By Walter Fenton
Since the close of the contentious 2019 special General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, United Methodists from across the theological spectrum set to work crafting plans to resolve the bitter dispute over the denomination’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards. The discordant conference and its aftermath made clear to many United Methodists the denomination is unlikely to recover from another public relations disaster like the one in St. Louis.
As of mid-September, as least six plans were submitted to the 2020 General Conference, where 862 delegates will meet in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to consider them. What follows is a brief overview of four of them that have some chance of gaining majority support at that conference.
Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation
The Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation was developed by five Traditionalists, five Centrists, and two Progressives. On behalf of the group, the Rev. Dr. Kent Millard, President of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, submitted the 18-page petition that proposes adding a new paragraph to The Book of Discipline entitled “Pathways to New Denominations of United Methodism.”
The chief aim of the petition is two-fold: to allow for the creation of two or perhaps three new churches, and to allow for the continuation of the UM Church through one of the new entities. The new churches proposed are a Traditionalist Methodist Church, a Centrist/Progressive Methodist Church, and potentially a stand-alone Progressive Methodist Church. The coalition acknowledges the names of the new churches are simply placeholders. The proposal also allows for the creation of other denominations composed of 50 or more local churches, or by one or more current annual conferences departing the UM Church to form a new church. Any of the new churches could continue to use the name United Methodist Church and its flame and cross logo as long as they included an additional moniker to distinguish itself from the other church or churches.
Since the plan calls for the continuation of The United Methodist Church through the Centrist entity the proponents believe no constitutional amendments would be required to implement it.
Wespath, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Methodist Women, the General Commission on United Methodist Men, and The United Methodist Publishing House would continue as independent 501(c)(3) organizations with their own self-perpetuating boards of directors, and they would be able to serve any denomination that desires to receive services from them.
All other United Methodist boards and agencies would become part of the Centrist United Methodist Church with mutually agreed upon initial funding and subject to possible reforms and restructuring by the Centrist United Methodist Church.
The proposed method for separation and continuation would occurs as follows:
Central conferences would decide by a simple majority vote with which denomination to align. Central conferences that do not make a decision would become part of the Traditionalist United Methodist Church by default. Annual conferences outside the United States could decide by a simple majority vote to align with a different denomination than their central conference.
Annual conferences in the United States would decide by a simple majority vote of the annual conference members with which denomination to align. Annual conferences not making a decision would become part of the Centrist United Methodist Church by default.
Local churches disagreeing with their annual conference’s decision could decide by a simple majority vote of a charge or church conference to align with a different denomination. All local church property, assets, and liabilities would continue to belong to that local church.
The timeline for the implementation of the plan would be as follows: on an interim basis, annual conferences and local congregations could begin functioning in the new alignments beginning August 1, 2020. Inaugural General Conference sessions would be held in the fall of 2021, with the new denominations becoming fully functional as of January 1, 2022.
New Expressions Worldwide Plan
The New Expressions Worldwide Plan was developed and proposed by UM Forward, a new advocacy group formed this past summer to represent a collective of United Methodist liberationists.
On behalf of the group, five members submitted a two-page petition that proposes adding a new paragraph to The Book of Discipline entitled “The Churches in the 21st Century.”
The plan calls for the dissolution of The United Methodist Church and the creation of four new denominations: a Traditionalist Methodist Church, a Moderate Methodist Church, a Progressive Methodist Church, and a Liberationist Methodist Church. The group, like the creators of the Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation, acknowledges the names of the new churches are placeholders for now.
The process for implementing the plan calls for a Transitional Council to prepare a plan of separation and submit it to a special General Conference prior to 2024. The Transitional Council would include five representatives from each of advocacy groups representing the four new churches. The president of the Council of Bishops would be an ex officio member. The Transitional Council would prepare the plan of separation in consultation with the Council of Bishops, the General Council on Finance and Administration, Wespath, the General Commission on Religion and Race, and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. An independent mediator would assist the Council in the preparation of its plan of separation, and the final plan, as submitted to a special General Conference, would be achieved through independent, professional arbitration.
Annual conferences would vote to decide which of the four churches they wanted to join. Local churches disagreeing with their annual conferences could, by a two-thirds vote, align with a different church. Local churches voting to go a different direction than their annual conferences would retain all their property, assets, and liabilities.
All the UM Church’s general boards and agencies would become independent 501(c)(3) organizations, with their own self-perpetuating boards of directors. They would retain their current liabilities, assets and reserves, and their services could be offered to all four of the new denominations.
The “common assets” of the general church would be divided equitably “with a view to restorative justice and reparations for historically marginalized and particularly vulnerable churches.” The General Commission on Religion and Race, and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women would jointly make these determinations, seeking to repair through financial re-investment “injustices of colonialism, institutional racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and misogyny.”
As of the adjournment of the 2020 General Conference there would be a moratorium on all charges, complaints, and trials related to the practice of homosexuality, same-sex marriages, and the ordination of openly gay clergy.
As of the adjournment of a special General Conference to be scheduled for no later than 2023, The United Methodist Church would be dissolved, and the four new churches would come into existence.
New Form of Unity Plan
Bishop Scott Jones, episcopal leader of the Texas Annual Conference, proposed legislation for the New Form of Unity Plan. It consists of four petitions allowing for any annual conference in the United States to become a self-governing church. Annual conferences voting to do so could band together in any such self-governing church.
Any local church in an annual conference that voted to create or join a self-governing denomination would have the right to remain in The United Methodist Church by a simple majority vote.
Like the Indianapolis Plan, two petitions in Jones’ plan would allow the new denominations to use the name “United Methodist” and the flame and cross logo as long as the new churches were formed prior to December 31, 2022.
The final petition calls for the present Council of Bishops to seek regular meetings with the bishops of the new denominations.
The plan also calls on the 2020 General Conference to adopt a resolution for inclusion in the UM Church’s Book of Resolutions. In part, the resolution states that, “The United Methodist Church would continue to exist as an umbrella organization to facilitate this new form of unity. [The new] churches [and the current UM Church would] be in full communion…. [They would] maintain regular contact among their leaders to coordinate shared mission and cooperation. All the churches [would] share in the governance of the General Council on Finance and Administration, Wespath, the United Methodist Publishing House, and the General Commission on Archives and History, with governance strength proportional to lay membership strength.”
Although none of the plan’s four petitions propose a specific timeline for its implementation, it would appear, based on two of it petitions, that any new churches would have to form no later than December 31, 2022.
Next Generation UMC Plan
The Next Generation UMC Plan was developed and proposed by UMCNext, a coalition of Centrists and Progressives. On behalf of the coalition, the Rev. Junius Dotson, General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, submitted a 33-page document consisting of 23 separate petitions that would allow for the proposed plan’s implementation.
Among other things, the plan sets out to accomplish the following:
(1) Establish terms of separation for local churches that desire to exit the UM Church in order to become unaffiliated, independent congregations.
(2) Establish terms of separation for local churches that desire to exit the UM Church with plans to join a “New Denominational Expression of Methodism,” (i.e., a new church).
(3) Repeal all petitions that were adopted at the 2019 special General Conference related to the Traditional Plan, and strikes from the Book of Discipline all provisions regarding the practice of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and related ordination standards.
(4) Place a moratorium on all charges, complaints, and trials having to do with UM Church’s debate over the practice of homosexuality and all related matters.
(5) Create of a 32-member special Commission on the 21st Century Church to, among other things, draft a new constitution, propose structural changes to the present church’s polity and governance structure, and to “expand and codify the full participation of LGBTQ persons in the ministries and mission of the UM Church.” The special commission’s proposals would be taken up at a special General Conference in the autumn of 2023.
One of the 23 petitions calls for the entire replacement of the disaffiliation petition adopted at the special General Conference in St. Louis. It would replace it and set forth new terms for a local church wanting to exit the UM Church to become an independent congregation.
A separate petition calls for the addition of new paragraph to the UM Church’s Book of Discipline that sets forth the terms of disaffiliation for a local church wanting to depart from it with the intention of joining a “New Denominational Expression of Methodism.”
In order to exit the present UM Church, local churches, in either circumstance, would be governed by the following requirements: “(1) A [local] church conference must be held to vote on disaffiliation within 120 days after the district superintendent calls for a church conference; (2) The General Council on Finance and Administration would develop a standard form for separation agreements… to protect The United Methodist Church; (3) [However,] the terms and conditions for separation would be established by the board of trustees of an annual conference, with the advice of the bishop and cabinet, the annual conference treasurer, the annual conference benefits officer, the director of connectional ministries, and the annual conference treasurer; (4) Annual conferences could require that separation agreements include contractual terms not addressed by the form developed by the General Council on Finance and Administration; (5) A two-thirds majority vote of the professing members of the local church present and voting at the church conference must vote for disaffiliation; (6) The local church would not be required to pay more than 12 months of apportionments; and, (7) The annual conference may permit a local church to separate under the terms of the separation agreement upon approval by a majority of annual conference members present and voting at an annual conference session.”
For local churches that vote to disaffiliate, and also plan to join a “New Denominational Expression of Methodism,” the following could potentially apply. If the UM Church’s Council of Bishops decided to recognize the new denomination, and if the new denomination remained in an ecumenical or covenantal relationship with the UM Church, then “a financial grant may be provided to the new denomination from a fund created by the 2020 General Conference to assist the new denomination with transitional costs.”
The timeline for implementing the Next Generation UMC Plan has two definitive markers: a special General Conference is scheduled for autumn 2023, and local churches wanting to exit the denomination must complete the exit process by December 31, 2025.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s 34-member governing council recently endorsed the Indianapolis Plan, and said it would support the full implementation of the Traditional Plan if the 2020 General Conference failed to pass a fair and equitable plan of separation. The council has forwarded its endorsement to the WCA’s Global Legislative Assembly where its 228 delegates will decide whether or not they will endorse the plan as well. The assembly will meet at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Friday, November 8, 2019.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.