By Thomas Lambrecht —
In Part 1 of this series, the roots of our United Methodist conflict were examined, including what led up to the 2019 special General Conference. Part 2 covers the response to the 2019 General Conference and the events leading up to the present situation in January 2023.
Following the special General Conference, some bishops and as many as 28 out of 54 annual conferences in the U.S. declared that they would not abide by the Book of Discipline on these matters. They declared that they would operate as if the One Church Plan had passed. This has thrown the UM Church into a constitutional crisis. When a sizable portion of the church rejects the outcome of “Christian conferencing” and is unwilling to live by our duly adopted policies, there is a stalemate.
It is this constitutional crisis that has led most leaders in the church to come to believe that some form of separation is necessary (or is inevitable) to resolve the conflict. Various proposals for separation were developed and submitted to the 2020 General Conference. The election of delegates to that conference resulted in fewer traditionalist delegates being elected in the U.S., particularly among the clergy.
In an attempt to put forward an amicable separation plan, Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone convened a negotiating group of prominent progressive, centrist, and traditionalist leaders, along with representatives from the Council of Bishops. Aided by the efforts of renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, Esq., the group came to an agreement to propose the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. The Protocol had unanimous agreement from all the leaders in the group and was supported by nearly all the traditionalist, centrist, and progressive caucus groups in the church.
The Protocol, announced in January 2020, provided for the formation of new expressions of Methodism – new denominations that could be traditionalist or progressive in theology. Central Conferences (regions outside the U.S.) could separate from the UM Church by a two-thirds vote to join a new denomination. All its annual conferences and local churches would go with the central conference unless they chose otherwise. Annual Conferences could separate from the UM Church by a 57 percent vote to join a new denomination. All its local churches would go with the annual conference unless they chose otherwise. Local churches could separate from the UM Church by either a simple majority or two-thirds vote (as chosen by their church council). This process provided a uniform way for separation to occur, with the hope of minimizing conflict at the local church level. Only those local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s decision would have to vote.
Financially, no annual conference or local church would have had to make payments to depart from the UM Church, other than the request to be current on apportionments at the time of departure. Pension liabilities would be transferred to the new denomination for those who separated. New traditionalist denomination(s) would receive $25 million from the UM Church over four years and new progressive denomination(s) would receive $2 million. (It was anticipated that any progressive denomination forming would be much smaller.)
This proposed amicable separation plan was broadly supported in the church and looked ready to pass at the 2020 General Conference, which would have created a uniform, orderly process for separation to occur. Then Covid hit. The 2020 General Conference was postponed until 2021, and then again until 2022. Finally, General Conference was postponed to 2024. Traditionalists staunchly opposed this final postponement. They believed it was unnecessary in the face of rapidly easing Covid restrictions. They saw it as an effort to delay separation and perhaps kill the Protocol. By this time, many centrist and progressive leaders had become disillusioned with the Protocol, believing it gave too much ground and would facilitate too much of the church separating into a new denomination(s).
Faced with this further delay and the prospect of many traditionalists beginning to vote with their feet by exiting their local UM congregations, leaders of the Global Methodist Church announced the launch of their new traditionalist denomination as of May 1, 2022. On the heels of that announcement, all the remaining centrist and progressive signatories to the Protocol withdrew their support, meaning that the Protocol would be unlikely to pass the 2024 General Conference. Separation would occur, not through an orderly and uniform amicable process, but through a chaotic, expensive provision called Paragraph 2553.
Par. 2553 was adopted by the 2019 General Conference to provide a way for the anticipated small number of churches that could not accept the decision of that Conference to adopt the Traditional Plan. However, many more churches than anticipated refused to accept the Traditional Plan, and they also refused to leave the denomination, determined to stay and resist the church’s decision.
Three years later in 2022, Par. 2553 became the only exit route available for traditionalist churches that had had enough of the denominational chaos and disobedience and wanted to join a new traditionalist denomination that aligned with their historic theological perspective. Attempts were made by annual conferences to vote to withdraw from the UM Church, based on an earlier Judicial Council ruling that such withdrawals were constitutional. The Bulgaria-Romania Conference withdrew successfully under these provisions. However, the Judicial Council then clarified (at the bishops’ request) that, while annual conference withdrawal was constitutional, the General Conference must adopt a process for that to happen, which now could not be adopted until at least 2024. The door for annual conferences to depart under the Discipline was closed.
There were discussions between traditionalist leaders and a team from the Council of Bishops about creating a separation pathway for local churches using a different paragraph of the Discipline. The goal was to keep as much of the Protocol process as possible but use a different provision already in the Discipline to do so. In the end, not enough bishops wanted to develop a Protocol-like process and the discussions collapsed. The Judicial Council then ruled (at the bishops’ request) that this different paragraph (2548.2) could not be used for separation.
The church was left with only Par. 2553 as an avenue for separation to take place, and that avenue would expire on December 31, 2023. Unfortunately, the cost of pension liabilities was much higher in 2021 than was anticipated in 2019. (Those costs have since come down substantially, which is helpful.) In addition, Par. 2553 allows annual conferences to impose added costs and requirements for local churches to separate. About one-third of U.S. annual conferences have imposed costs that made separation difficult or even impossible. Some conferences require up to 50 percent of the property value be paid to the conference. Other conferences added substantial insurance or personnel costs. Two U.S. annual conferences prohibited any local churches from departing because they said their conferences were following the Discipline and churches had no grounds for separation. (One of those conferences has since provided an alternative method of separation that may work but has not yet been tested.)
A few conservative annual conferences created a gracious exit pathway for congregations by using annual conference reserve funds designated for pensions to offset the required pension liabilities. This allowed local churches to avoid burdensome financial payments and recognized that all the conference’s churches had contributed to those reserve funds and should benefit equally from them.
Unfortunately, some annual conferences took a more adversarial stance and did everything they could to prevent local churches from disaffiliating. Some imposed rigid deadlines and detailed procedures. Some forbade the sharing of information with churches by persons interested in disaffiliating. Complaints have been filed against some traditionalist clergy for sharing information. Accusations of misinformation and deception have flown back and forth between both sides of the debate. One annual conference initially agreed to offset pension liabilities with reserve funds, but later rescinded the offer, tripling a local church’s cost of disaffiliation. The North Georgia Conference at the end of 2022 prohibited all disaffiliations because of allegations of “misinformation,” disrespecting the ability of lay members to sort through the information presented by both sides and make their own choices.
None of this adversarial behavior needed to happen. It could have been avoided with the adoption of the Protocol or something like it. Some bishops and other denominational leaders chose to maximize “command and control” in an effort to coerce as many churches into remaining United Methodist as possible. While they may succeed in retaining more churches in the short term, they have created an even more unhealthy denominational environment in the long run. This unhealthy environment will undoubtedly impact the ability of the UM Church to thrive and grow in the future (which it has not since its formation in 1968).
Despite the challenges, at the end of 2022 more than 2,000 congregations had officially disaffiliated from the UM Church and 1,100 of them had officially joined the Global Methodist Church. More churches are still in the pipeline to join the GM Church. It is estimated that an additional 1,000 to 3,000 churches may disaffiliate from the UM Church in 2023 before Par. 2553 expires. A few annual conferences are having special meetings toward the end of the year to approve last-minute disaffiliations.
As this account is written in early 2023, changes and developments are happening at a rapid pace. Further Judicial Council decisions are anticipated that may strengthen the denominational hierarchy’s hand. A new exit path is needed to replace the expiring Par. 2553 for local churches that chose to wait for General Conference 2024 or who were locked out of the disaffiliation process for one reason or another. The Council of Bishops now claims that Par. 2553 does not apply outside the U.S. A clearer exit path for annual conferences and local churches outside the U.S. is needed. The need to stay engaged in the conflict through General Conference 2024 and its aftermath ensures that high-stakes confrontations will continue. We continue to pray that God opens a window where every door has been shut.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.