the central conferences before it expired on December 31, 2023. (I disagree with this interpretation of church law that allowed a duly adopted provision in the Discipline to never come into force, but that is the reality we are dealing with.)

Congregations in the U.S. could use Par. 2553 to disaffiliate. Congregations outside the U.S. were unable to do so. Is that fair?

Annual Conference disaffiliation. Then there is the question of whether a whole annual conference can disaffiliate. For many annual conferences in Africa, that would be the preferred route, as they often operate in a consensus model whereby they all agree to do the same thing together. Many votes in African annual conferences are unanimous or nearly so.

The Bulgaria Annual Conference disaffiliated in 2022. However, the Judicial Council ruled after the fact that such a conference disaffiliation was illegal under the Discipline. They ruled that annual conferences may disaffiliate, but that the General Conference has to provide a process for them to do so. Since the General Conference has not met since 2019, it has provided no process for annual conference disaffiliation.

There is a process in the Discipline for annual conferences outside the U.S. to become autonomous Methodist churches. Annual conferences could use this process to separate from the UM Church. However, such annual conferences do not want to become autonomous; they want to join the Global Methodist Church. So, this provision really does not answer their need.

Furthermore, the process of becoming autonomous is long and laborious. It would require the annual conference to write its own new “Book of Discipline.” That would be wasted effort in this case, since the annual conference wants to come under the Global Methodist Church Book of Doctrines and Discipline. In addition, the decision to become autonomous would have to be approved by the relevant central conference and the General Conference, which means the process could take four years or longer.

There is no need to provide a way for U.S. annual conferences to disaffiliate, since those that would have been likely candidates have already lost the majority of their traditionalist churches and clergy. But there is a legitimate need to provide a way for annual conferences outside the U.S. to move straight from the UM Church to the GM Church or another Wesleyan denomination that doesn’t take years to accomplish.

Has the U.S. disaffiliation experience been fair? As the disaffiliation process in the U.S. winds down and over 7,000 congregations have disaffiliated, surely we can say that disaffiliation in the U.S. has run its course, right? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no.

A small number of annual conferences in the U.S. have handled disaffiliation unfairly, even as the vast majority of conferences followed a mostly fair process. These few annual conferences added costs to the disaffiliation terms that made it nearly impossible for most congregations to disaffiliate and keep their buildings.

Some conferences added the requirement for the church to pay a percentage of the property value. This would require parishioners who paid for the property to be built and maintained once to pay for it a second time to an annual conference that in most cases had put zero dollars into that facility.

Requiring 50 percent of the property value were: Baltimore-Washington, California-Pacific, and Peninsula-Delaware (after July 12, 2022).

California-Nevada required 20 percent of property value, while South Carolina and West Virginia required 10 percent.

Eastern Pennsylvania, Greater New Jersey, and Mountain Sky all gave their trustees discretion to charge for a portion of the property value in individual cases.

On the east and west coasts, inflated property values have made it nearly impossible for congregations to afford the cost of disaffiliation. In California-Pacific, in particular, multi-million dollar property values caused only three of 20 churches who voted to disaffiliate actually being able to afford to keep their property. One pastor estimated the cost of disaffiliation at $60,000 per member.

Greater New Jersey took the prize for requiring nearly a dozen different charges and requirements, including paying 18 months of the pastor’s salary plus moving expenses if the pastor did not disaffiliate, a percentage of all cash and investments equal to the percentage of members voting against disaffiliation, and administrative fees and other costs.

Several annual conferences for a time refused to allow any disaffiliations. This was the case in South Carolina and West Virginia until they finally started allowing disaffiliations near the end of 2022. Churches in North Georgia had to go to court in order to force the conference to allow them to disaffiliate. Alabama-West Florida allowed nearly 250 churches to disaffiliate, but then closed the door on all further disaffiliations, prompting a number of congregations to file a lawsuit against the conference that is still on appeal. Peninsula-Delaware allowed over 100 churches to disaffiliate before suddenly imposing the 50 percent property value fee that prevented any additional churches from disaffiliating.

There was such wide variation between how different annual conferences treated their churches, that it created an unfair playing field across the U.S. One conference that saw over 80 percent of its churches disaffiliate used conference reserve funds to pay for unfunded pension liabilities and future apportionments, so that the cost to a congregation to disaffiliate was practically zero. Another conference used its pension reserves to pay for the unfunded pension liability of all its congregations, including those remaining UM, that drastically reduced the cost of disaffiliation. Use of conference funds in these ways was fair, as all churches had contributed to them and all churches (remaining or leaving) benefited from the funds.

Is it fair that some congregations had to pay nearly nothing to disaffiliate, while others had to pay so much it was impossible for them to raise the money? Is it fair that some conferences and some congregations denied their members from even hearing about or discussing the option of disaffiliation? Is it fair that some bishops summarily removed pastors who indicated they were open to considering disaffiliation?

Denomination-wide, nearly 26 percent of UM congregations have successfully disaffiliated. But among the conferences named above with extra costs, fewer than five percent of congregations disaffiliated. Seven of the ten conferences in the Northeastern Jurisdiction had less than five percent disaffiliate. Three of the seven conferences in the Western Jurisdiction had less than five percent disaffiliate. The unfair playing field had real-world consequences.

Finding a solution. Given the unfair treatment experienced by our brothers and sisters in the central conferences, as well as the examples of unfair treatment here in the U.S., Good News remains committed to working for a fair and just disaffiliation pathway for all congregations globally and annual conferences outside the U.S.

A new Par. 2553 has been submitted to the next General Conference that would reinstate the congregational disaffiliation process. It would limit the costs to those contained in the original 2553 – two years of apportionments and the local church’s share of unfunded pension liabilities. It would also provide for a fair and equal opportunity for congregations to learn about and discuss the options of disaffiliation without heavy-handed interference from bishops and district superintendents, while still encouraging advocates for remaining UM to also present their best case.

A new Par. 576 has been submitted to the next General Conference that would institute a streamlined process for annual conferences outside the U.S. to leave the UM Church in order to join another Wesleyan denomination. It would still require approval from the relevant central conference for an annual conference to make this move, but it would not have to wait until the next General Conference meets in order to take effect. Annual conferences intending to become autonomous or independent would still have to use the old longer process.

It is time for the UM Church to level the playing field and make it fair for all. We ought not discriminate against our central conference members. The ability to successfully disaffiliate should not depend upon what zip code a church is located in.

It is time to honor the consciences and prayerfully considered decisions of UM congregations, instead of believing that the denomination can and should coerce churches into remaining with a denomination that no longer reflects their beliefs. Where congregations have voted to disaffiliate but been turned down by their annual conference, what is left in the UM Church is often only an empty shell of the former congregation. Such an outcome serves no one. It devastates a local church’s ministry, dishonors the congregation’s decision, and besmirches the denomination’s reputation in the community.

It is hoped that General Conference delegates of all perspectives will see the unfairness and act to provide a just solution, for the good of the church and for the advancement of the cause of Christ.

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


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