By Thomas Lambrecht
In the midst of the sometimes heated rhetoric around separation and the conflicts engendered by bishops and annual conferences who are imposing draconian requirements on churches desiring to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, it is easy to overlook the annual conferences where the process is conducted fairly.
Out of 53 annual conferences in the U.S., 12 (23 percent) are imposing requirements that make it nearly impossible for local churches to disaffiliate. An additional 17 conferences (32 percent) are imposing additional requirements beyond the two years of apportionments and the church’s share of pension liabilities that Par. 2553 stipulates, but the additional requirements are not normally deal-breakers. Local churches can usually afford the additional amounts if they can afford the apportionments and pension liability.
Conferences Facilitating Disaffiliation
There are 21 annual conferences (40 percent) who are imposing a straight Par. 2553 process with no added financial requirements. A few are requiring payment of retiree health liabilities, but that amount is usually modest. Some are requiring reimbursement of the conference’s legal expenses, which also should be minor.
Of these 21 annual conferences, six have gone out of their way to accommodate churches wanting to disaffiliate.
The Northwest Texas Annual Conference voted in 2021 by over 80 percent to signal its intent to disaffiliate as an annual conference. When the Judicial Council and the Council of Bishops closed the door on that avenue, the conference did all it could to facilitate local church disaffiliation. It voted to spend down its reserves, reducing or eliminating apportionment payments for the next two years. It also used pension reserves to pay down the unfunded pension liability, so that local churches disaffiliating will need to pay very little to do so. Since the conference was small to begin with, it expects to be folded into another UM annual conference when all the churches who desire to disaffiliate have done so. Annual conference members believed that the conference’s assets should benefit all the churches that contributed those assets, not just the churches that remained United Methodist. The gracious result was that pensions and annual conference programming were cared for and churches that desired to disaffiliate could do so, unhindered by the need to raise large sums of money.
Similarly, the Great Plains Annual Conference used pension reserves to reduce its pension liability by two-thirds, easing the burden on disaffiliating churches and also benefitting congregations remaining in the UM Church.
The Texas Annual Conference (covering east Texas) used pension reserves along with market factors to reduce its pension liability nearly to zero.
The Dakotas Annual Conference is providing an 80 percent discount on the second 12 months’ apportionment amount that local churches need to pay. It’s formula for allocating pension liabilities favors small churches, particularly churches that have not had a pastor who participated in the pension program (e.g., served by a part-time local pastor or supply pastor). The formula is based on the number of years of pension credit received by still-living pastors while they served the given congregation.
The Central Texas Annual Conference passed nearly unanimously a “plan of separation” that used pension reserves to reduce pension liability. The plan also created a conference level position to administer disaffiliations.
The Oklahoma Annual Conference also used pension reserves to reduce its pension liability and limited the apportionment amounts owed to the current and previous calendar years.
These and the other 15 annual conferences that are offering a straight Par. 2553 disaffiliation are to be commended for facilitating the separation process in a way that is respectful and honors the decisions of local churches without trying to coerce them into remaining United Methodist. This process still presents a barrier to particularly small churches that cannot afford the pension liability payment.
The annual conferences in this category include: Alaska, Central Texas, Dakotas, East Ohio, Great Plains, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Alabama, North Carolina, Northwest Texas, Oklahoma, Pacific Northwest, South Georgia, Tennessee-Western Kentucky, Texas, Western North Carolina, Wisconsin.
Conferences Adding Requirements
The next group of 17 annual conferences add some requirements to the basics of Par. 2553, but those requirements may not apply to all churches or they pose a relatively modest additional cost, compared to what Par. 2553 requires. Some of these conferences require payment of retiree health care liabilities. Some require repayment of grants received from the annual conference anywhere from the last one to ten years (which of course would only affect those churches that received grants). Some require an extra year or two of apportionments. Some require payment of pastoral compensation to the current pastor if he/she does not also disaffiliate and either takes a pay cut or cannot be appointed to another congregation.
Disturbingly, Holston, Eastern Pennsylvania, Northern Illinois, and Western Pennsylvania are still developing their terms of disaffiliation. There should be no excuse for being this far behind, when Par. 2553 has been on the books since 2019. Since this provision for disaffiliation expires at the end of 2023, these annual conferences will need to work extra hard to enable churches to meet the deadline. And the imposition of additional financial terms might move these conferences into the “impossible” category below.
Also of concern in this group of conferences, the Rio Texas Conference apparently will not release to the local church its total financial obligation until AFTER the local church has voted to disaffiliate. How can a local church make an informed decision about disaffiliation unless they have all the information needed? The financial piece is a very important part of the decision process. One hopes that provision will be quickly changed.
The New England Conference does not impose additional costs, but it requires an onerous eight-month study process that includes input from other UM churches, conference leaders, and non-UM members of the local church’s community. People from outside the church should not have the ability to block a local church’s disaffiliation. Requiring such a long, complicated discernment process is mainly designed to discourage local churches from even considering disaffiliation and is thus a form of coercion.
Conferences in this group that require more than the Par. 2553 minimum, but still make it possible for most churches to disaffiliate include:
Alabama-West Florida, Arkansas, Eastern Pennsylvania, Holston, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New England, North Georgia, North Texas, Oregon-Idaho, Rio Texas, Upper New York, Virginia, West Ohio, Western Pennsylvania.
Conferences Blocking Disaffiliation
A group of annual conferences are imposing additional financial and other requirements that in effect block churches from disaffiliating by making it unaffordable. Nearly all of these 12 conferences require payment of a percentage of the local church’s property value, ranging from an undetermined amount (at the discretion of the conference trustees) up to 100 percent in one case! In addition, South Carolina Bishop Jonathan Holston is not allowing any church to disaffiliate because he says he is not violating the Book of Discipline, and thus no local church qualifies to separate under Par. 2553. West Virginia Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball is also refusing to use Par. 2553 for the same reason. That annual conference appears to have no disaffiliation process. A few churches are looking at disaffiliation through Par. 2549, which requires the annual conference to close the church and then allow the church to buy back the facilities.
In addition to having no disaffiliation process available to local churches, the Northern Illinois Conference is even now still removing licensed local pastors who are exploring disaffiliation along with their congregation. Fear and intimidation tactics obviously prevent local churches from even considering the possibility of disaffiliation, for fear of losing their pastor. Such heavy-handed tactics reflect poorly on the annual conference and will alienate even more churches.
The Florida Conference, while not requiring payment of a percentage of the property value, is requiring a form of liability insurance that is rarely available commercially, and when it is available, is prohibitively expensive. That has given rise to a lawsuit by 106 local churches there, as reported in last week’s Perspective.
The Greater New Jersey Conference takes the prize as the worst state for churches to disaffiliate. Their list of additional costs include: unfunded retiree health care liability, the church’s share of the BSA abuse settlement, 18 months of compensation for clergy who do not disaffiliate with the congregation, moving costs for two moves for such clergy, a percentage of the church’s cash and investments equal to the percentage of the congregation voting against disaffiliation, a $3,500 administrative fee, and a possible payment for the property value at the discretion of the conference trustees. Unfortunately, trust law in New Jersey favors the denomination, making it almost impossible for a local church to gain its property through litigation. If the 2024 General Conference does not pass some form of uniform exit path that curbs this abusive list of fees, congregations in New Jersey may be better off simply walking away from their property and starting over.
Conferences making it very difficult or impossible to disaffiliate include: Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, California-Pacific, Florida, Greater New Jersey, Illinois Great Rivers, Mountain Sky, Northern Illinois, Peninsula-Delaware, South Carolina, Susquehanna, West Virginia.
Some More Keys
In order to do disaffiliation right, annual conferences should post their disaffiliation policies and requirements on their websites. One-fifth of all U.S. annual conferences fail to do so. Transparency is the gold standard for building trust, and these conferences are failing the test.
Another step annual conferences can take to do disaffiliation right would be to schedule a special annual conference session (or more than one) to approve local church disaffiliation. At least a dozen annual conferences have already scheduled such extra sessions for this fall. Some are also considering special sessions for fall of 2023 to catch churches who are moving through the process at the last minute before the provisions expire at the end of December 2023. Such sessions can be done virtually and would entail minimal expense. It would behoove annual conferences to graciously provide for churches that are at different points in the disaffiliation process, rather than insist all churches in the conference must conform to a rigid schedule.
As is evident by the survey above, there is a crying need for a uniform and equitable disaffiliation process, both in the U.S. and for annual conferences overseas. The failure of church leaders to hold General Conference as scheduled at least in 2022 is facilitating great harm to many congregations.
The 2024 General Conference has a chance to belatedly right this wrong by passing the Protocol or a version of Par. 2553 that curbs the abusive requirements imposed by some annual conferences and facilitates the ability of congregations to act on the dictates of their consciences. Wespath has proposed a different way of handling pension liabilities that could save local churches a lot of money, while still ensuring the soundness and viability of future pension benefits. As of yet, however, there is no support coming forth publicly from the centrist or progressive camps for adopting a uniform disaffiliation policy in 2024. Adopting that will require broad support across the spectrum. One hopes it will yet materialize.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.