By Thomas Lambrecht
Whatever the outcome in St. Louis, some congregations and clergy will be unable to live conscientiously within the boundaries established by General Conference. From the beginning, the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) acknowledged that an exit path for congregations to leave the denomination with their property should be part of any plan submitted to General Conference. All the sketches of the three plans submitted to the Council of Bishops included an exit path. The Council of Bishops acted to take out any exit path from the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.
Some claim there is already a way for local congregations to exit the denomination with their property. This is not the case. Under ¶ 2548.2, the annual conference may transfer the deed of a local church to “one of the other denominations represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission or to another evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement.” This requires the consent of the bishop, cabinet, district board of church building and location, and annual conference, in addition to the request of the local church.
Under ¶ 2549, the annual conference can close a church that “no longer serves the purpose for which it was organized or incorporated” (as a United Methodist congregation). The conference can then sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of the property, including selling it to the exiting congregation. This also requires the consent of the bishop, cabinet, district board of church building and location, and annual conference, in addition to the request of the local church.
Under either scenario, any of the approving persons or bodies can arbitrarily stop the congregation from keeping its property. Annual conference officials can impose whatever payment requirements they want upon the local church, or refuse to allow the local church to keep its property at all.
The current provisions of the Discipline put the local church at the mercy of the bishop and annual conference. There is no certain or consistent process whereby a local church can exit the denomination with its property.
We need a more fair and streamlined exit path for congregations.
It is not a good witness for the church to be involved in hundreds of lawsuits over church property. The Episcopal Church spent over $45 million at the national level (not counting what local churches spent) in order to preserve church property for the denomination.
The General Conference has prioritized two exit proposals: Petition 90059 Disaffiliation – Boyette; and Petition 90066 Disaffiliation – Taylor.
The church would be best served by adopting either the Boyette exit path. However, certain amendments would eliminate most objectionable requirements from the Taylor option.
This is the kind of generous spirit the Renewal and Reform Coalition believes ought to govern our decisions regarding congregations that choose to exit from the denomination. They are our brothers and sisters. There ought not to be quarreling or lawsuits over property. We ought not try to coerce a congregation into a covenant they can no longer support.
Here’s hoping the General Conference delegates will embrace a fair, consistent, and gracious path for congregations to exit with their property. The future peace of the denomination may depend upon it.
Thomas Lambrecht is vice president of Good News and member of the Commission on A Way Forward.