Last week 106 United Methodist congregations in Florida filed suit against their Annual (Regional) Conference. “The annual conference is using the disaffiliation plan and the denomination’s trust clause to ‘hold for ransom Plaintiff Churches’ real and personal property,’ according to the suit, when previously existing provisions in the Book of Discipline allow churches to simply deed their properties to other evangelical denominations. For further details on the Florida situation, click here Over 100 Florida UM Churches Sue Annual Conference.
It seems that in some annual conferences this will be the next chapter of the slow-motion dissolution of the United Methodist Church. This filing of the 106 lawsuits brought to mind the name of our local high school football team:
The Fighting Saints!
Our high school team takes its name from the town where it is located: Saint Charles. While I would imagine the ratio of actual saints and actual sinners in St. Charles is about the same as almost any other place, the team’s name does seem, at least through the lens of theology, religious history, and the ongoing conflict in the UMC, to raise a few eyebrows, doesn’t it? Our team is The Fighting Saints!
Friday night football games here are competitions between whom… Saints vs. Sinners? The actual names of teams from competitor schools in the DuKane Conference are the Bulldogs, Falcons, Tigers, and so on. And at the end of the competition on the gridiron, whether we win or lose it is, after all, “only a game”.
Setting the fall football parallels aside, however, the emerging conflict between local churches and the United Methodist denomination is not a game. The folks in the pews – the laity much more than the clergy – are faced with a pressing question:
Are the lawsuits by 106 local churches in one region an indicator that the United Methodist denomination has become an adversary to its local churches?
And an even more discouraging question is this: will the conflicts roiling the United Methodist Church end up in the courts?
Recent estimates, based on audited financial statements of the Episcopal Church, having preceded us in this contentious conflict between progressive and traditional theological convictions, conclude that their denomination has spent over $51 million in legal fees related to keeping church property from departing congregations. This is the amount paid by the national church and does not include legal fees and expenses by regional dioceses. The overall amount is guessed by Episcopal insiders to be something in the range of $200 million in the last two decades. These are, to be sure, rough estimates from incomplete data, but why in Christ’s name would the church expend that much money fighting the congregations that desire to depart? And is this the path some of our own bishops have chosen for the local churches under their supervision
There is a particularly unsavory note about the Episcopal Church that might shed some light on our own developing situation. Former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told NPR in 2012 that the only people who cannot buy Episcopal church buildings are the Anglicans. How come? The Presiding Bishop did not want to assist the emerging Anglican Church in North America since she saw it is a competitor to the Episcopal Church. Hence, the expenditure of over $50 million to hobble those orthodox / traditionalists who were departing the Episcopal Church. Remember, despite the high school football analogy with which I started, these issues within the church are “not just a game”. Are some of the UM Bishops seeking to follow the former Episcopal Presiding Bishop’s example? (For more detail on the Episcopal Church conflicts with its local congregations, click here Episcopal Church Costs for Local Church Departures).
By the way, if you think these court battles are of no concern in the United Methodist Church, you might want to review the competing lawsuits between our North Georgia Conference and one of its congregations, Mt. Bethel Church, that ended in an exit fee payment by the congregation of $13.1 million to the Annual Conference. Mt. Bethel Pays $13.1 Millions to Leave United Methodist Church.
Those 106 Churches in Florida Make You Kind of Wonder, Don’t They?
In uncertain times, when I am prone to wait and see what might develop rather than take action personally, this cautionary observation often intrudes: “If you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, you may not be fully aware of your situation.” What does that reminder have to do with you in your local church in this annual conference?
Well, just maybe those 106 congregations, whose leadership boards/councils studied their situation, who thoughtfully and prayerfully discerned and decided that separating from the UMC provided their best path forward, who tried to work within the established processes and procedures of our denomination, who, at least initially, trusted the good intentions, fair dealing, and public assurances of their district superintendents and bishop, have now come to conclude they must resort to legal means to ensure the future and vitality of their local church in ministry within their local community.
You see, when things happen in organizations we can focus on the “what” and maybe even the “how”; but a very important question is to ask “why?”
So, why have these congregations in Florida grouped together to sue the annual conference?
Maybe these sisters and brothers in Florida haven’t lost their heads at all. They might, as it turns out, see things much more clearly than many of us who have hoped for a gracious, amicable, and negotiated process of separation. If the leaders of the Annual Conference, the District Superintendents and Bishop, “game the system” to hold church property for ransom, as the lawsuit claims, then it seems sadly predictable that local church leaders will seek justice from the civil courts. They aren’t exactly “fighting saints”, but they are willing to contend for their faith and their future…even if it means a legal battle within what has been their denominational home.
Are those 106 churches just wacky, ill-tempered, sunshine-addled Floridians or is their boldness raising some questions for you?
We all know that “middle-of-the-road Methodists” aren’t prone to rushing into court against one another. Something must be going on there…and maybe here, too. It’s time to pay attention to the situation you and your congregation are in.
Don’t wait for your pastor to take the lead on this.
I have nothing against pastors (full disclosure: I spent 41 years as a pastor in the Northern Illinois Conference before retirement). It’s just that pastors are not members of your local church. Ordained Deacons and Elders are members of the Annual Conference. As you know, pastors, elders, and deacons come and go. So, don’t wait for your pastor to take the lead on whether or not your congregation should enter some sort of discernment process about its future. Parishioners reminded me from time to time, “Pastor, we were here before you arrived, and we’ll be here after you’re gone.” It’s true. The congregation and its future are in the hands of the folks who call that church home.
Don’t rush to a decision about the future for yourself or your local church.
It’s time for your leadership group to initiate a process of prayerful discernment focused specifically on five important questions like these:
- What are the core beliefs of our congregation and core convictions about our mission?
- Where is God calling us as a congregation serving our community and world now?
- What are the underlying issues involved in the denominational conflict? How do these issues have an impact on our congregational life and ministry?
- As far as we can tell from this vantage point, what does the future of the UMC look like? What about the future of our congregation in the Northern Illinois Conference? What alternatives might be available to us and what do they look like?
- What is the process of disaffiliation? What help and support is available to us if our local church should decide, by a congregational vote, to separate from the UMC?
You and I are not Fighting Saints, but we may be believers willing to contend for the faith and the future of our local churches serving our local communities. Put it on the agenda for the next church board meeting. Get started discerning the preferred future for your local church.
This isn’t a game.
Want More Info Now?
I’ll be making two Zoom presentations next week (identical content, 1 hour each). If you’d like further information on the current situation of the UMC, examples of what other congregations are doing in a process of prayerful discernment and decision-making, the landscape of disaffiliation, and the help, support, and options available if your congregation should decide, by congregational vote, to separate from the UMC, let me know.
If you are a local church leader and want to take part in one of those Zoom meetings, email me firstname.lastname@example.org
Rev. Dr. Scott Field
Resource Networking Coordinator
Northern Illinois Wesleyan Covenant Association