Can Churches Depart The United Methodist Church with Their Property?
By Keith Boyette
May 3, 2019
According to The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, all local United Methodist churches hold their properties, real and personal, tangible and intangible, in trust for the benefit of the general church. Typically that means that if a local congregation decides to withdraw from the denomination, it must leave without its property unless it negotiates other arrangements with its annual conference. Some annual conferences have entered into such negotiations, while others have sought to enforce the trust clause by filing lawsuits in secular courts.
Legislation adopted by the 2019 General Conference has now opened a potential pathway for local churches to exit the denomination with their properties. It allows them to disaffiliate or exit the denomination provided they comply with the requirements of the newly adopted legislation. Last Friday the Judicial Council held the provisions spelled out in the legislation are constitutional.
The new paragraph added to the Discipline grants local churches the “limited right . . . to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Disciplinerelated to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues.” The process of disaffiliating must be completed prior to December 31, 2023.
The terms of the disaffiliation provision also require the convening of a local church conference where all professing members of the congregation are entitled to vote. Such a conference is to be held within 120 days after a district superintendent issues the call for the conference. Notice of the church conference is to be given from the pulpit of the church, in its weekly bulletin, in any local church publication, by mail, and by electronic communication. The decision to disaffiliate must be approved by a two-thirds majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.
Once the local church votes to disaffiliate, the board of trustees of the annual conference of which the local church is a member, establishes the terms and conditions of the disaffiliation which must be consistent with the language of the new paragraph of the Discipline. Those terms and conditions are to be memorialized in a standard form Disaffiliation Agreement that the General Council on Finance and Administration is to develop.
The local church, prior to disaffiliation, is to pay any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months prior to disaffiliation, as well as an additional 12 months of apportionments. In addition, the local church is to pay an amount equal to its pro rata share of any aggregate unfunded pension obligations to the annual conference. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits (Wespath) is to determine the aggregate unfunded pension obligations of the annual conference and then the annual conference is to determine the local church’s share.
Finally, the local church is to satisfy all other debts, loans, and liabilities which it has or assign and transfer them to its new entity, prior to disaffiliation. All of these payments or transfers are to be accomplished prior the effective date of departure.
Finally, the disaffiliation of the local church from the annual conference must be approved by a simple majority vote of the annual conference of which the local church has been a member.
Once all payments or transfers are accomplished, the annual conference in which the local church is located is required to release any claims it has under the trust clause which means that the local church’s property, real and personal, tangible and intangible, passes free and clear of any trust to the new entity formed by the local church.
This pathway for local churches to exit the denomination was immediately effective upon the adjournment of the General Conference on February 26, 2019. Now that the Judicial Council has found the new paragraph to be constitutional, local churches can immediately begin the process outlined in it. A local church would begin the process by notifying its district superintendent that it desires to hold a church conference for the purpose of disaffiliating from the denomination. However, before taking any action, local church leaders will want to carefully read and understand the new paragraph added to the Discipline.
Some local churches withdrew from the UM church prior to the 2019 General Conference after negotiating an agreement permitting them to withdraw with their annual conference. Other churches have already initiated such discussions with their annual conference and can now take advantage of the new legislation. Many of these churches will want to remain connected to other churches who hold to the historic Christian teachings in the Wesleyan tradition. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is working with such churches to facilitate their connection with each other in this season of transition and uncertainty. We invite churches that decide to pursue this path to inform us of their decision so that the WCA can provide support and keep them connected with other churches who are also moving through this process.
Ultimately, the WCA believes the best way to resolve the UM Church’s irreconcilable differences is through the adoption of an equitable plan of separation. Such a plan would permit local churches to align with new expressions of Methodism that represent traditionalists, centrists and progressives. If such a resolution emerges, churches would likely decide with which expression they would align, and the payments outlined in the new legislation would not be applicable.
The WCA expects any step to create new Methodist expressions would occur as part of the 2020 General Conference. Local churches will need to discern whether they want to wait until that conference to initiate steps to disaffiliate or move forward prior to it. The WCA would be prepared to launch a new Methodist expression should the conference adopt plans for separation.
Rev. Keith Boyette is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.