The Ongoing Breakup of The United Methodist Church escalated in mid-July into a public legal wrangle that appears to further damage the reputation of the struggling denomination.
The latest episode erupted on July 14 when 106 local congregations, mostly located in rural areas and small towns, filed suit against the Florida Annual Conference to strike down the UMC’s “trust clause,” the legal covenant whereby all church property is held “in trust”. for the regional governing body. Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that Florida Bishop Ken Carter breached his “fiduciary responsibilities” because he failed to file suit against a St. Petersburg pastor who performed a same-sex marriage. in defiance of United Methodist law.
“Down in the Mud”
The trial in Florida prompted an article by Cary McMullen, columnist for the Lake Registry, in which the author criticized the UMC dispute as “sinking in the mud”. The Florida Conference is headquartered in Lakeland, Florida.
“In a sense, The United Methodist Church has only itself to blame for the paralysis that led to the lawsuit,” McMullen wrote. “Of all the Protestant denominations I have seen up close, its system of governance is by far the most confusing and convoluted. The bishops have only local administrative authority and the heavy General Conference only meets once every four years.
“Of all the Protestant denominations I have seen up close, its system of governance is by far the most confusing and convoluted.”
What McMullen overlooks is that governance of the UMC rests primarily with the annual conference, which is the basic unit of church structure. Annual conferences, not bishops or the General Conference, decide how churches leave the denomination based on a section of the Book of Discipline, the church’s collection of doctrine and policies. This process has come under greater scrutiny and criticism.
A restriction that backfired
Paragraph 2553, the section governing disaffiliation, was passed by a special 2019 General Conference in which a slim majority of delegates tightened UMC prohibitions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. The process was originally proposed by a traditionalist caucus anticipating that progressive congregations would leave the UMC due to the General Conference vote.
Instead, progressive churches and three-quarters of U.S. annual conferences outright rejected the 2019 General Conference vote on LGBTQ issues, even though the decisions were binding on the denomination. Since then, traditionalist congregations supported by the Wesleyan Covenant Association have increasingly planned to leave the UMC and join the young Methodist World Church, founded by the WCA in May. Some congregations, both traditionalist and progressive, left the denomination and remained independent.
The pinch came in the provisions of paragraph 2553 that traditionalists have sought to use against progressives. To keep their real estate and personal assets when they leave, churches must pay two years’ worth of their “equitable” contributions known as repartitions that fund denomination-wide ministries. Churches must also pay 110% of their “unfunded liabilities” for clergy pensions.
The pinch came in the provisions of paragraph 2553 that traditionalists have sought to use against progressives.
Both amounts are determined by the annual conference in which the church is located. As UM News’ Heather Hahn recently reported, these “exit rights” vary from conference to conference. Regional units may also require additional payments as well as long periods of “discernment” before conference votes on departures. “Annual conferences of The United Methodist Church have wide leeway in administering church disaffiliations,” Hahn wrote.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association now promotes a variety of exit strategies, according to an article posted on the WCA website by its new president, Jay Therrell, a former United Methodist clergyman and lawyer. He argues that churches can use one of four approaches:
- Paragraph 2553, provided it is a “clean” option where the annual conference does not impose additional requirements that Therrell calls “punitive”.
- Section 2548.2, a provision enacted in 1948 that allows congregations “to change to ‘another evangelical denomination’ under a courtesy agreement,” Therrell wrote. However, this option is currently under review for its validity by the UMC’s high court, the Judicial Council, since no “courtesy agreement” exists between the UMC and the GMC.
- Paragraph 2549, in which a church can close, transfer its assets to the annual conference, and then negotiate to redeem the property – provided the conference agrees. However, under the trust clause, the conference could retain outright ownership.
- Pursue litigation, as in the case of Florida.
The latter option may be the riskiest for churches in Florida, according to Lloyd J. Lunceford, editor of “The Guide to Church Property Law,” interviewed by Hahn. She writes about this interview:
Florida is among the minority of states that use what’s called the deference method, Lunceford said. This means that the courts of the “deference” states will adopt the decision made by the highest ecclesiastical body involved in the matter – in this case, the property decisions made by the annual conference.
“They actually defer to church authorities,” Lunceford said. “And so, a lower court in Florida would be required to defer and rule in favor of UMC.”
But whether the court relies on neutral principles or the deference method, Lunceford added that churches would not get very far in arguing over who is more faithful to church doctrine.
On July 25, a Wisconsin federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Hebron Community Methodist Church of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, seeking to strike down a state law that essentially upholds the United Methodist Trust Clause. Joe Kelly of the Courthouse News Service wrote, “The 1923 amendment to Wisconsin’s greatest law of 1849 incorporating the Methodist Episcopal Church essentially states that if a local Methodist church or society disappears or is dissolved, the rights, privileges and title deeds of the church are vested in the church conference.
Fight the rumors
Over the summer, churches at several annual conferences continued discussions about leaving, with many congregational voting schedules over the next month. In some cases, such as First UMC in Jonesboro, Ark., ad hoc groups have formed to challenge what they say is misleading information about UMC disseminated by dissident forces. A unit of United Methodist Communications called Ask the UMC has started a series of articles titled “Is The United Methodist Church Really…?” to refute many of the false rumours.
The bishops have also released responses to the rumours. For example, Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference sent a July 26 letter to counter such misinformation:
First, I have heard claims that The United Methodist Church plans to eliminate or alter its core theological doctrines, including the doctrine of the Trinity and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. These claims are patently false and only seek to sow the seeds of fear. Not only are our United Methodist doctrines and beliefs protected in the UMC constitution, doctrinal standards, and general rules, but they are the cornerstones of our faith. You can be sure that they are immutable.
Additionally, clergy and laity expressed that they had heard there would be no place for traditionalists in The United Methodist Church in the future and that their only option was to leave the denomination. Statements like this undermine the very real and important contributions of traditionalist leaders and congregations who continue to serve faithfully in the North Texas Conference.
Finally, I have heard that some members of the North Texas Conference believe that violations or disregard of the Book of Discipline are commonplace and that liability is lax. In truth, while I typically receive a handful of complaints each year about clergy or churches violating the Book of Discipline, the clergy and churches of the North Texas Conference continue to demonstrate a strong commitment to our policy, and the bonds of our connection remain strong.
As with the culture of misinformation that has infected American politics, rumors about The United Methodist Church and its future can only be countered by those willing to take the time to investigate and fact-check. Disputes over why to leave the church and how to leave will provide fertile ground for untruths that will continue to damage the public reputation of The United Methodist Church.
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered The United Methodist Church worldwide at all levels for more than 30 years. She is the editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.
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