At Ask The UMC, we have been answering an increasing number of questions from congregations wondering about the future of The United Methodist Church and whether they should consider disaffiliating from it. These have included recurring questions that reflect misperceptions or misinformation that some congregations are receiving as they discern their next steps.
This is the third of a series of articles aimed at offer accurate responses to such misperceptions or misinformation. As the previous two, this article is based on a variety of questions we have received multiple times through email, phone calls, and live chat. The second article focuses on matters relating to human sexuality. The first article in this series focuses on matters relating to theology and pensions.
We welcome your questions and invite you to contribute to future articles in this series by sharing what you are hearing about the process of disaffiliation or the future of The United Methodist Church. Write to [email protected].
Is The UMC really…?
11. Able to allow congregations to sidestep the requirements of Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline by using Paragraph 2548.2 as an alternative path to disaffiliation?
No. Judicial Council Decision 1449 is clear: “[T]he process in ¶ 2548.2 may not be used as a pathway for local churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.”
What is at stake in this question? The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), an independent advocacy group, in collaboration with the National Center for Life and Liberty (NCLL, an unrelated “nonprofit legal ministry”) has encouraged churches in several conferences (Florida, Western North Carolina, Eastern Pennsylvania, with “similar group actions” expected to proceed in the Western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Peninsula-Delaware conferences) to file or threaten to join NCLL-led lawsuits against their conferences unless the conferences immediately cease to require the “onerous” conditions of Paragraph 2553 and instead allow congregations to disaffiliate under Paragraph 2548.2.
That paragraph in the Discipline has been put forward for some time now by the WCA and others to suggest that: a) there could be a lower threshold of voting (based on a simple majority of a charge conference instead of the two-thirds majority of a called church conference); b) no payments would be required; and c) the whole matter could be addressed through a transfer of the congregation, its property, and its assets to another evangelical denomination through a comity agreement that each conference could, if it so chose, simply create.
The Judicial Council decision makes clear what has always been the case about this paragraph. It has nothing to do with local congregations disaffiliating from the denomination. It has to do solely with the transfer of property. The only paragraph in the Discipline that provides a means for a local church to become disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church while retaining its property and assets is Paragraph 2553.
The decision also notes that annual conferences have no authority to create a comity agreement. The Council of Bishops develops the agreement, which must then be ratified by a General Conference to become effective. In the case of the Global Methodist Church, neither of those actions has occurred. There is no basis even for a transfer of property under any comity agreement with the Global Methodist Church because no such agreement exists or can exist at this time.
Paragraph 2553 was adopted by the special called General Conference of 2019. It was introduced through a substitute motion from an advocate for the Traditional Plan. The motion to substitute passed by a margin of two votes (402-400). The reason for the substitution was that the disaffiliation proposal before the body at the time as part of the Traditional Plan legislation had already been declared unconstitutional and on several points illegal by the Judicial Council. So, to provide for any process for disaffiliation while retaining local church property, Traditionalist leaders moved the substitution of this provision. After debate, the substituted motion was approved 420-390. The Judicial Council subsequently affirmed its constitutionality when applied with the requirement in 2529.1.b.3 that the annual conference must provide final consent to enact a disaffiliation. Paragraph 2553 remains the only paragraph in the Discipline authorizing a process for a local church to disaffiliate while retaining its property and assets.
Meanwhile, a few annual conferences had also specified Paragraph 2548.2 as an option for disaffiliation in some way. Two in particular who had done so (Texas and Rio Texas) have now modified their policy documents to remove references to Paragraph 2548.2 as a disaffiliation pathway.
12. About to change its statement on abortion from life-centered to pro-choice?
No. It is true that revised Social Principles have been submitted for consideration by the next General Conference. However, the revisions made to the section addressing abortion do not alter the life-centered approach of The United Methodist Church on abortion.
“Tragic conflicts of life with life” remain the only circumstances in which abortion is considered justifiable in the revised statement. No legislative proposals submitted to the next General Conference call for any other or any lesser standard.
There is no basis to conclude the 2024 General Conference will make any change to the denomination’s life-centered commitments regarding abortion.
13. Allowing local churches that refuse to pay apportionments (as the Wesleyan Covenant Association is now directing) to “get away with it”?
No. The Book of Discipline states: “Payment in full of these apportionments by local churches is the first benevolent responsibility of the church” (Paragraph 247.14).
If the local church is incapable of fulfilling its first benevolent duty, this begins to call into question whether it remains viable as a local church or whether it is in a position to afford the appointment or appointments it may currently have.
The decision about how to respond to such situations lies with each district superintendent. District superintendents know and, as pastors themselves, can relate to the financial pressures some congregations may face that limit their ability to pay their apportionments in full, or sometimes, at all.
District superintendents also understand the difference between hardship and refusal. The Discipline gives them the tools to respond accordingly.
In cases where congregations are refusing to pay all or part of their apportionments, the district superintendent may take any of the following actions.
1. Require review of the local church’s potential (Paragraph 213) as a United Methodist congregation. Is the congregation serving the purpose or able to serve the purpose for which it was organized if it refuses to pay apportionments? If the conclusion of the review is that it is not, the DS, with the district board of location and building, the bishop, and a majority of the cabinet, can recommend the closure of that local church at the next session of the annual conference (Paragraph 2549.1.a, 2.b).
2. Re-align the pastoral charge (Paragraph 419.9) in consultation with the bishop. For churches with multiple appointed clergy, this could involve making fewer appointments. For churches with one clergy, it could lead to a less than fulltime appointment.
3. Recommend, with the approval of the district committee on location and building, the bishop, and the majority of the cabinet, the immediate transfer of all property and assets of the congregation to the conference board of trustees (Paragraph 2549.3.b). In this situation, the conference board of trustees would have discretion about whether, and on what terms, to offer the property and assets to the congregation for its possible future use, or to offer the property to another buyer and direct the assets for the use of the annual conference.
Any of these actions could be taken in response to any congregation, regardless of its interest in disaffiliation, which refuses to pay its apportionments in full. None of these actions would be taken as a means to discourage or punish congregations simply seeking to disaffiliate. Every bishop in the United Methodist Church in the United States is committed to supporting congregations wishing to disaffiliate to do so in accordance with the policies set by that conference’s board of trustees. United Methodist congregations are free to pursue disaffiliation. They are not free to sabotage the ongoing ministry of The United Methodist Church as they do so.
This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.