By Thomas Lambrecht
In the aftermath of the postponement of General Conference until 2024, there is understandably an explosion of interest by local churches in how to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and unite with the Global Methodist Church. As reported in a previous Perspective, this process of decision-making for local churches may take time (several months, up to a year or two). Congregations will act when ready, but it will also take the approval of their annual conference, which may only meet once a year, thus delaying the effective date of realignment.
Because General Conference has not yet adopted the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, there is no unified plan of separation for local churches to follow. What will be required in each annual conference will be different. Good News has appealed to bishops and annual conference leaders to take a gracious and amicable approach toward separation, rather than a punitive one.
Some bishops have said that they will do all they can to help local churches move to where they want to be, whether that is remaining United Methodist or aligning with the Global Methodist Church. They have promised not to put obstacles in the way of churches and pastors who want to realign to the GM Church. A few bishops have indicated a willingness to use ¶ 2548.2 to allow congregations to change affiliation and to work with churches to reduce the financial demands for departure.
As mentioned in that previous Perspective, one option for reducing financial demands, even using ¶ 2553, is to allow the payment of pension liability through use of a promissory note, rather than an upfront cash payment. As the plan sponsor, an annual conference can work with Wespath to make this solution work, so that the liability of future pension payments is covered, no pastor’s pension would suffer because of separation, and that the local church would have an affordable route to realignment.
Other bishops and annual conferences, however, seem determined to try to prevent local churches from moving to the Global Methodist Church with their property and assets. In addition to the already high financial cost of withdrawal under ¶ 2553, some conferences and bishops are requiring repayment of previous grants made to the local church and even a percentage of the church’s appraised property value – anywhere from 20 to 50 percent! This would force a congregation to essentially pay twice for a facility that they already paid to erect and maintain. In most cases, the annual conference put no money into constructing that church building, but will in these instances reap a windfall as the church departs (if it is even able to afford such a departure). Even some bishops who signed the Protocol are now backing off from its principles in order to support onerous financial requirements.
What are the ramifications of such an approach?
Annual Conference Withdrawal
One unintended consequence of a failure for General Conference to meet and pass the Protocol is that annual conferences may be able to depart from the UM Church more easily than if the Protocol had passed. Judicial Council is expected to issue a ruling by mid-May on whether an annual conference can vote to withdraw. In a previous decision, the Judicial Council has stated, “The annual conference … exercises autonomous control over [its] agenda, business, discussion, and vote on the question of withdrawal” (Judicial Council Decision #1366 on page 44).
If the Judicial Council rules in line with its previous decision, the annual conference (in the absence of any other legislation passed by General Conference) could determine to withdraw from the UM Church and align with the GM Church by a simple majority vote. The Protocol, on the other hand, would require a 57 percent vote to do so. This would make it likely that more annual conferences would withdraw before the 2024 General Conference than wait for the Protocol to pass in 2024.
Weakened Local Churches
Annual conferences that impose high financial costs on departing congregations will weaken those congregations that can afford to disaffiliate under those terms. Hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars that could have been used to support the ministry of that local church will now support the bureaucracy of a liberal annual conference. Congregations will have to tap out their financial reserves, cut back on ministry programs and staff, and/or borrow heavily (paying costs for interest on indebtedness) in order to align with a denomination that reflects their theological and missional identity. Some congregations taking this route might not even survive. Other congregations will suffer a heavy financial burden that could hamper their ministry in the community for years. The serious financial costs jeopardize the ability of all these congregations to have a strong start in a new denomination.
These onerous financial demands would do harm to these congregations – contravening Wesley’s dictum to “do no harm” that is often cited by centrists and progressives as one of their guiding lights. What annual conferences might gain to help ensure their institutional status quo could severely compromise the ability of departing congregations to continue strong ministry in their local communities.
The more likely alternative is that congregations faced with insurmountable financial costs of realignment will simply be stuck in a United Methodist denomination that is rapidly leaving them theologically. With these financial demands, the annual conference is essentially holding the church hostage, forcing them to remain within a church in which they no longer fit.
Such a situation is not good for the local church, nor is it good for the annual conference. Obviously, the local church that is begrudgingly still United Methodist is not going to wholeheartedly support its annual conference’s mission and purpose. It may not willingly support financially an annual conference that would treat its congregations with such disrespect. The annual conference may get less money out of the congregation than if it just allowed the church to leave with paying two years’ apportionments and no property payment.
Traditionalist members of that reluctantly remaining congregation may decide they do not need to be part of a congregation held in a denomination against its will. They may decide to drive down the road to another (probably non-denominational) congregation and be lost to Methodism. The remaining congregation will grow weaker with the loss of members, again compromising its ability to offer vibrant ministry in that local community. The vicious circle of members leaving, reduced ministry, and more members leaving could ultimately lead to the demise of that congregation.
How does it serve the interests of the annual conference to force congregations to remain in the annual conference against their will and potentially cause the congregation to close? First, from a progressive perspective, it would disempower and eventually get rid of annoying traditionalists and their “old-fashioned” understanding of the faith that is getting in the way of real progress toward an inclusive progressive church (without losing that congregation’s valuable property). Second, it would allow the annual conference to send liberal pastors to serve that congregation and hopefully change the character of the church to being a progressive one by replacing departing traditionalists with new, more progressive members. Worst case, if the church closes, the annual conference could at least sell the property and use the proceeds to fund progressive ministry in the years ahead.
This warped perspective of the Kingdom of God prioritizes progressive ideology over living by the Golden Rule. It treats traditionalists in a way that no progressive or centrist would want to be treated. It reflects a power play that cynically capitalizes on the fact that centrist/progressive bishops and annual conferences hold most of the power and can treat congregations unjustly with impunity. The only thing that might restrain them is a moral compass that remembers Jesus’ dictum that Christians are called to serve one another, not lord it over one another.
Blocked Progressive Agenda
Another consequence of attempting to hold traditionalists in the UM Church against our will is the potential that centrists and progressives might find their agenda for the church is blocked. Right now, the number one legislative priority of centrists and progressives is adopting a plan to regionalize church government. Their goal is to enable the U.S. part of the church to govern itself without interference from the new African majority.
However, plans to regionalize church government involves amending the church’s constitution, which will require a two-thirds vote at General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members around the world. If traditionalists in the U.S. and particularly in Africa are not allowed to withdraw, there will be more than enough votes to block any attempt to regionalize, thus defeating the centrist/progressive agenda.
I have never understood the centrists’ and progressives’ feverish attempts to keep the African churches part of the UM denomination, when the Africans alone could scuttle their legislative priorities. African delegates are much more informed than in the past and much more willing to have their own opinions and resist the dictates of bishops who go against the interests of faithfulness to traditionalist understandings of the faith. Despite hardball efforts by some liberal African bishops to muzzle traditionalist African leaders, African delegates are prepared to stand on their own in opposition to attempts to change the church’s teachings or marginalize African influence in the church.
The second legislative priority for centrists and progressives is to eliminate from the Discipline the traditional definition of marriage and allow the ordination of non-celibate LGBT persons to ministry. Yet, traditionalists still hold a narrow majority of the delegates to General Conference. Progressives pushed hard to elect progressive delegates to the 2020 General Conference and succeeded in making gains among clergy delegates. It is likely, however, that a 2024 General Conference will require new elections for a new delegation, and progressives might not be as successful. The number of U.S. delegates will decrease due to membership declines, and the number of African delegates will increase due to their membership growth.
It appears likely that if traditionalists are held in the UM Church by unaffordable financial requirements, there will still be a slim traditionalist majority at General Conference 2024. This is counterproductive to enacting the centrist and progressive agenda of “full inclusion” and U.S. autonomy. Thus, the quest for financial gain through intimidating traditionalist congregations into remaining United Methodist may turn out to be self-defeating for centrists and progressives.
Let the Conflict Continue
Ultimately, the worst consequence of forcing traditionalists to remain United Methodists against their will through onerous requirements is that it continues the conflict in the church. As long as a substantial group of traditionalists remains in the UM Church, there will be theological conflict. Previously, the goal has been to resolve the conflict, release and bless one another to pursue ministry in the way consistent with our divergent beliefs, and move forward in a positive direction. Bishops and annual conferences that impose unaffordable provisions on local churches wanting to realign are abandoning the opportunity to resolve the conflict and allow the church to move forward in a positive way. Instead, they would be placing short-term, primarily financial self-interest ahead of setting a positive future for the church.
Bishops and annual conferences in this moment have a choice. They can escalate the conflict with onerous requirements and attempt to block congregations from leaving The United Methodist Church. Or they can take a reasonable approach that facilitates the resolution of our church’s theological conflict for the sake of creating the opportunity for a positive future for all. For the sake of Christ’s Kingdom, it is to be hoped they choose the way leading to a positive future.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.