By Jay Therrell
July 22, 2022
Playwright Arthur Miller’s famous play The Crucible is a story about the Salem witch trials from the 17th century. More importantly, it’s an allegory of that not-so-long-ago chapter in American history known as McCarthyism when U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy conducted a national “witch hunt” for communists.
Inside The United Methodist Church, I would argue we are seeing our own crucible-like events play out. Theological conservatives are in the heat of being forced to leave the denomination to remain faithful to the 2,000-year orthodox tenets of the historic Christian faith. As this is playing out, progressive leaders and bishops are growing increasingly hostile to traditionalists. Many are setting up steep roadblocks by adding onerous and punitive financial and systemic requirements to an already difficult disaffiliation process. Others are resorting to petty steps such as not allowing faithful clergy who have offered decades of service to the UMC to withdraw to another denomination under paragraph 360.1 Instead, they are forcing clergy to “withdraw from the ministerial office” under paragraph 360.2.
For the past three weeks, I have had the humbling privilege of offering regional training events to the leaders of the WCA regional chapters. Over the course of those meetings, we have been able to train hundreds of leaders with best practices in helping to advocate for theologically conservative churches and clergy inside their annual conferences. Now that these meetings have concluded, WCA regional chapters are better prepared than ever to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3).
Below are three lessons our WCA leaders have learned over the last three weeks.
1. The Longer you wait, the riskier it gets.
Before the shot clock was introduced to college basketball in 1985, teams would pursue something called the “four corners stall.” The team with the lead would place four players in the four corners of the court. The fifth player would dribble between the other four as they threw the ball between the four corners. It was an excellent way to run out the clock, preserve your lead, and win. The same thing is happening in United Methodism today.
Progressive leaders want congregations to wait. They want to run out the proverbial clock because they have the lead. I often hear comments from episcopal leaders and others such as, “Take your time,” “There is no rush,” and “You have plenty of time.” Don’t listen to them. The longer you wait, the riskier it gets.
Paragraph 2553 sunsets on December 31, 2023. A church must fully complete their process by that date including having annual conference approval. Additionally, more than a few annual conferences have put in place very definite schedules of deadlines and/or lengthy discernment processes. All of those substantially reduce the time a church has to complete their disaffiliation. In some cases, churches need to enter the 2553 process in the next couple of months to be able to complete it in time for December 31, 2023. Wait too much longer and that exit ramp may no longer be available.
Stalling and delaying is a good strategy for progressives. Trapped congregations keep apportionment bases from shrinking. Moreover, if laity vote with their proverbial feet and leave the local church, then the annual conference can close the trapped congregation, sell the property, and use the proceeds to help sustain the annual conference.
Lastly, delegate math is very uncertain for General Conference 2024. While Africa now has the majority of laity, delegation sizes always start with the number of clergy, who must be equalized with laity. The United States has far more clergy (including retired pastors) than Africa and it heavily skews the delegation numbers towards the U.S. Waiting for 2024 places churches with a huge amount of uncertainty and risk while also having the 2553 exit ramp closed.
It’s time for churches to move. The longer you wait, the riskier it gets.
2. The best options for churches are either to disaffiliate under a “clean” 2553 process or pursue a litigation strategy.
There are currently four exit ramps for churches. Churches can disaffiliate under paragraph 2553. At a minimum, churches must pay two years of apportionments, their pro rata share of unfunded pension liabilities (often a hefty sum), and secure a 2/3 majority vote of their congregation. Many annual conferences have added additional punitive requirements to that process. At least one annual conference has not even disclosed their process. Another annual conference has a bishop who claims he is not violating The Book of Discipline and therefore none of the churches in his conference can use it.
A second option is to withdraw under paragraph 2548.2. This paragraph, placed in the Discipline in 1948, and amended many times since, provided a way for congregations to move to “another evangelical denomination” under a comity agreement. This paragraph was particularly attractive because it would allow for creative potential ways to handle pension liabilities including a promissory note or a long-term letter of credit. The WCA worked hard for over a year with a team of bishops to create a comity agreement that could be used denominational-wide. Sadly, bishops have now asked the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding the paragraph. In their brief, they have argued that 2548.2 should be struck down. With the current trend of Judicial Council decisions, it is entirely likely the bishops will get what they want. This exit ramp is likely closing.
A third option is to close a church under paragraph 2549. Under that scenario, churches can vote to close and transfer all their assets to the annual conference. Laity could then negotiate to purchase back their property – a particularly bitter pill to swallow. It must be noted, however, that annual conferences are not under any obligation to negotiate or sell the assets back. The trust clause gives the annual conference every right to keep the property.
A last option is for a group of churches to pursue a group legal strategy against their annual conference. Such a strategy has multiple ways it can go that largely are dependent on the laws of the annual conference’s jurisdiction. Recently, 106 churches in Florida have filed a lawsuit against the Florida Conference alleging, amongst other things, a breach of fiduciary duty.
What are the best options? If an annual conference is offering a “clean” 2553 process and the local church can afford it, then the certainty of that option is often the best exit ramp to pursue. Many annual conferences, however, have intentionally created punitive and harsh 2553 processes that no church can ever complete. Still other churches will never be able to raise or borrow the funds to buy their freedom. In that event, a joint legal strategy is likely the best option. This is lamentable, but progressives have pushed us to this place.
Lastly, while every person must satisfy their own concerns, I will share with you how I arrived at the place that pursuing a legal remedy is acceptable with Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 6 the Apostle Paul is clearly not a fan of lawsuits. He admonishes Christians to avoid them. That said, in Acts 25, however, Paul avails himself of the judicial process when he’s being prosecuted. To defend himself, Paul uses certain rights afforded him as a citizen of Rome. He appeals to Caesar’s court and eventually is sent to stand trial/appeal in Rome. Clearly, Paul is comfortable with Christians utilizing the courts to defend themselves when they have no other option.
As I discussed this option with a well-known, theologically conservative New Testament scholar he said something very important to me. He said,
Jay, what you need to realize is that traditionalists are already being sued. Progressives and bishops are suing you…they’re just not using the courts. They’re coming after you through every “legal” process they can inside the church. They’ve left you no choice. You’ve tried every way possible to negotiate. Progressives even withdrew their support for the Protocol. As a last resort, it’s okay, like Paul, to defend yourselves availing yourselves of the only option left: the secular courts.
The best options are to use a “clean” 2553 process if your church can afford it or to coordinate with your WCA regional chapter to pursue a group legal strategy.
3. Your regional chapter is ready to help you.
WCA regional chapters are fully trained and now implementing their own nuanced ministry action plan to help their churches and clergy. They have new resources that they can offer to you and, if they have not already, they will soon be holding regional meetings to equip and empower you. Please be in contact with your regional chapter leaders. If you do not know how to contact your regional chapter leader, go to www.wesleyancovenant.org and click “contact us.” Scroll down to the list of regional chapters where you will find every regional leader’s name, phone number, and email address. Please contact them and they will be glad to help you.
For sure, we theological conservatives find ourselves in the crucible. We are facing hard situations and in many ways are being punished for standing up for our doctrinal standards. Jesus said following Him wouldn’t be easy. He also said we must do it any way. Will some of us lose our property? Probably. Might some of us lose our credentials? Possibly. But Jesus also said in Matthew 5:10-11, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
No matter what, Jesus calls us to follow Him, and He gave everything for us. We can’t wait any longer. The time to move is now. Let’s go.
The Rev. Jay Therrell is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association
East Ohio WCA is not affiliated with the East Ohio UNITED METHODIST CHURCH.
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