United Methodist Congregations and Three Options for the Their Future in Northern Illinois

So, what’s your default go-to selection when you run out of patience clicking through streaming options or your eyes have glaze over attempting to find “something” to watch? Mine is Let’s Make a Deal! I know…mindless, silly, a rigged game if ever there was one, but still, I find myself shouting, “Take the curtain! Take the curtain!” or “Keep the box! Keep the box!”

All of which brings to mind the current “negotiations” going on between local United Methodist churches and the Northern Illinois Annual Conference (NIC).

What should they choose? Curtain # 1? Curtain # 2? Or Curtain #3?

They might get a fabulous prize…or they might get ZONKED!

Here’s my take:

What choices are available to a local United Methodist congregation in the current denominational unraveling? Should we stay or should we go? The choice on Let’s Make a Deal! is finally, despite all the shouting from a studio audience, the choice of an individual contestant. The choice of a denominational home for a local congregation is a much more complex decision involving not only a leadership group like the Administrative Council or Church Board, but all the members of the church as well.

So, what are the options?

Pretend we’re playing something like Let’s Make a Deal! Wayne Brady, the host of the show, offers you a box with something inside. Is it amazingly valuable or is it completely worthless? Do you want the box or… maybe an envelope he pulls from his pocket. He says the envelope has cash inside but leaves you guessing how much. Which is your preference? And then, just before you are ready to make your choice between the box and the cash, Wayne Brady offers a third option: “Or, you can trade the box for what’s behind the curtain.”

For those who are interested in such things, mathematicians call this the Monty Hall Problem. Named after the long-time host of Let’s Make a Deal!, it is a consideration of probabilities pertaining to the choices involved. If you Google “Monty Hall Problem” you’ll get a LOT of information on probabilities. We’re not actually interested so much in the mathematics of probability, but in the three options before congregations in the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC).

Here are the three options I see before local congregations right now. Two are certain. One is not.

Choice # 1: No Thanks, Wayne. We don’t want either the envelop of cash or the curtain. We’ll keep the box we have.

This is the #StayUMC option for local congregations, and it is the overwhelming favorite of churches in Northern Illinois Conference and the UMC as a whole. And why not? It is a perfect choice for those who believe the future of the United Methodist Church will be “steady as she goes”.

That might indeed be the case, but as advocacy voices warming up for the United Methodist General Conference of 2024 seem to indicate, expecting continuity and steadiness for the denomination and its local congregations seems highly unlikely. With many orthodox /traditionalist /evangelical congregations and leaders departing, the moderating voices will be gone, nobody can be counted on to pump the brakes, and, well, why would we bother anyway? Activists, influencers, our episcopal leaders, and even some of the nearly-extinct “Centrists” all seem more than ready to cast off the legacy Christian faith St. Vincent of Lerín summarized as “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”. The future lies with cutting the cord to our past in preference for the progressive and/or liberationist future.

What may be lost in all the focus on our immediate moment is that the future likely won’t be all that long for the UMC no matter what. With an average age of church members approaching 60 (compared to an average age of 39 for the general US population) and the bulk of financial support, in many congregations, coming from members over the age of 70, our long-term membership loss will become, as one study put it, a “death tsunami.” In addition, the number of United Methodist ordained elders under the age of 35 hit a record low in 2022 (just 6% of clergy). Demographic forces seem to indicate that changing the trajectory of UMC institutional decline is not much more than a fond wish. Perhaps we shouldn’t waste a lot of time and energy on trying to reach the “younger generation.” Apparently, that train has left the station already. Better to go all in on the Progressive Agenda while we still can, right? That’s the “We’ll Keep the Box” choice and its outcome is clear. (I’m not making this stuff up… click for background: UMC Clergy Age Trends 2022 and The Coming Death Tsunami).

Choice # 2: Let’s see if we can make a deal, Wayne.

This is the “negotiate terms of disaffiliation” option. It is the uncertain and anxious option, the shifting from one foot to the other while trying to decide option. It’s hard to decide because, well, the terms of disaffiliation are unclear or uncertain…until the last moment. And besides, just like Wayne Brady on the real game show, in disaffiliation negotiations, the NIC administration has all the information and institutional power.

Currently there are 14 churches in the NIC attempting to negotiate terms of disaffiliation from the NIC. The standard disaffiliation terms, outlined in The United Methodist Book of Discipline, paragraph 2553, are straightforward. It comes down to the money, the “exit fees”, a congregation must pay if they vote to leave.

Before leaving, a congregation must pay:

Apportionments
Two years of apportionments prior to the date of disaffiliation. This is easily accessible information.

Unfunded Pension Liability
The congregation must pay its pro rata share of any aggregate unfunded pension obligations of the annual conference. This is not easily accessible information. Though the Chief Administrative Officer/Treasurer presents a figure for this category, it would be easy to conclude that it is an arbitrary figure or, at the least, an obligation of uncertain pedigree.

What helps strengthen the perceived integrity of this significant cost are a) a current statement from the UM Pension Board (WesPath) of aggregate unfunded pension liability of the Northern Illinois Conference, b) a copy of the audit of the NIC finances, indicating any pension reserves and policies for their current or anticipated expenditure, and c) the formula or method for determining the pro rata share of the aggregate assigned as the obligation of a particular congregation. This information would alleviate the mystery behind the math on unfunded pension liability.

Ah, but wait…there is more. Paragraph 2553 indicates that annual conferences may develop additional terms for disaffiliation. So the Northern Illinois Conference disaffiliation terms have a couple of additions:

A portion of the value of the church property

The NIC is requiring a payment of 33% (1/3) of the value of the local church property, but it is uncertain whether or not that is the maximum amount or if that amount is negotiable. Of course, this also begs the question of whom and by what method the value of the property has been determined in the first place.

Another question, left unaddressed in all of this, is who has equity in the property?

The trust clause of the UMC holds that local congregations have church property “in trust” for the mission of the denomination. Though contemporary considerations of equity often focus on matters related to social justice, a more basic meaning of equity has to do with the financial value of “shares” of ownership, proprietorship, or investment over time. Since local congregations pay the costs of construction, insurance, utilities, maintenance, upkeep, and renovations of church buildings, in simple financial terms the local congregation has the greatest equity in the building(s). Any payment at all of a portion of the value of the building is hard to justify as equitable.

Even more, the real loss to the UMC when a congregation disaffiliates or a significant portion of the congregation’s members leave because the cost of disaffiliation is too high, is just that: the loss of the committed members of the local church. That loss cannot be calculated in dollars and cents but is certainly a more valuable resource to the Christian mission than the building in which those sisters and brothers in Christ worship.

Specified Contribution to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) Sexual Abuse Settlement Pool

Finally, the NIC also adds a specified contribution to the settlement pool to pay penalties that have or may arise from sexual abuse suits against the BSA. The settlement of the BSA case includes a liability pool provided by various denominations to pay future jury awards. This amount will be apportioned to local congregations in the NIC, but if a church is disaffiliating now, it must pay a designated contribution before leaving.

The “let’s see if we can make a deal” option is unpredictable. The 2/3 majority vote required to disaffiliate means that a 34% minority of votes at a church conference can frustrate the will of the majority and so remain part of the NIC even though most church members would rather depart. It’s likely they will depart through the exit doors regardless. As one congregational leader observed to me concerning their disaffiliation negotiations, “The conference will get the building, but lose the congregation.”

No matter how the negotiation goes, it will cost a lot of money to disaffiliate, and most congregations will find either they cannot afford the cost, or they don’t want to pay into a denomination they no longer support. Kinda feels like a ZONK! either way.

Is there any other option besides default to UMC to attempt to disaffiliate for another denominational home.

Choice # 3: Keep the box, Wayne. And keep the building, too. We’ll go with what’s behind the curtain (that is, we’re leaving).

Some congregations, or portions of congregations, and pastors, too, are choosing the third option, neither default to #StayUMC or disaffiliate. You might think they are leaving, but they think of themselves as launching…a new ministry of the Global Methodist Church (GMC). These pioneers are fully in sync with the GMC mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ who worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly. This past week the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church reviewed and approved plans for the formation of the Great Lakes Provisional Conference of the GMC which will include Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Bishop Mark Webb, formerly a UMC Bishop of the Upper New York Annual Conference, is the GMC episcopal leader of the newly forming area. The first session of the Great Lakes Provisional Conference of the GMC is anticipated for next fall by which time 350-400 former UMC congregations are expected to be included.

And, as you might imagine, after attempting the onerous disaffiliation process, the freedom and adventure of responding to God’s call in starting something new can make folks uncharacteristically giddy.

And why not? After all, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives is JOY!

Let’s Make A Deal! is both a game and a show. The choice before congregations is neither a game nor entertainment. It is the serious discernment of God’s direction and a fresh commitment to the Jesus Mission of salvation and transformation. Lead on, Holy Spirit!

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REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

Interim President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
1 Corinthians 15:58

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