By Thomas Lambrecht —
In this season of our denomination’s life, Methodists of goodwill should advocate for a fair exit process and terms for local churches and clergy desiring to realign. Many annual conferences in the U.S. have adopted fair processes for disaffiliation. Some have even adopted gracious terms that relieved the financial burden on disaffiliating churches to a greater or lesser extent. Other annual conferences have adopted processes or terms that many traditionalists consider to be unfair, and we continue to advocate for annual conferences to change those processes and terms.
I grew up with two younger brothers, and we enjoyed playing all sorts of games together – card games, board games, and physical games. In the process, we all became acutely aware of any behavior by another brother that we could label “cheating.” None of us wanted to let the other one get away with unfair, cheating behavior. In fact, such behavior could result in ending the game on the spot (sometimes with a bit of hot-headed violence involved)! If everyone wanted to continue playing the game, the unfair behavior had to change.
While we can call out unfair behavior in the disaffiliation process, the difference is that local churches cannot “quit the game.” Local churches cannot abandon the disaffiliation process if they want to disaffiliate. They have to play by the rules established by their annual conference, fair or not. The annual conference holds most of the power, except in a few states where a last-resort lawsuit might open the door for a church to nullify the trust clause and leave the denomination.
What is fair?
It might help to begin with a description of a fair process. After all, what is fair to one person might not seem fair to another.
Information sharing. The first requirement of a fair process would be an informed congregation. For years, Good News has been advocating for pastors to bring their lay leaders, if not also the whole congregation, up to speed with what is happening in the United Methodist denomination. Thousands of churches are operating in the dark today because their pastors in the past failed to prepare them for this moment. A few annual conferences and bishops have gone so far as to prohibit pastors from sharing information with their congregation about options for disaffiliation.
An informed congregation can make an informed decision about what is best for it in its own unique ministry context. That means the congregation should have open access to different perspectives: those wanting to stay in the UM Church and those wanting to disaffiliate. Members should have a chance to read and/or hear from advocates for both positions, ask questions, and discern for themselves what course that information leads them to favor. To prevent either one of the perspectives from sharing their information with the congregation only means the members will not be fully informed.
To label information that one disagrees with as “misinformation” – and therefore to censor that information – is a manipulative tactic that ought to have no place in Christian conversation. If someone shares information that some believe is incorrect or misleading, the answer is to counter it with correct information and fuller context. We must give adults credit for an ability to digest competing perspectives and contradictory information in order to discern a legitimate way forward. Otherwise, a knowledgeable elite will be tempted to keep that knowledge to themselves and attempt to dictate to the “ignorant masses” what the elite believes is the best course of action. Such a course would show contempt for individual dignity and free will, as well as discounting the power of God’s grace to lead and guide the individual and the congregation.
Transparent Process. Most annual conferences have developed a checklist or sequence of steps that local churches can follow to move through the discernment process to make a decision. That process should be transparent and available to all congregations. (There are a few annual conferences that have no published process or have not made it available to congregations.)
The process that annual conferences use should be flexible enough to accommodate the needs and contexts of local churches. The Wisconsin Annual Conference set a deadline of September 1, 2022, for churches to enter the discernment process. Any church that missed that deadline cannot disaffiliate. That level of unrealistic rigidity is not helpful or fair. On the other hand, more and more annual conferences are adding special sessions for this coming fall to act on disaffiliation requests prior to the expiration of Par. 2553, which is very helpful and fair. It is also fair for annual conferences to put in place a disaffiliation process that could be used after Par. 2553 expires at the end of 2023.
Financial Costs. One of the financial costs for disaffiliation is a payment of the congregation’s fair share of unfunded pension liabilities. Given that Wespath has drastically reduced those liabilities since the beginning of 2021, conferences should make use of the latest calculation of that liability, so that congregations are not overcharged to satisfy this agreed moral obligation. At the same time, it would also be fair for annual conferences to use existing conference pension funds to offset some of that liability. After all, the disaffiliating local churches contributed toward those conference pension funds and ought to share in the benefit of them. Unfortunately, most annual conferences are not taking that route.
When Par. 2553 was written, the authors envisioned the payment of a second year of apportionments as a way to cushion the annual conference against the loss of future apportionments. It would enable the conference to have time to adjust its budget and programs to fit the new reality, based on the number of congregations that remain. That is a fair provision that we support.
The levying of additional costs beyond the two required by Par. 2553 run over into unfair territory. Asking the congregation to reimburse grants they received ten years prior ignores how the benefit of those grants resulted in greater congregational vitality and higher apportionment payments for those ten years. The conference has already benefitted and should not require reimbursement. Some annual conferences are charging the congregation up to 50-60 percent of their assets (buildings, property, and bank accounts). Congregations already paid for their buildings and upkeep, in most cases without any help from the conference. The congregation should not have to pay for their building twice. This is simply a tactic to discourage disaffiliation and line the pockets of the annual conference at the expense of the local church. At the extreme, the Greater New Jersey Conference has added nine different costs beyond pension and apportionments, making it financially unfeasible for most congregations to disaffiliate. Such an approach is patently unfair.
If annual conferences develop a clear and transparent process of disaffiliation that allows for open sharing of information from all perspectives, allows reasonable timelines for the process, and does not impose additional costs, congregations can and do make the decision of what works best for them in their ministry context. Such a fair process honors the agency and maturity of the church’s members and creates a foundation of trust, upon which future relationships and cooperation between denominations might be possible.
Changing the Rules in the Middle of the Game
Unfortunately, as bishops and annual conference leaders have seen the desire from a substantial percentage of their churches to disaffiliate, they have at times short-circuited the process in order to prevent disaffiliation. My friend, the Rev. Scott Field, likens this to Lucy pulling the football away as Charlie Brown tries to kick it. Some churches attempting to follow the disaffiliation process in good faith have had the football pulled away and disaffiliation unfairly refused.
This began in 2021 when congregations in a few U.S. conferences were told they did not qualify for disaffiliation, since the annual conference was following the Book of Discipline. Churches in the central conferences outside the U.S. have been told they also cannot disaffiliate under Par. 2553. All these churches are deprived of using a provision enacted by General Conference in 2019 (four years ago!) to allow disaffiliation.
Last fall, three churches in the Arkansas Conference were refused disaffiliation by a majority vote of the annual conference. They had followed the process, received the necessary vote in their local churches, paid the required amounts, and been approved by both the cabinet and trustees of the annual conference. Yet, the conference still pulled the rug out from under those churches.
On the last day of 2022, the North Georgia Conference “paused” all disaffiliations until after the 2024 General Conference, when the Par. 2553 disaffiliation process will no longer be in force. About 150 local churches were in the discernment process toward making a decision, and the rug was pulled out from under them. Although all presentations made by North Georgia Wesleyan Covenant Association representatives had to be pre-approved by district superintendents, the conference still accused the WCA and others of “misinformation.” Instead of simply correcting the alleged misinformation, the conference took the draconian step of forbidding all disaffiliations until a time when there may be no disaffiliation process available.
Now we are hearing of other bishops and annual conferences following the North Georgia playbook with individual congregations. Several who had church conferences scheduled to vote on disaffiliation have had those church meetings cancelled due to the presence of alleged “misinformation.” In other instances, bishops are halting the discernment process for individual congregations and requiring them to do an extensive study of their community and the impact of the local church’s ministry before being allowed to proceed. Such a study is supposed to be done before closing any United Methodist church, yet it is rarely done in practice, and the disaffiliating churches are not closing. This is simply another way of putting an unfair bureaucratic roadblock in the way of local churches wanting to disaffiliate.
All that traditionalists are asking for is a fair discernment process for local congregations to follow. If the congregation fairly considers all perspectives and wants to remain United Methodist, we obviously have no problem with that. However, unfair elements should not be introduced into the process to influence or coerce congregations into remaining UM. Such coercion does no good for building an enthusiastic support for United Methodism and it poisons the atmosphere for any future potential cooperation or relationship between United Methodism and the Global Methodist Church or other disaffiliated congregations. For the sake of the cause of Christ, the church must give a witness to the world that it operates with fairness, transparency, and integrity. It is not too late for that to happen, but time is running out.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.