By Walter Fenton
While the vast majority of theologically conservative United Methodist local churches are waiting to part ways with their denomination once the General Conference adopts a plan of separation later this year, others are not.
In late January, Frazer Church, one of the largest congregations in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference, voted to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church and join the Free Methodist Church. It is one of several dozen other local UM churches that have left the denomination over the past year.
In light of several local churches that have disaffiliated from the Missouri Annual Conference, Bishop Robert Farr, the conference’s episcopal leader, recently released a statement and frequently-asked questions document regarding the disaffiliation process. While the statement briefly notes the grief Farr and the annual conference feel over the departure of sister congregations, it is principally a word of advice to other local churches contemplating disaffiliation.
“[S]ome attorneys [representing local churches] have engaged in disappointing practices,” Farr wrote. “[T]hey have refused to share the calculation of disaffiliation payments until after a congregation votes for disaffiliation, taken actions in violation of the Missouri Nonprofit Corporations Law, and made statements they knew to be false. In many cases, small churches have paid tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees on top of the same payment a similar church that worked directly with the Conference paid.”
Legal fees can quickly add up as attorneys acquaint themselves with the UM Church’s Book of Discipline, and then begin interacting with conference officials. When both parties are committed to reaching a fair and amicable agreement, the process can be straightforward, though inevitably time consuming and costly for a local church. However, if the parties perceive one another as adversaries, and attorneys offer unsound advice, local churches can spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses on top of exit fees owed to the annual conference.
“As an attorney myself, I’m thankful the majority of people in the profession practice according to the highest standards,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, my colleague and the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. “However, like any profession, we have our share of bad apples. When it comes to church law, some attorneys do poor research and then pass along bad advice to their clients. And even worse, some are unscrupulous and wittingly maneuver their clients into paying much higher legal fees than necessary. I wholeheartedly concur with Bishop Farr’s advice that local church leaders should do their due diligence before hiring an attorney.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association has encouraged theologically conservative local churches to wait for the adoption of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and then, under its terms, join the Global Methodist Church. While acknowledging the Protocol includes compromises neither centrist-progressives nor conservatives like, the WCA continues to believe it resolves a decades-long dispute as amicably as possible. It allows theologically conservative local churches to join the new denomination with all their property and assets without costly disaffiliation fees. The adoption of the Protocol would also keep the general church and local congregations from engaging in the bitter civil litigation that has cost other mainline denominations tens of millions of dollars.
Unlike some UM Church episcopal leaders, Bishop Farr wrote in his statement that he and Missouri Annual Conference leaders are willing to amicably and fairly work with local churches that want to disaffiliate. He noted that congregations and clergy that have expressed an interest in exiting the denomination have not been “the target[s] of any type of retribution.”
“We do have our differences with some of the terms the Missouri Annual Conference seeks to impose on disaffiliating churches,” said Boyette. “We think certain terms are contrary to what the Discipline clearly states. We counsel churches who choose to disaffiliate not to agree to terms that differ from those adopted by the 2019 General Conference. Nevertheless, we welcome efforts to allow local churches to depart as amicably as possible. In that spirit, while the Protocol has yet to be adopted, we believe annual conference leaders and local churches should use its terms as a model for parting ways.”
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and the Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Reprinted from the WCA’s Outlook by permission