By Thomas Lambrecht – In a series of six decisions handed down this week, the Judicial Council has brought greater clarity to the disaffiliation process enacted by the 2019 General Conference. Under that new ¶ 2553, local churches may vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church by satisfying the following conditions:
- Payment of the 12 months’ apportionments prior to the disaffiliation date, plus an additional 12 months’ apportionments
- Payment of the local church’s pension withdrawal liability (the local church’s share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liability), which varies in amount from one annual conference to another
- Vote of approval by a two-thirds majority of the professing members of the local church present at a church conference
- Vote of approval by a simple majority of the annual conference
By following these steps, a local church can withdraw from The United Methodist Church while retaining its buildings and property, being released from the Trust Clause. This process expires December 31, 2023, and cannot be used after that date (unless General Conference extends it).
Some annual conferences have added requirements to the above steps or otherwise encountered glitches with the process, which then prompted challenges to the Judicial Council for rulings. Those cases have now been decided in Judicial Council Decisions 1420 through 1425. Some bishops and annual conferences have been stalling the disaffiliation process while waiting for the clarity these rulings provide. Additional information may be found in this United Methodist News Service article.
Annual Conference Approval
Two of the current decisions deal with situations where annual conference approval was in question. In the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference that enacted ¶ 2553, the Judicial Council ruled in Decision 1379, “[T]he final decision concerning exiting local churches belongs to the annual conference as part of its ‘reserved rights.’” Although not in the language of ¶ 2553, the Judicial Council ruled that annual conferences must approve the disaffiliation of any local congregation by a simple majority vote.
The Alabama-West Florida Conference (Decision 1421) questioned why a local church was allowed to disaffiliate with its property prior to an annual conference vote of approval. Judicial Council ruled this was “unlawful.” However, since the property had already been deeded to the local church by the annual conference, “as a matter of Florida property law, the train has left the station, and we lack any jurisdiction to entertain challenges to the validity of the deed.”
In the North Georgia Annual Conference (Decision 1420), a lay member asked, “Since the Annual Conference must approve the final act of disaffiliation, can the Annual Conference not therefore set some of the conditions in the agreement when they do not conflict with 2553?” Judicial Council ruled that under ¶ 2553.4, “the terms and conditions for that disaffiliation shall be established by the board of trustees of the applicable annual conference, with the advice of the cabinet, the annual conference treasurer, the annual conference benefits officer, the director of connectional ministries, and the annual conference chancellor.” Since the trustees set those terms and conditions in negotiation with the disaffiliating local church, “The ratification of a disaffiliation agreement is completed by a vote up or down by the members of an annual conference but does not include the right to amend it.” Of course, the annual conference does have the authority to set policies for all disaffiliating local churches to meet. That leads us to the next series of decisions.
Annual Conference Authority
The bottom line of the Judicial Council rulings is that the annual conference has the authority to add additional requirements to the disaffiliation process for local churches. The New England Conference (Decision 1425) requires an extensive process of consultation by local churches prior to any decision to disaffiliate. The process has to last a minimum of eight months and include a study of the ministry impact of the church in its community and the feedback on the impact of disaffiliation by both community members and annual conference officials. This long and onerous process seems designed to discourage churches from disaffiliating. Due to the expiration date of ¶ 2553, churches in New England would have to begin the discernment process by the end of August 2022 in order to complete the process and obtain annual conference approval in 2023 before the paragraph expires.
Other annual conferences added financial requirements over and above what ¶ 2553 demands. The Arkansas Annual Conference (Decision 1424) requires repayment of any grants from the annual conference to the disaffiliating local church in the previous ten years. A recent statement by Bishop Farr of the Missouri Annual Conference affirms that a third year of apportionments must be paid to that annual conference. At least two other annual conferences require disaffiliating churches to pay the annual conference a percentage of the appraised value of their property.
In Decision 1425, the Judicial Council quoted provisions in ¶¶ 2553 and 1504.23 that “clearly suggest that the disaffiliation process established by the General Conference constitutes minimum standards, which do not preclude additional procedures and standard terms created by annual conferences, provided that the latter do not negate or violate the former.” In other words, the Judicial Council has ruled that annual conferences can impose whatever additional requirements they want on disaffiliating churches, as long as those requirements do not contradict what is in the steps listed at the top of this article.
Gracious or Punitive?
The potential result of this series of decisions is that annual conferences could impose onerous requirements on local churches seeking to disaffiliate. In some annual conferences, the pension withdrawal liability alone makes it prohibitive for most local churches to consider disaffiliation. That number could range anywhere from four to ten times the church’s annual apportionment. (Recent stock market growth has reduced the liability for many annual conferences.) Requiring additional apportionments, the repayment of grants up to ten years old, or the payment of a percentage of the property value only make disaffiliation under ¶ 2553 even more impossible for cash-strapped local churches.
Many bishops and annual conference leaders say they support treating traditionalists graciously in the process of separation. Some have said they want to ensure local churches can make the decision of where to affiliate that best meets the needs of that local church and its ministry. Some progressives and centrists have even displayed frustration that traditionalists do not begin separating now, rather than waiting for General Conference.
The requirements for leaving the denomination explained above demonstrate why, according to UM News Service, only 130 (out of 31,000) local churches have disaffiliated over the past two years. If UM leaders want to be gracious, it is in their power to do so by refraining from adding onerous requirements to the disaffiliation process. Actions speak louder than words.
The blank check the Judicial Council has given annual conferences to impose requirements and demand additional payments from departing congregations demonstrates even more vividly why the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is needed. Under the Protocol, all payments by the local church go away. The local church is required to pay nothing to the annual conference, and its pension liability is assumed by the new denomination. In exchange for leaving behind hundreds of millions of dollars of general church assets, local churches are allowed to keep the buildings and properties that, in most cases, they paid for themselves. If progressives and centrists truly want a gracious resolution of our denominational conflict, the answer is to hold a General Conference and pass the Protocol.
If the Protocol is not enacted soon, in those annual conferences where additional onerous requirements are part of the disaffiliation process, some local churches may be better off walking away from their buildings and property and starting over. No amount of property is worth compromising the integrity of our Christian witness. For the first several centuries of the Church’s explosive growth, there were no church buildings at all. If we truly want to recapture the spirit and fervor of the New Testament Church, we should not allow ourselves to be unduly hindered by the need to maintain buildings and property, even though they can certainly be an asset to a church’s ministry. While it is painful to surrender buildings and cemeteries to which we have a deeply heartfelt attachment, our friends in the Episcopal Church who had to relinquish their buildings to start the Anglican Church in North America testify to the freedom that can come in focusing on new vehicles of ministry. In many rural communities in Africa, the church meets under a tree or in a community building. We may need to be similarly creative and adaptable.
I do not understand why some bishops and annual conferences think they can coerce people into remaining in The United Methodist Church through expensive and onerous disaffiliation requirements. Taking a punitive or heavy-handed approach only drives people away from the UM Church – it is not winsome. Local congregations may be prevented or discouraged from withdrawing with their buildings, but that does not foster loyalty among the lay members of the church. Those lay members can easily walk out the door and down the street to another church or abandon the institutional church altogether. (Many have done so in recent years.) Coercive leadership just accelerates the process of “dechurchification.”
These Judicial Council decisions give bishops and annual conferences the opportunity to demonstrate grace in the midst of separation and conflict. They can move forward with the Protocol and refrain from onerous and expensive disaffiliation processes. Will they pass the test?
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.