Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
by Jay Therrell
November 22, 2022
The phrase two steps forward, one step back has come to mean that the journey ahead won’t be an easy one. Theological conservatives trying to depart The United Methodist Church certainly know what that’s like. The process to allow a church to disaffiliate has been anything but easy with many leaders at all levels trying to create as many obstacles as possible.
Two Steps Forward
In the midst of the mess, there continues to be some good news. During this past summer, the Wesleyan Covenant Association called on laity in local churches to lead their churches to withhold paying apportionments in 19 annual conferences that had added significant obstacles to their paragraph 2553 disaffiliation process. The processes in these annual conferences, in some cases, are insurmountable – financially and procedurally. They are onerous and punitive. Since that time, we’ve received almost 800 requests from laity in churches asking for our instruction guide on helping them make a motion for their church council to begin escrowing apportionments.
As I shared in that article:
Since that decision was made, we have begun to see movement on the part of bishops and annual conference boards of trustees. Several have revised their disaffiliation processes to be more helpful. In a spirit of gratitude, the WCA wishes to extend our appreciation to those conferences for helping to make the process easier.
No one is helped by trapping theologically conservative churches. The annual conference has a disgruntled church left in its midst that likely will not pay apportionments ever again. Laity eventually will begin to leave the church choosing a church home that aligns with their theology. Only the kingdom is harmed.
Helping theologically conservative churches to depart should be everyone’s goal. It is in everyone’s best interest in helping churches and clergy get to the place where they can best serve Jesus. It is un-Christian to attempt to trap churches and clergy and hold them in a denomination against their will.
The result has been that multiple annual conferences have done the right thing and moved toward a “clean” 2553 process, for which we are grateful. On October 10, I shared an article called “Moving the Needle” in which we announced that the list of 19 annual conferences with punitive disaffiliation processes had reduced to 16. Praise God! Additionally, a small handful of annual conferences improved their process to be even better than a “clean” 2553 process by reducing unfunded pension liabilities with reserves.
Today, I’m pleased to share that we have taken two more steps forward. The original list of 19 annual conferences with punitive 2553 processes is now 14. The Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference has changed their disaffiliation process to be the requirements of paragraph 2553 plus 10% of whatever the church pays to the conference in apportionments and unfunded pension liabilities. While we acknowledge this is not a clean 2553 process, when we did the “math” it brought Illinois Great Rivers in line with other annual conferences that we removed from the list including Western Pennsylvania. This is likely as good as the process will get there.
Additionally, we have now removed the Susquehanna Conference from our list. Originally the Susquehanna Conference was asking a church to pay 65% of its fair market value in addition to 2553 requirements. It has now reduced that to 1%. Again, this is not a “clean” 2553 process, but it is close enough, that we are willing to take Susquehanna off the list.
We extend our deep appreciation to the Boards of Trustees and bishops of the Illinois Great Rivers and Susquehanna Conferences for being fairer in their treatment of theologically conservative churches.
Lastly, we celebrate that the Pen-Del Conference allowed 107 churches to be “grandfathered” into their disaffiliation process. Originally, Pen-Del had a “clean” 2553 process. Sadly, on July 1 of this year they changed it to include requiring churches to pay 50% of their fair market value. Many churches tried to get in the disaffiliation que by July 1 but couldn’t do so. The conference has now allowed 107 churches to pay the “clean” 2553 amount. Sadly, however, new churches that seek to enter the process will have to pay the onerous and punitive 50% of fair market value.
One Step Back
I wish the above good news was all that I had to share. Unfortunately, while we took two steps forward, one conference has taken a step back. The North Georgia Conference had used their pension reserves to reduce the unfunded pension liabilities for disaffiliating churches by $19.6 million. Sadly, the North Georgia Board of Pensions is no longer doing so. The result is that churches disaffiliating in the coming months will see an increase in their unfunded pension liability payments – in some cases tripling them. While the North Georgia Conference still has a “clean” 2553 process, this is an exceedingly punitive move. We call on their Bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, their Board of Trustees, and their Board of Pensions and Health Benefits to stop the harm and go back to allowing pension reserves to reduce churches’ pension payments.
It’s Time to Go
We take two steps forward in some places and one step back in others. Sadly there is still one conference, South Carolina, that offers no process for disaffiliation to their churches. Regardless, it’s time for traditionalist churches to move forward in their disaffiliation processes. The window is rapidly closing, as I shared in this article, and churches should not wait. Your regional chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association is ready, willing, and able to help you. Please click here to find your regional leader’s contact information.
The Rev. Jay Therrell is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Global Methodist Church.
Annual Conferences Adding Punitive Requirements to Paragraph 2553
(We call on laity in these conferences to confidentially email email@example.com to receive an instruction guide on how to ask your church council to withhold and escrow ALL apportionments.)
Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference (50% of fair market value of real estate and return of all restricted funds)
California-Nevada Annual Conference (20% of fair market value of real estate, first right of refusal of Conference to purchase property back if goes up for sale in first seven years at 20% of fair market value, pro-rata share of Boy Scout settlement costs)
California-Pacific Annual Conference (50% of fair market value of real estate, repayment of conference and district grants for previous three years)
Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference (giving up all insurance local churches have paid premiums for through annual conference leaving churches widely exposed with little to no options for coverage. $6,500 administrative fee, $5,000 to support historic St. George’s, pro-rata share of Boy Scout settlement costs, an additional year of pay for pastor that doesn’t disaffiliate with church plus paying for two additional moves, Missional Transition Support Payment that includes up to 33% of value of church’s non real estate assets)
Florida Annual Conference (giving up 26 years of insurance local churches have paid for through annual conference leaving churches widely exposed with little to no options for coverage, must buy insurance coverage for the Florida Conference to cover all their liability for previous three years)
Greater New Jersey Annual Conference (repay conference grants for the last three years, pay unfunded retiree health care liabilities, pro-rata share of Boy Scout settlement cost, 18 months’ clergy compensation for pastors who do not disaffiliate, moving costs for two moves of such pastors, conference legal and court costs, percentage of all cash and investments equal to the percentage voting against disaffiliation, $3,500 administrative fee, possible payment for church property determined by conference trustees)
Louisiana Annual Conference (payment of an extra year of apportionments totaling three years, pension liability calculated on the least favorable of 4 factors (not consistent church to church), repossessing of hymnals)
Missouri Annual Conference (payment of an extra year of apportionments totaling three years, repayment of conference grants from previous five years)
Mountain Sky Annual Conference (repayment of conference grants from previous ten years, pay percentage of fair market value of real estate determined by conference after local church votes to disaffiliate/church can’t take vote knowing how much it would have to pay)
New England Annual Conference (onerous discernment period that includes, among other things, public comment meetings for people who don’t attend church to give their opinion)
Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (insuring the annual conference against any past or future claim connected to the local church or its property – insurance that is essentially impossible to obtain)
Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference (50% of appraised market value of real estate)
South Carolina Annual Conference (no official process made public; bishop will not allow churches to disaffiliate under paragraph 2553)
West Virginia Annual Conference (requiring churches to close under paragraph 2549 instead of disaffiliating under paragraph 2553 – the conference so far has not shared with the WCA what, if any process is available utilizing 2549)
East Ohio WCA is not affiliated with the East Ohio UNITED METHODIST CHURCH.
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