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What Separation Means for Central Conferences

By Thomas Lambrecht

United Methodist Central Conferences Around the Globe.

Now that the enabling legislation for the "Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation" has been publicly released, I am at liberty to share more fully the details of what it proposes. I previously wrote about how the process of separation would work for U.S. churches. This week, I want to hone in on the impact of a Protocol separation on the Central Conferences outside the United States. There are many intricacies involved in the various Central Conferences. This is not my area of expertise, and I would not presume to speak for them. However, I have spent extensive time over the past several years meeting with African leaders, as well as conversing with European and Filipino leaders. Based on what I have learned and what they have shared with me and others over the past six weeks, I can delve into some of the impacts of separation on the Central Conferences.


The United Methodist Church is a global denomination, with three Central Conferences in Africa, three in Europe, and one in the Philippines. About 40 percent of the church's membership is in Africa, with an additional five percent split between Europe and the Philippines.


Process of Separation in the Central Conferences


The process of separation in the Central Conferences under the Protocol would be different from that in the U.S. at the request of the two bishops representing the Central Conferences on the mediation panel.


Unlike in the U.S., where jurisdictions have no role in voting on alignment, the Central Conference meetings could take a vote on whether to align with a new traditional Methodist denomination. By a two-thirds vote, a Central Conference could decide to align with a new Methodist denomination. A Central Conference that fails to reach the two-thirds threshold or does not vote by December 31, 2021, would remain in the post-separation UM Church. All the annual conferences in each Central Conference would automatically align with whichever denomination the Central Conference chooses.


Once a Central Conference has voted or the deadline date has passed, any annual conference in that Central Conference may vote to align differently by a 57 percent majority. For example, if the Central Conference votes to align with a new traditional Methodist denomination, an annual conference by a 57 percent vote could decide to remain part of the post-separation UM Church. On the other hand, if the Central Conference remained part of the post-separation UM Church, an annual conference could vote by 57 percent to align with a new traditional Methodist denomination. Any annual conference that fails to reach the 57 percent threshold or does not vote by July 1, 2022, would remain in the alignment of its Central Conference. All the local churches in each annual conference would automatically align with whichever denomination the annual conference chooses.


Once an annual conference has voted or the deadline date has passed, a local church could vote to align differently than its annual conference. The church council or equivalent leadership group in the congregation would have to decide whether to require a simple majority vote or a two-thirds vote to change the church's alignment. At a church conference, all the members of the church present and voting could make that decision to align differently from their annual conference.


Unlike the process in the U.S., churches in the Central Conferences could not act early before their superior entity has acted. Central Conferences must act first, then annual conferences, and finally local churches. (Note that the failure to decide by the deadline is a decision.)


Property Considerations


Any property owned by a Central Conference would continue to be owned by that Central Conference in whichever denomination it aligns. Any property owned by an annual conference would continue to be owned by that annual conference in whichever denomination it aligns. Any property owned by a local church would continue to be owned by that local church in whichever denomination it aligns. There are no pension liabilities to worry about with the Central Conference Pension Plans, so that would not be an issue. Wespath would continue to administer the pension program for the Central Conferences in whichever denomination they align.


However, in a number of annual conferences outside the U.S., the annual conference owns the local church property. Where the annual conference owns and holds title to a local church property, the local church could not take its building and property with it if the local church decided to align differently from its annual conference. In such a case, the congregation could separate, but they would have to find a new place to worship.


Realistically, this means that in annual conferences that own the local church property, very few local churches will decide to align differently from their annual conference. For the most part, the annual conference will make the decision for all of its churches.


Unique Central Conference Concerns


One concern particular to many Central Conferences is the use of the name "United Methodist" and the cross-and-flame logo. The Indianapolis Plan and the Next Generation UMC Plan both allowed any new denominations that formed to use the name and logo with suitable modification to distinguish it from the post-separation UM Church. That is not the case with the Protocol. Any conference or church that aligns with a new Methodist denomination would have six months to change signage and remove the "United Methodist" name and logo from its material (excluding permanent or semi-permanent uses like building cornerstones).


Some parts of Europe already do not use the United Methodist name, but most do use the logo. The name and logo are widely used in Africa and the Philippines. Central Conference delegates who value the name and logo might attempt to amend the Protocol legislation to allow for continued use with modification. Alternatively, they may decide that, once the name and logo become connected with a U.S. church that affirms same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians, the name might become a liability rather than an asset. Nevertheless, Central Conferences will need to wrestle with this issue.


Of even greater concern to the Central Conferences is the flow of money to provide for the church's structure, ministry, and mission. Most of that money comes from the U.S. part of the church, while some comes from churches in Western Europe. Several million dollars a year help pay for bishop salaries, annual conference expenses, and even pastor salaries in some places. Millions more are given to support hospitals, schools, colleges, seminaries, and other mission work. How will the church and its institutions and mission be supported following separation?


The Protocol provides for ongoing support for Africa University. Other than that, it leaves the denominations in existence after the separation to resolve these issues of support.


If some Central Conferences align with a new traditional Methodist denomination, that denomination would need to plan to pick up the infrastructure costs of the church, like staff salaries, office expenses, and annual conference operating expenses where needed. Mission support could come through the building of partnerships between annual conferences in the U.S. with annual conferences outside the U.S. Long-term relationships could be built, mutual learning could take place, and support could flow to projects via these partnerships.


The post-separation UM Church is looking at a budget cut of 18 percent even before any churches separate. Financial support could decline by at least ten percent and maybe by as much as one-third. In that environment, either the post-separation UM Church would need to shift priorities in order to maintain support for Central Conferences, or it would need to reduce that support if the money is not there to sustain it.


For Central Conference churches that align with a new denomination, it is important to know that the Protocol provides that the new denomination can contract for services from post-separation UM Church agencies, such as General Board of Global Ministries and General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Individuals and churches in the post-separation UM Church could continue to support mission projects in the Central Conferences, even if they are no longer in the same denomination. The same is true of individuals and churches in a new traditional denomination being able to support mission projects in Central Conferences belonging to the post-separation UM Church.


An additional concern is how financial support can continue uninterrupted during the transition. The Protocol provides that apportionments should be paid to The United Methodist Church through the end of 2020 in order to maintain that continuous support. The new denomination(s) that form will need to build systems of accountability and secure handling of funds in order to incorporate churches in the Central Conferences. They will have a bit longer to do so, since it is probable that most Central Conferences that align with a new traditional denomination will not do so until several months into 2021 at the earliest. In the meantime, it would also be possible to contract with GBGM to act as a funding conduit where needed.


Incorporating the Central Conferences into a global church reality presents a challenge with many details to figure out. However, the benefit of a global church far outweighs the challenges. In the years ahead, may we truly live into a global partnership of equals, supporting and encouraging each other, no matter which denomination we end up in.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

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