By Tom Lambrecht –
The legislation that would implement the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation has been completed. It has been sent for formatting and will be forwarded to several annual conferences that are supposed to have special sessions in order to adopt the legislation and submit it to General Conference. Those sessions need to occur before the middle of March, so that the legislation can be submitted before the 45-day deadline prior to General Conference.
As the legislation is released publicly, probably within the next week, more details will be available as to how separation would work under the Protocol. Future articles will address various aspects of the Protocol plan in coming weeks. This article will look at how separation might affect churches in the United States. Note that nothing has been decided or will become final until General Conference takes action on these proposals in May. The delegates may choose to change some provisions of the Protocol Plan (although the mediation team hopes that it remains relatively intact as it is).
Annual Conference Action
The first decision regarding how churches will align, whether with a New Methodist Denomination or with the continuing United Methodist Church, will be made in some annual conferences. The Protocol requires a 57 percent vote by an annual conference in order to align with a New Methodist Denomination. If the conference does not vote (a vote is not required) or does not achieve 57 percent, it will remain in the post-separation United Methodist Church.
In order to be eligible for annual conferences and local churches to vote to align with a New Methodist Denomination, a leadership group that is promoting such a denomination must register with the Council of Bishops prior to May 15, 2021. The leaders of a New Traditionalist Methodist Denomination will be ready to register on the day General Conference adjourns (May 15, 2020), so that annual conferences and local churches can consider aligning with that traditionalist denomination very soon.
There is a reasonable chance that up to a dozen U.S. annual conferences could achieve a 57 percent vote to align with a New Traditionalist Methodist Denomination. There might be a few annual conferences that could achieve a 57 percent vote to align with a New Progressive Methodist Denomination, but that is less likely. A number of annual conferences have already tentatively scheduled special one-day sessions of annual conference to consider a vote on alignment. Since nearly all U.S. annual conferences meet within six weeks of the adjournment of General Conference, it would be wise to postpone the annual conference’s decision on this important matter until later in the summer or fall, in order to give members a chance to learn about the options and carefully consider their decision.
An annual conference must take a vote where a motion to take such a vote receives the support of at least 20 percent of the annual conference members. Alternatively, an annual conference can decide to take a vote by its own normal processes. Where an annual conference is clearly not going to achieve a 57 percent vote to align with a New Methodist Denomination, it does not make sense to push for a vote of the annual conference. That would only foster divisiveness and hard feelings to no purpose. Annual conferences in the U.S. have until June 30, 2021, to take a vote. Otherwise, they will remain in the post-separation United Methodist Church.
All annual conference property, assets, and liabilities would go with that annual conference into the new denomination. This includes all local churches within that annual conference, unless a church votes to remain in the post-separation United Methodist Church or align with a different New Methodist Denomination. The only local churches that would need to vote are those that disagree with the alignment decision (whether by vote or by default) of their annual conference.
Local Church Action
Local churches in the U.S. can begin voting on alignment by late summer of this year. They do not have to wait until their annual conference has voted. Where an annual conference will likely remain part of the post-separation United Methodist Church, a local church in that conference need not wait until the June 30, 2021, deadline has passed in order to take a vote to align with a New Methodist Denomination. Where an annual conference has a reasonable chance of achieving the 57 percent margin to align with a New Methodist Denomination, local churches ought to wait until after the annual conference has voted before they take a local vote. If the annual conference aligns the way the local church would, the local church then would not need to take a vote. And that local church’s representatives at annual conference would be needed to reach the 57 percent.
The local church decision would be made by a meeting of the church conference, which includes all professing members present and voting (no absentee ballots). The district superintendent must call such a church conference within 60 days of a request by the pastor or the church council (or equivalent leadership body). The church council would need to decide ahead of time whether the margin for a decision to align differently from the annual conference would require a simple majority or a two-thirds vote, based on that local church’s context. If the highest value in that local church is unity, it might choose a two-thirds vote. If the highest value is honoring the convictions of the majority of the congregation, it might choose a simple majority vote.
If a local church votes to align with a New Methodist Denomination, it would take its property, assets, and liabilities with it into the new denomination. The local church’s share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities would be transferred to the new denomination. The local church would not need to make any payments in order to align with a new denomination. Representatives of the local church and the annual conference would need to negotiate and sign a Separation Agreement that cares for the legal details, including the release of the trust clause. Terms of such an agreement would be strictly limited to impose no financial or other barrier to realignment.
Under the Protocol Plan, the earliest an annual conference or local church could effectively move into the new denomination would be January 1, 2021. Until then, local churches are expected to continue paying their apportionments and other obligations (pension, health benefits, etc.) to their current annual conference. As a matter of integrity, such payments should continue, since there would no longer be a need to use apportionments as a tool to leverage a desired outcome (for either side). On the agreed Separation Date, the local church would no longer pay apportionments to their UM annual conference and would begin paying apportionments at the level set by their new denomination.
Local churches would have until December 31, 2024, to take a vote on aligning with a New Methodist Denomination.
Churches that Become Independent
The Protocol Plan also contains provisions allowing local churches to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and become independent, not aligning with any New Methodist Denomination. These provisions are necessary because ¶ 2553 passed by the St. Louis General Conference last February is being challenged due to voting irregularities.
The provisions for churches to become independent are similar to what was passed in ¶ 2553. Such a decision would require a two-thirds vote of the church conference (all professing members present and voting). The local church would keep its property, assets, and liabilities. The local church would have to be current on the previous 12 months’ apportionments and pay an additional 12 months’ apportionments. It would also have to pay its share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liabilities, an amount that can run anywhere from roughly three to six times their annual apportionment. Pension provisions adopted in St. Louis provide for the possibility of a payment plan for these liabilities.
Obviously, it is better financially for churches to align with a New Methodist Denomination than to become independent. However, churches should not believe that they could align with a new denomination and then change to become independent without paying anything. The new denominations will have provisions requiring at least the recovery of the church’s share of unfunded pension liabilities before allowing a church to exit and become independent.
Local churches would have until December 31, 2024, to vote to become independent.
This article gives the basics of what the separation process would be in the U.S. There may well be additional questions that are not answered here. I invite you to send your questions via reply email, and I will try to address them in a future article.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.