By Thomas Lambrecht
The United Methodist Church is currently in an extremely awkward position. The vast majority of church leaders acknowledge the need for separation to take place in order to resolve the decades-long controversy over biblical authority and interpretation, sexual ethics, and the definition of marriage (among other topics). A Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was negotiated and appeared to have broad support across the church in 2020. The pandemic has interfered, causing the postponement of the 2020 General Conference, which was set to potentially adopt the Protocol. Now, the General Conference will not meet until 2024.
There is now no clear, denomination-wide process for local churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church in order to align with the Global Methodist Church. We thought by adopting ¶ 2553 (the Taylor disaffiliation plan) in 2019, that the General Conference had created such a consistent process. However, the way ¶ 2553 is being applied, every annual conference can make its own rules about what is required for a local church to move to the GM Church. In effect, there are 50 different sets of rules in the United States for local churches to follow. And the various annual conferences outside the U.S. are in different situations, operating under their own sets of rules and legalities.
In the absence of a clear, denomination-wide process for disaffiliation, many traditionalists are feeling “stuck” in a denomination that has abandoned what they believe and stand for, particularly in the U.S. It is important to understand the factors creating this “stuck” feeling and to move toward addressing the causes. Only as an amicable separation is able to take place will The United Methodist Church, as a whole and all its parts, be able to move forward into a new and more faithful reality (regardless of which perspective people hold on our issues of disagreement).
Lack of Information
One of the factors in a feeling of “stuckness” is the lack of information being shared. Many average church members have been unaware of the depth of the division within the UM Church. Many clergy have bent over backwards not to tell them what has been going on. With the announcement that the Global Methodist Church is launching, there are many laity saying, “Wait – what?!” It is important for clergy and lay leaders in local churches to inform their people about the issues dividing our denomination and the potential for separation. Being kept in the dark creates feelings of powerlessness and mistrust among members toward their leaders.
Information is available on the Good News website and on the Wesleyan Covenant Association website that delves into the issues around separation. Most of my articles are collected on my blog site for people to read, and they cover the issues involved over the past several years.
Even more problematic is the lack of information about the process of separation for local churches. Once a church wants to explore its options, those options must be explained in a way that allows for church leaders and congregations to make informed decisions. UM News Service has a comprehensive article that helps understand the process of disaffiliation in general. Wespath (the church’s pension board) has prepared information about disaffiliation and how it affects clergy and congregations in relation to the pension program. Other general information about disaffiliation is available on the Wesleyan Covenant Association website, including information about the Global Methodist Church, for which you can also see the GM Church website.
This is all good general information, but the problem I mentioned above is that there are different rules for disaffiliation for each annual conference. Many annual conferences have not published their unique rules or made them available even on request. In some annual conferences, repeated calls to the conference office go unreturned. Again, where people are kept in the dark, they feel helpless and “stuck.”
One important piece of information is how much money a church would owe in order to disaffiliate. Under the prevailing rules of ¶ 2553 enacted in 2019, a church must pay two years’ worth of apportionments and its share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liability. That pension liability payment is calculated individually for each congregation by its annual conference. Yet, many annual conferences are not making that payment amount available to congregations, even when they request it.
The North Georgia Annual Conference has taken the lead by publishing that pension liability payment for each local church on its website. An annual conference receives its pension liability number from Wespath each year in the fall. It can then allocate the local church’s share of that pension liability using a formula determined by the annual conference. Most often, this is the apportionment formula, but various annual conferences use different formulas to calculate the individual congregation’s share.
It is unfortunate that many annual conferences are refusing to make that number available to their local churches in a timely way when they request it. This is a simple math problem. The number for all local churches in an annual conference could be calculated in an afternoon. Yet, some conferences are holding on to that information and keeping their churches in the dark. The local church is then “stuck” because it cannot move forward toward making a decision on disaffiliation without knowing how much it is going to cost.
Another factor in causing the feeling of “stuckness” among traditionalists is that some bishops and annual conferences are refusing to move forward with the disaffiliation process, even though it is outlined in the Book of Discipline. Several annual conferences are not moving forward with disaffiliations this year because they have yet to figure out their rules to govern the process. This is despite the fact that ¶ 2553 has been the law of the church since 2019. At the very least, this situation betrays the level of incompetence among some annual conference leaders in failing to consider and develop plans in a timely way for local churches to disaffiliate. (One hope for the Global Methodist Church is that it will be much more nimble, able to respond to changing circumstances rapidly and anticipating needs and planning for them ahead of time.)
A more nefarious motivation may be behind some delay tactics. Some annual conference leaders may be hoping to make the process so long and torturous that local churches give up and remain within the UM Church. One district superintendent responded to a request for disaffiliation from a local church by saying that his district already had several churches disaffiliating this year and he did not have time to deal with more. So this church would just have to wait until next year. Other superintendents have refused to schedule a church conference to vote on disaffiliation when requested to do so by the local church. After all, the longer it takes a church to disaffiliate, the longer that church will contribute its apportionments to support the annual conference. Of course, that assumes congregations will be willing to continue paying apportionments in the face of what appears to be bad faith actions.
The failure of some annual conferences to draft the rules for local church disaffiliation can fall under this delay category, as well. Some annual conferences are saying, “Sorry, we have to draw up the rules and then they have to be approved by this year’s annual conference in order to take effect. You will have to wait until next year to disaffiliate.” Again, conferences have had three years to draw up their rules for disaffiliation, and the failure to do so, even amid the pandemic, is inexcusable. Some conferences are finding a way to work around this by holding a special annual conference session later in the year to deal with disaffiliating congregations. Others could do the same.
These delay tactics will not cause traditionalists to want to remain United Methodist. If anything, they will reinforce traditionalists’ desire to move into a new denomination that is more responsive and provides better leadership. Unfortunately, some traditionalists will not be willing to wait for the annual conference to get its act together. Individual members may just decide to give up and go down the road to another denomination’s church that is in line with their beliefs. That will, of course, weaken the traditionalist UM congregation. It also plays into the hands of the annual conference, which could then potentially send in a liberal pastor to shift the congregation in a more theologically progressive direction, hoping to keep it in the UM Church. Or, if the church declines too much, the conference will just close the church, sell the property, and live longer off the legacy of resources accumulated by traditionalist congregations.
In any event, the delay makes that congregation feel “stuck.” It cannot move forward because of the roadblocks put up by its annual conference.
Egregious Financial Payments
A final factor in keeping traditionalists feeling “stuck” is the imposition of egregious financial payments on a disaffiliating congregation. The requirements of ¶ 2553 amount to roughly six to nine times the congregation’s annual apportionment figure. Many churches find it challenging to raise that amount of money in a lump sum to be paid at the time of disaffiliation. Some congregations resort to borrowing the funds from a bank, from the UM Foundation, or from their members. Of course, that imposes a long-term drag on the church’s ability to fund ministry, but at least it gets them into a more desirable denominational situation. But if they cannot raise the funds or are unwilling to pay that amount, they will be stuck.
On top of that already challenging financial payment, some annual conferences are requiring local churches to pay additional costs. Most egregiously, some are charging a percentage of the church’s appraised property value (anywhere from 20 to 50 percent). One conference is even trying to get 50 percent of all the church’s assets, including mission funds, local foundation, memorial funds, etc.
Essentially, these annual conferences want their disaffiliating congregations to pay twice for the facilities they will carry into the new denomination. In many cases, those congregations have been faithfully paying into the conference apportionments and program for decades, and the annual conference has put none of its own money into those congregations. To charge congregations for a percentage of their facilities is grossly unfair and amounts to a “poison pill” that effectively prevents a congregation from departing. For most churches, there is no way for them to raise the kind of money that would double purchase their buildings and assets.
These egregious financial payments again make traditionalists feel “stuck” and unable to change their congregation’s denominational alignment.
The Consequences of “Stuckness”
To the extent that UM leaders are pursuing a strategy to slow-walk disaffiliation in hopes of keeping traditionalists “stuck,” it is a strategy that could backfire. Weakening local churches serves neither the interests of the UM Church nor the GM Church. Nor does it advance the work of God’s Kingdom.
Keeping unwilling traditionalists boxed into the UM Church only increases resentment toward the denomination and jeopardizes continued apportionment payments and other forms of participation and engagement in the work of the church. It also prevents centrists and progressives from moving forward with their agenda to change the UM Church in a more progressive direction. Instead, it is in the interest of centrists and progressives to allow traditionalists a clear and feasible pathway to disaffiliate. Only as congregations are sorted out to where they want to be will both denominations be able to put the conflict behind them and move forward into a positive future. Here’s to hoping that the “stuckness” ends soon!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo by Shutterstock.
“One conference is even trying to get 50 percent of all the church’s assets”
I can only assume that is our “wonderful” n. ga. conference….
Let’s get this information into the hands of all our church members!
Does anyone know the South Carolina rules for dis affiliation?
And has any church in the country disaffiliated and kept their property?
Michael, in point of fact, it is not our “wonderful” North Georgia Annual Conference that is trying to get 50 per cent of all assets. As you hopefully read, our conference “has taken the lead by publishing that pension liability payment”. The N GA AC has kept the cost at a minimum and any church in good standing is free to disaffiliate, as over 70 are scheduled to do at the 2022 Annual Conference.
I do not know the South Carolina rules. I’m not aware of any South Carolina churches that have disaffiliated at this point.
You would have to read the South Carolina Supreme Court ruling. It would apply to all churches in the state. If the church willing signed a trust clause then they stuck. If they are in the trust by passive means then they can walk. All property is governed by state law. Texas will allow any church to leave so does Minnesota. Georgia is less friendly to churches leaving.
Why do traditional Methodist continue to play? We need to move on and cut ties. Congregations should leave the keys to the property with the DS (or those who want to stay) ,rent open office space to meet in and move on. Stop making payments to Wespath and set up another alternative. Wespath will likely become insolvent if enough leave.
Stop playing a game where we do not control the rules and are unlikely to be treated equitably.
Thank you for your thoughts, Ed. There may indeed be situations where churches need to walk away from their property for the sake of being able to carry on authentic Gospel ministry. Many Anglicans in the U.S. who walked away from the Episcopal Church found that to be a liberating experience. At the same time, many churches are not in a position to start over, due to the age of the congregants and the lack of financial resources.
Wespath is not going to become insolvent. Pensions are currently fully funded. However, we do have a moral obligation to ensure that the promises that were made to retired clergy are kept. No one wants to put retirees in a position of having their pension payments cut due to disastrous economic conditions. We want to protect vulnerable people if we end up going through a recession in the future. However, there are ways of doing that without requiring up front lump sum payments of liabilities that may never be needed.
What are the rules for Alabama?
There is no settled law in Alabama yet. Most cases involving PCUSA have settled out of court because they don’t have the money to fight it. If UMC, north Alabama would fight like hell I assume south Alabama- Florida conference tends not to fight. The largest church is going to pay what it owes and go
We have fed the beast that is destroying us….cut off the funds and change comes within months, or maybe weeks in some cases….
Thank You for this Article. One of the more important aspects of being on hold, is what will the Judicial Council rule in May? Can a conference disaffiliate? According to other articles, will they rule, postponement of the GC will not be tolerated again? Pastors are on the fence. Leadership of their Church, delays because they do not want to hurt their current Pastor by announcing disaffiliation too soon or the congregation makeup for the vote seems mixed at the present. Each side is playing a Political Game and trying to get the best advantage that they can. The Bishop has the advantage today. The GMC is launching off May 1,2022. How this launch succeeds is also a big factor in the coming months for decisions by the local church.
Mr. Lambrecht I have researched Wespath and it appears to be a 403b and therefore should remain solvent as it is largely self funded by each of its participants. Please feel free to correct my understanding. Therefore it is difficult for me to understand the need to remain in Wespath. Establishment of a new/separate 403b or 401k seems very doable and likely to be to the benefit of the participant. Existing Wespath accounts can remain there or be rolled over to IRAs.
I fear that anywhere there is contact with the UMC the Global Church or whatever entity will be subjected to unfair treatment at some point. A clean break I council is the best approach.
I agree older members and older congregations are less likely to leave facilities but they must be given an alternative so that they have a choice. That means establishing new locations/facilities. Perhaps renting facilities in a post pandemic world maybe a very efficient model.
I sincerely believe that God will bless those who leave to teach and preach the gospel. I suggest that it is time to act on our faith and shake the dust off our feet.
“The North Georgia Annual Conference has taken the lead by publishing that pension liability payment for each local church on its website.” I heard Keith Boyette say this same thing in a podcast interview … but I can’t find this list on their website.
This is as close as I can find on their website:
“Working with Wespath, the North Georgia Conference has calculated the amount of the
unfunded pension liability attributed to each church. This valuation has been conducted
solely for this purpose. The Conference will update this amount quarterly (in the days
following December 1, March 1, July 1, and September 1).” from https://www.ngumc.org/files/websites/ngumc/Q%26A+Disaffiliation+Financial+Obligations+9-21.pdf
Can you clarify where this list is on their website?
What are the rules for the Holston conference in Tennessee
I have long stepped away. My Church would have 12 attend a Bible Study and 175 attend a party or social. Pews removed, choir chairs removed replaced by entertaining band, colored spotlights etc. It felt like a theatre instead of a place to worship. Now the split is here. I don’t believe you can serve two masters…you must choose, the World or the way of Christ.