By Thomas Lambrecht –
This is a time fraught with anxiety and frustration for many United Methodists. Some progressives are exasperated that they are unable to fully affirm LGBTQ ordination, same-sex marriage, and various gender identities.
Some traditionalists are upset at some of the ways traditionalist pastors and churches appear to have been targeted by unsympathetic bishops. Some on both sides are afraid there will not be a General Conference in 2022 or that the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation will not pass.
This has led a number of local churches to disaffiliate from the denomination. In New England and Texas, it has been primarily liberal congregations exiting. In other parts of the country, traditionalist churches have left. Someone recently counted over 100 congregations that had departed over the past year – both progressive and traditionalist.
Other churches are considering whether or not to use the recently enacted exit path (Para. 2553 adopted at the 2019 General Conference) to leave the denomination. A few have requested to do so, but have been turned down by their bishop or their annual conference. We frequently get calls or emails from pastors or lay leaders asking what is involved in leaving the denomination. Tragically, in a few annual conferences, even asking that question can lead to the annual conference closing the church and dismissing the pastor.
The Cost of Departure. A major obstacle to churches wanting to depart from the denomination is cost. The minimum costs involve payment of two years’ apportionments plus the local church’s pension withdrawal liability.
Let’s take a concrete example of a fairly typical 170-member congregation. Its annual budget is around $290,000, including annual apportionments of $33,000. We have been told that a local church’s pension withdrawal liability can range from 4 – 8 times their annual apportionment. (That figure changes from year to year depending on the performance of the stock market.) That means the pension figure could run from $132,000 to $264,000. Add to that two years’ apportionments of $66,000. That means the cost for this church to leave the denomination now could be anywhere from $198,000 to $330,000. This church could spend from 68 to 115 percent of one year’s budget to leave the denomination now.
Some annual conferences are adding payments to what the General Conference enacted. One conference is requiring churches to pay 30 percent of the assessed value of the property on top of the above listed payments. (This is being challenged before the Judicial Council.) In the example of the congregation above, their property is valued at $8 million. That means an extra $2.4 million, bringing the total to $2.6 to $2.7 million in order to depart.
The numbers for a smaller, 70-member congregation are similar. Their annual budget is $52,800, with apportionments of $7,180. The departure cost for apportionments and pension liabilities could total between $43,080 and $71,800. This congregation could have to pay 81 to 136 percent of its total budget to depart. The property value of $1.5 million could add another 450,000 to that figure. (Please note that apportionment and budget numbers vary in different annual conferences and different congregations. Readers are encouraged to run the numbers for their own local church to get an idea of cost.)
All payments to the annual conference would have to be made prior to the local church’s departure. For most churches, this payout would be impossible. At best, it would strain the church’s financial resources and subtract from money being available for ongoing mission and ministry. Even if the church had no apportionment payments following departure, it would take 6-10 years to break even.
Of course, the compensation for paying all this liability now is that it would release the congregation from any future pension liability. Even if it joins the proposed Global Methodist Church or another Methodist body, it would carry with it no future liability. At the same time, it is uncertain whether any or all of that future liability would ever have to be paid. As long as the stock market does reasonably well, the church (or the new denomination) may never have to pay it.
Under the Protocol, this same congregation would owe zero dollars in order to separate and align with the new Global Methodist Church. They would not have to pay back any loans or grants given them by the annual conference. They would not have to pay any prior unpaid apportionments. Their pension liability would be transferred to the new denomination, so would not have to be paid up front. They would not have to pay a percentage of the property value.
Just from a stewardship perspective, it does not make sense for a congregation to depart from the UM Church now, when waiting a year could save that church tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Timing of Departure. Another obstacle to the departure of local churches is the timing and how long the process would take. Departure requires a two-thirds vote in favor by a church conference (a meeting of all church members). Para. 2553 calls for the district superintendent to convene a church conference within 120 days of when the superintendent calls for such a conference. That means, the superintendent could delay calling for a conference at the superintendent’s discretion, as long as the conference is scheduled within 120 days of the superintendent’s issuing the call. (This is one of several unfortunate loopholes in Para. 2553.)
More importantly, departure requires a majority vote in favor by the annual conference. A local church could go through all the steps to disaffiliate and then have the annual conference vote no or vote to postpone, as one congregation in Wisconsin just experienced in June.
It is unlikely that an annual conference will convene a special session just to vote on whether one or more local churches can disaffiliate. The next annual conference session would be held in May or June 2022. That is just three months before the scheduled meeting of General Conference at which the Protocol would be considered.
The timing of departure means that a church could spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to disaffiliate only three months before they could make the same decision to separate without charge. Acting to disaffiliate now at most gains a local church three months of an early exit.
By contrast, once the Protocol passes, a district superintendent would have to schedule a church conference within 60 days of the request by the local church. No discretionary delays would be allowed. Further, the annual conference would not need to vote to approve the decision to separate. So actual separation could become effective within 60-90 days (at most) following the adjournment of General Conference.
Vote Required for Separation. Another obstacle may be the two-thirds vote by the church conference required for separation now under Para. 2553. The Protocol allows the church council or equivalent body to decide whether it would take a majority vote or a two-thirds vote to separate under the Protocol. A church that might not reach the two-thirds vote for separation now could wait for the Protocol and separate under a simple majority vote of the church conference.
Reasons to Separate Now. Even given the above disadvantages, some local churches might have a legitimate reason to move into disaffiliation now. They could be in the middle of a crisis, like the Mt. Bethel Church in North Georgia, that forces them to take drastic action now. In some churches, substantial numbers of members might be threatening to leave the church unless it acts now to disaffiliate. Local leaders would have to weigh carefully the urgency of starting the disaffiliation process now, compared with the costs involved.
Another reason to disaffiliate now is if the local church wants to go independent, rather than align with the Global Methodist Church or another new Methodist expression. Churches wanting to be independent could not avail themselves of the terms of the Protocol and would have to follow Para. 2553 anyway, so there would be no point in waiting.
One reason NOT to initiate disaffiliation now is concern that General Conference will not be able to meet in 2022. Some are pessimistic that General Conference will be able to meet due to pandemic travel restrictions. While this is certainly possible, at this point it seems less likely. The Board of Global Ministries and other church leaders are working on ways to ensure that delegates are able to receive their vaccinations, which should enable them to travel to the U.S. and avoid the need for a quarantine. Members of Congress and Senate have been contacted about helping to secure visas for delegates in the event that normal visa processes are not functioning in time. U.S. citizens can now travel to Europe and at least parts of Africa without quarantine. One hopes that vaccinations will increasingly become available in Africa and the Philippines over the next six to nine months, leading to further easing in any travel restrictions.
One needs to be careful about some who are spreading false rumors about whether General Conference can be held as scheduled. One rumor is that the United Methodist General Conference is not even on the Minneapolis Convention Center website, which shows that it probably will not happen. But no events further than six months out are posted on the Convention Center website, so our meeting not being listed means absolutely nothing. Contracts have been signed and preparations for the meeting continue on schedule.
If in the spring of 2022 it becomes apparent that not all overseas delegates would be able to attend General Conference, there would still be time to set up alternatives. Many annual conferences have met virtually. The Wesleyan Covenant Association had a hybrid in-person and virtual meeting. The African Methodist Episcopal Church had a General Conference in two sites. Delegates met simultaneously in South Africa and in the U.S. There are options that would allow General Conference to meet despite some travel restrictions.
Another rumor is that the bishops will not allow the General Conference to meet or will not allow the General Conference to consider the Protocol. United Methodist bishops do not have the power to cancel General Conference. The Commission on the General Conference, of which bishops make up a small minority, makes that decision. United Methodist bishops do not set the agenda of a regular General Conference. The Agenda Committee sets the agenda and the delegates themselves approve it. All petitions legally submitted to the General Conference (including the Protocol) must be voted on at General Conference, according to the Discipline. Bishops cannot prevent General Conference from meeting, nor can they prevent the General Conference from considering the Protocol.
A further worry is, “What if the Protocol does not pass?” At this point, there is still no organized opposition to the Protocol. In fact, several annual conferences (including North Georgia, the largest U.S. conference, and California-Pacific, a very liberal conference) passed resolutions this spring favoring adoption of the Protocol. The Renewal and Reform Coalition (RRC), which includes U.S. evangelical delegates, as well as many delegates from Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and Africa, remains solidly supportive. Many progressives favor the Protocol as the best way for them to pursue their agenda of moving the church to affirm LGBT ordination and same sex marriage. In addition, many centrists are tired of the fighting and just want to resolve the conflict so the church can focus on its mission and ministry. I would not be surprised if the Protocol were to pass by a two-thirds margin at General Conference.
There are bishops who make statements like, “The Protocol will never see the light of day,” and “The Protocol will never pass.” It must be remembered that these same bishops were sure that the One Church Plan would pass the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. (Of course, it did not.) Some bishops, like most human beings, hear what they want to hear and consider only the “evidence” that agrees with their perspective. So far, the available evidence seems to favor the passing of the Protocol, despite what some bishops think or say.
A Spiritual Perspective. In Matthew 4:1-11, we read how Jesus was tempted by the devil. The interesting thing is that all of the outcomes the devil offered to Jesus – daily provision, protection, even rule over all the kingdoms of the world – were legitimately Jesus’s to claim. God had promised all these outcomes to the Messiah, which is who Jesus was. But the devil was tempting Jesus to claim these legitimate promises in illegitimate ways before the appropriate time had come. The challenge was for Jesus to trust the will of his heavenly Father, instead of making those things happen by himself. And because Jesus had trust in a divine plan, all those promises – provision, protection, and rule – came to Jesus in a supernatural way and with perfect timing.
While there are legitimate and understandable circumstances when local churches may move toward disaffiliation now, we have to be careful we do not preempt God. We can trust God to keep his promises to us, as we remain faithful to him. And his promises to us will come to us in God’s way and in God’s time, as he leads by his Holy Spirit. Sometimes he wants us to be patient while he works things out in his way and time.
The bottom line is that, in the absence of exigent circumstances unique to a particular local church, there may be no compelling reason for local churches to leave the UM Church at this time. In fact, there are strong reasons financially and in terms of timing why waiting for the Protocol may make the best sense. And whether a church exits now through the Para. 2553 process or waits for the Protocol, there is normally no need to hire a law firm to guide the church through the process of separation.
The new Global Methodist Church, when it is formed, will benefit most from all those local churches and annual conferences that desire to align with it to act together and stay together. Working in concert, we can build a new church that is faithful to Scripture and Wesleyan doctrine, as well as effectively structured for ministry in the 21st century. What we wind up with will be worth the wait.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.