Reflections on Faith and Life by John Stephens
Posted on August 24, 2019
Last week, The Indianapolis Plan – Basic Provisions was released to the United Methodist Church. It was designed by a group of United Methodists – ‘traditionalist, centrist, and progressive’ (I will use these terms for shared understanding realizing some, including me, think they are easily misused and limited). The facilitators were Kent Millard, Darren Cushman-Wood, and Keith Boyette. I was invited to participate in this group as one of the centrists. Over the coming days, I will share my thoughts on the Indy Plan, speak to some of the strengths of the plan, and point to some of its weaknesses. I will also point to what I believe are the biggest obstacles. I hope the comments you share on social media and on this blog will be helpful in not only refining the Indy Plan as we continue our work but help all of United Methodism find a way forward. I think it would be helpful for General Conference delegates if you share your thoughts related to what the future needs to look like for Wesleyan Methodism around the world. I will be faithful to post all comments that are helpful and none that are harmful on this blog. The Indy group welcomes feedback as we continue to refine the plan.
Basic Provisions – with my reflections following:
11. Local churches disagreeing with their annual conference’s decision could decide by majority vote of a church conference to align with a different expression. All local church property, assets, and liabilities would continue to belong to that local church.
A few thoughts:
If General Conference allows for annual conferences to leave and join a new denomination of Methodism, they should also allow remedy for local churches that disagree with the annual conference’s decision. If an annual conference is allowed to leave, a church within the annual conference may choose to go with them (no vote required) or choose a different expression – remain in UMC or go with one of the new, birthed expressions (a vote is required here, or some active decision).
How that decision is made in a local church would need to be clearly defined. What would the threshold be?
Like the annual conference threshold, this is an important determination. A local church may leave an annual conference now. A local church may also change annual conferences in certain circumstances. Currently, the annual conference determines the basis for a local church to ‘disaffiliate’ since the annual conference owns the property of the church and the unfunded pension liability.
Currently, the Indy Plan allows any local church that disagrees with the decision of their annual conference to align with another expression. Only a simple majority – 50%+1, would be needed.
While this does sound fair and equitable, we return to the question of appropriate thresholds when property and membership are at stake. I don’t know the local church votes totals of the recently disaffiliated congregations in the Mississippi Conference, but earlier instances of churches leaving had the votes at well over 90-95% in favor of leaving. I led a church merger in the early 2000’s, led an adoption merger in 2017, and am in discussions with another church regarding adoption merger. These decisions can be deeply painful for many. The first merger I led, we used a simple majority threshold. It passed 55%-45% and caused more pain than I could have ever imagined. Families were split in two. Friendships were broken. I promised myself we would always use a super-majority in the future. In 2017, we used a 2/3 threshold for an adoption merger in Houston. The process took longer, but they voted to merge with Chapelwood at an 80% threshold. What if a church votes 60% and cannot leave? I realize this works both ways – see my thoughts on this below. With annual conferences, my rationale is rooted in organizational integrity (2/3 is current threshold for overseas annual conferences to disaffiliate and become autonomous churches).
A 2/3 threshold is more in harmony with local churches being reassigned conferences (BOD, par 41). Judicial Council decision 1379 also made a broad statement that “any legislation of the General Conference permitting the ‘gracious exit’ of a local church must require at a minimum (1) the disaffiliation resolution be approved by a 2/3 majority of the professing members of the local church…”
While it may not seem ‘fair’ to some, it may be difficult to pass and secure anything less than a 2/3 majority for local churches to depart.
On a personal note; I advocate for the simplest solutions possible, but I am not sure how to simplify this. There will be churches where the church votes 53%-47% to remain in the UMC/centrist/progressive expression, what happens to the 47% who desire a traditionalist church? They will have to make a decision to remain in their church or depart. It breaks my heart.
A super majority vote threshold has traditionally been the threshold to change categories of membership (expel), suspend rules, change fundamental rules (constitutional and restrictive), etc. This is reflected in our Book of Discipline and Judicial Council decisions.
Point of clarity:: This provision is worded to sound like every church would own their own property if they move to a new expression or even remain in the UMC expression. This needs to be clarified. If a church remains in the UMC expression, the same trust clause would exist. If a church moves to a traditionalist expression – I have no idea if they plan to have a trust clause or not – I would guess they would have to have a trust clause to offset pension liability. Churches would still not own their property if they join one the expressions approved by General Conference. Only if they leave to become independent after paying whatever is determined by General Conference and annual conferences.
12. Clergy would decide with which expression to align. By default, they would remain part of their annual conference in whichever expression their annual conference affiliates, unless they request to affiliate with a different expression.
Clergy can choose to transfer conferences or even leave the denomination now. New expressions would develop ways to receive clergy similar to how annual conferences transfer clergy. I would love to see a ‘full communion’ relationship.
The new expressions will need to define the role of clergy, how they will be deployed, etc.
Will there be guaranteed appointments?
How will they be appointed? Itineracy? Call system?
I assume ordinations will be honored, but what will the process be for credentialing someone who moves into a new expression. This will need to made be clear by the new expressions.
13. Bishops would decide with which expression to align. By default, they would remain part of the Centrist/Progressive UMC, unless choosing to align with a different expression. Service as active bishops in each of the new expressions would depend upon the provisions adopted by that expression.
This will be interesting…
By default, they will remain UMC bishops in the UMC – centrist/progressive expression. The would have to make an active decision to join a new expression.
What will bishops be in new expressions? This will need to be developed before any bishop would decide to join. I will let bishops ask questions here…I’m not really sure what they would want to know before making any decision.