You know the song, don’t you?
You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, GusSimon, Paul. “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”, Still Crazy After All These Years, Columbia, 1975
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free.
Paul Simon’s familiar, oddly light-hearted, reflection on the divorce from his first wife was a chart-topping song in 1976. If you are a United Methodist and feeling that you and/or your local church are stuck in a relationship with a denomination that has endured nearly 50 years of constant conflict, well, you might be looking for a way out, too. There aren’t actually 50 ways to leave the UMC; it’s more like a half-dozen.
The April 2022 issue of the Northern Illinois Conference Reporter includes a column by our Interim Bishop, John Hopkins, entitled, “Are United Methodists Going to Divide?” In my opinion a more apt title for the article might be, “How are United Methodists Going to Divide?” The fact of division is no longer contested. Attempts at keeping the UMC together through re-organization of one sort or another failed most recently at the General Conferences of 2012 and 2016. The Council of Bishops politically engineered what was described as a strategic pause in any legislative action related to human sexuality, the definition of marriage, and proper candidates for ordination in 2016. The General Conference authorized the launch of The Commission on a Way Forward to work during the legislative “pause” in order to formulate a resolution to our long-standing denominational conflicts.
A specially called General Conference was held in 2019 for the sole purpose of acting upon the recommendation of the Commission. The recommendation was defeated by General Conference vote and the long-standing standards of the UMC were reaffirmed. Progressive Bishops, clergy, and annual conferences immediately declared their opposition to the action of the General Conference and, since 2019, many have refused to support the democratically decided position of the United Methodist Church.
Ironically, our local churches are still expected to comply with the UMC Book of Discipline under the authority of Bishops and Annual Conference leaders who openly refuse to do so themselves. The slow-motion failure of all well-intentioned attempts at reconciliation has brought United Methodists from almost all corners of the church to conclude it is time to separate. Ah, but General Conference again has been delayed until 2024.
How can we get ourselves and our local churches out of this mess?
She said it grieves me soSimon, Paul. “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”, Still Crazy After All These Years, Columbia, 1975
To see you in such pain
I wish there was something I could do
To make you smile again
I said I appreciate that
And would you please explain
About the fifty ways?
Six Options Congregations Might Consider for Separation from the UMC
Before considering any of these six options, take a deep breath and settle down. Though the Global Methodist Church will officially incorporate and become a legal entity on May 1, 2022, that is a starting point. It is not a deadline. You and your congregation have plenty of time for prayerful, thoughtful, informed decision-making about the future. The Global Methodist Church will be open to receiving members and churches from other denominations whenever they want to join. There is no endpoint.
Now, on to the SIX WAYS:
- Disaffiliation to become an independent congregation under paragraph 2553
¶ 2553 of the UM Book of Discipline was adopted in 2019 as a way for churches that disagree with the denomination’s position on LGBT ordination or same-sex marriage (or with their annual conference’s response to the denomination’s position) to withdraw from the UM Church.
For example, a progressive congregation that concludes the current standards of the UMC are too restrictive or a conservative congregation that finds the administration of their annual conference related to LGBTQIA+ issues is inconsistent with the UM Book of Discipline might both seek disaffiliation under this paragraph.
The focus here is on withdrawing to become an independent congregation, after which the church might decide to align with a different denomination. Almost all the churches that have withdrawn under ¶ 2553 so far have become independent and, at this point, not aligned with another denomination. This is the path described by Bishop Hopkins in his NIC Reporter article.
¶ 2553 requires that the departing congregation pay two years’ apportionments and the total amount of its unfunded pension liability to the annual conference before departing. Approval for withdrawal requires a two-thirds vote of the church members voting at a church conference, the conference board of trustees, and a majority vote of the annual conference. The local church would then be able to keep its property, assets, and liabilities as it continues forward as an independent congregation or decides to align with another denomination. It is important to note that this is a time-restricted provision in the UM Book of Discipline. The disaffiliation process under this paragraph must be completed by December 31, 2023.
- Withdrawal to Align with Another Denomination
¶ 2548.2 was originally adopted in 1948 to facilitate the transfer to other denominations of church facilities that no longer were able to serve a changing community by remaining United Methodist. The paragraph allows the annual conference to transfer (“deed”) the church’s property to a denomination represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission (five African-American Methodist denominations) or “another evangelical denomination.” Instead of moving into an independent status, for example, the congregation could move from the UM Church directly into the GM Church.
¶ 2548.2 does not require specific monetary payments. Other paragraphs in the Discipline require the congregation’s share of unfunded pension liabilities be cared for. Wespath, the UMC pension board, has expressed openness to these liabilities being covered by a promissory note secured by a lien on the church’s assets, rather than an upfront payment in full. This approach would relieve one of the major financial barriers to smaller local churches wanting to move to the GM Church, but it requires annual conference approval of this approach. ¶ 2548.2 does not specify a threshold for local church approval of this transfer, so it could allow a simple majority vote by the church’s members. The transfer requires approval by the bishop, the district superintendents, the district board of church location and building, and the annual conference. The local church’s property, assets, and liabilities could be transferred to the GM Church, which would then release them to the local congregation because the GM Church has no trust clause. Withdrawal for transfer to another denomination requires a written agreement between the annual conference, the local congregation, and the receiving denomination.
- Passage of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation
A third option for local congregations is to await the outcome of the postponed General Conference sometime in 2024. Legislation supporting the Protocol was submitted for General Conference 2020 and is expected to be considered in 2024. The Protocol legislation would allow local congregations to depart from the UMC with all property, assets, and liabilities and no “exit fees”. The delay of four years before actual legislative consideration, however, seems to be undermining support for the legislation. Approval of the Protocol is not a certainty.
- Closing a Church and Selling It Back To the Former Congregation
A fourth option is for the annual conference to close a church under paragraph 2549 and then sell the building back to the former congregation for a modest amount.
- Dual Affiliation to Both the UMC and the GMC
The UM Book of Discipline (pars. 209 and 2548) and the GMC Draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline (par 353) allow for a congregation to have affiliation with two denominations simultaneously. Though this option has several challenges for local church organization and administration, it is similar to the current practice of establishing and sustaining Federated Churches within an annual conference.
- People Leave Their Local Church
Clearly, the most common way United Methodists have departed from the denomination is through simply leaving their local congregation for another church or, often, no church at all. Perhaps the chronic conflict and organizational dysfunction within the UMC just wears people out. A retired NIC clergyperson recently recalled that UM membership within the NIC was about 220,000 when he was first appointed. The current NIC membership as of 2020 is 74,000, it is a loss of more than 66%. (umdata.org).
Though any of these options might allow a congregation to separate from the UMC, withdrawing under the provisions of paragraph 2548.2 provides for a clear, transparent, fair, and collaboratively negotiated agreement that protects the interests of the Annual Conference as well as the needs of the departing congregations. Perhaps in the NIC we can find a way to bless one another as we pursue our differing visions for faithful ministry in the future. That would be a blessing to us all, wouldn’t it? And, we trust, a blessing to the communities in which our congregations would continue to serve.
Now, if you’ve read this far, you may need a little musical relief. So, here you go:
Want to check out the Global Methodist Church?
The Sixth Annual Global Gathering is coming on
Saturday, May 7th in Indianapolis
You can go in person or attend at a livestream site nearby.
Go to WesleyanCovenant.org for information and registration. You will be informed, encouraged, and inspired…guaranteed!