Surf City Disaffiliation or Eviction? —
The Los Angeles Times recently published a comprehensive 2,000 word piece about the excessively costly disaffiliation process for traditionalist United Methodist congregations in Southern California. It is worth reading to gauge the level of turmoil and pain within the denomination-wide schism.
Every annual conference has set different requirements for a congregation to disaffiliate. The California-Pacific conference is one of three to charge 50 percent of the price of their property – in addition to the normal fees and pension liabilities that are required by other annual conferences around the nation. Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware are two others.
Elsewhere, California-Nevada is charging 20 percent, while South Carolina and West Virginia are charging 10 percent of the price of their property. Mountain Sky is charging a negotiated percentage of property value. Oregon-Idaho is adding some extra costs, but not a percentage of property value. Pacific Northwest and Alaska are not requiring extra costs. Neither is Desert Southwest.
According to the July 1 Times story from reporter Eric Licas, there are 22 Southern California churches attempting to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church. The arbitrary financial requirements are proving to be major impediments in the fate of these small congregations.
“This annual conference and a couple others out there are adding onerous provisions for disaffiliation that make it literally impossible,” said the Rev. Glen Haworth, lead pastor of The Fount, a United Methodist congregation in Fountain Valley, California. “My church has 50 members, and they want $3 million dollars,” he told Licas. “And they say that’s fine, that’s fair. I say: fair to who?”
For small congregations like Haworth’s, the annual conference cost requirements seem insurmountable.
The in-depth story in the Times focuses on a neighboring congregation, Surf City Church in Huntington Beach, a community 30 miles south of Los Angeles. That congregation sought to disaffiliate, but was closed by the conference instead.
The superintendent of California Pacific Conference’s South District, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, told the paper that Surf City Church – a United Methodist congregation – had been deemed “unviable” after “10 years of efforts to revitalize and focus the mission and ministry there.” According to Olewine, the conference leadership made the decision to close the church.
“[Surf City Church] is no longer a chartered congregation and due to the failure to participate in the mission congregation process that designation was terminated on December 31, 2022,” Olewine told the reporter. “They have no official standing in the denomination any longer.”
Understandably, laypeople from the Huntington Beach congregation are seeing the very painful story through a different lens.
“People in the pews, they’re the ones who are just unbelievably disappointed that they were part of a church that would say the kind of things and do the kind of things and take the kind of actions the church has taken,” John Leonard, a member of the Surf City Church board of trustees, is quoted as saying in the paper.
Leonard told the reporter that Surf City Church existed as a congregation long before it joined the United Methodist Church and that their sanctuary, preschool, fellowship hall and the rest of its facilities were all paid for by members of the community.
“The conference didn’t pay a cent for any of that,” Leonard said.
According to the newspaper account, Surf City was launched in 1904 as a “tent church” on the shore in Huntington Beach.
The newspaper reports that “members of the local congregation claim they have been harassed by parties representing their parent denomination, according to Leonard and [fellow board member Marge] Mitchell.” That interference includes harassment of the church’s preschool.
According to the reporting, “Earlier this year, [members of the congregation] received an email claiming they were illegally operating their preschool and had to shut it down. That was followed shortly thereafter by a visit to the school by state inspectors who said they were responding to an anonymous tip. However, [the inspectors] found no issues.”
Terri King, another Surf City member, handles the finances for the preschool that serves about 95 students from the community. When she tried to pay the teachers, King discovered that the “accounts holding their wages had been frozen by attorneys for the conference.”
In past years, the congregation has hosted a summer program for kids, but they have cancelled it this year “because we have no guarantee that we will be able to pay the teachers,” King told the paper.
Worship services, Bible studies, and other programs are being hosted at the church with the assistance of guest pastors. “Members still shuffle into their sanctuary’s pews and take inspiration from its stained glass windows,” reports Licas. “Most remain committed to their faith, even if they’re practically regarded as squatters by the conference.”
The members of the Huntington Beach congregation are awaiting a final decision “outlining exactly how ownership will be transferred,” although attorneys for the conference have “unsuccessfully filed motions to allow them to seize it immediately,” reports the paper.
“The issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is the presenting issue currently,” the superintendent, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, wrote in an email to the reporter on June 23. “But there are other challenges we must face that have existed for far too long: systemic racism, persistent sexism, and impacts of colonialism both within the U.S. and globally are just a few. How to be church as we approach the second quarter of the 21st century is up for grabs. We are amid a period of reformation, which is not a bad thing, but it is a challenging thing.”
Concerned laypeople within the congregation believe the denomination is “trying to leverage its survival against what they describe as a ransom on those trying to part ways with it.” They are hoping for a reformation of a different kind with a peaceable resolution.
To read the entire story in the Los Angeles Times, you may click HERE. Photo: Lone surfer at Huntington Beach. Photo by Steve Beard.