Note: This is a stock image and not intended to portray, literally or figuratively, actual United Methodist leaders.
This past weekend at the Fall Gathering of the Northern Illinois Wesleyan Covenant Association we sang and prayed. We heard testimonies. Rev. Jay Therrell, President of the Wesleyan Covenant Association worldwide, gave a motivating update and forecast on current developments within the United Methodist Church and the growing number of congregations in the USA as well as in three other continents (soon to be four) who are becoming part of the Global Methodist Church. We also did some business related to our regional chapter and looked ahead into 2023.
Laity from 19 congregations who have either formally decided to enter a process of discernment and possible disaffiliation from the United Methodist denomination or are actively deciding whether to commence such a process were present. An additional five churches determined that it might not be wise to attend because of their concerns about possible recrimination by leaders within or beyond our annual conference. A separate meeting with pastors was held on Monday morning to provide information and answer questions for those considering the possibility of moving their credentials from the UMC to the Global Methodist Church.
You could tell throughout both meetings that we were all, as they say, singing from the same hymnal. Awesome!
Unfortunately, when it comes to the disaffiliation process administered by our Annual Conference, our leaders don’t seem to be singing the same tune.
Bishop John Hopkins, interim Bishop of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference until January 1st, has indicated that in Northern Illinois we will follow the process for disaffiliation outlined in the UM Book of Discipline (paragraph 2553) without additional encumbrances or costs. That seems clear and straightforward.
The communication by District Superintendents with local congregations inquiring about beginning a discernment process, however, is neither quite so clear nor straightforward.
For example, one congregation notified their District Superintendent (DS) last February (2022) of their desire to disaffiliate from the Annual Conference. Besides being told in the spring and again in August that they would have to follow the process of paragraph 2553, and despite having a change of pastors imposed upon them without their request or consultation, they have yet to be given the specifics on what they need to do and costs they are expected to bear in order to disaffiliate. This “slow-walking” seems particularly questionable since another DS has indicated that Bishop Hopkins expects all of the disaffiliation processes to be completed by the end of February or beginning of March (2023) in order for a resolution to be prepared covering all disaffiliating congregations for a vote during the Annual Conference session next June. Despite time running down, this congregation has been waiting for eight months. Are our annual conference leaders just “running out the clock” on this church? Perhaps not, but the inference is hard to avoid.
Another congregation, at a meeting with their DS and the Assistant to the Bishop, was presented with the basic outline of the disaffiliation process… but then it was implied that if the disaffiliation of that church would leave their community without a local United Methodist Church, then the disaffiliating church might be required to pay for the Annual Conference to purchase land for a new UM church to be launched at some unknown time in the future. That is not in the standard paragraph 553 process, but is it now a requirement in Northern Illinois? Maybe just wishful thinking at the moment by a conference leader worried about cashflow in the future? Perhaps a bit of disinformation intended to warn the church folks at the meeting that they had better #BeUMC…or else?
A third DS was asked about disaffiliation during the congregation’s annual Church Conference recently. Reportedly he said that there was a process for disaffiliation, but they couldn’t actually join the Global Methodist Church because the Global Methodist Church exists only on paper. Of course, this might simply be misinformation. The DS might not be aware that about 1,000 congregations in the USA will have joined the Global Methodist Church by the end of the year with several more thousand by the end of next year. The DS is certainly not aware that Northern Illinois is already included in the planning process to launch a regional annual conference of the Global Methodist Church next summer nor that a congregational multiplication and church planting strategy retreat is in the works for our area this winter. Perhaps the DS was not adequately informed, but it might also be that he was attempting to extinguish the embers of revival beginning to stir in that congregation as it thought about a vibrant, healthy, and focused future. Misinformation or disinformation? It’s not entirely clear.
A final example is the recurrent theme from some of our DS’s that there is no need to rush into a conversation about whether to remain in the United Methodist Church or disaffiliate to join the Global Methodist Church. We are assured that local churches will always have the option to disaffiliate. The disaffiliation paragraph itself sunsets on December 31, 2023. The Council of Bishops at a recent meeting announced that there would be no extension of that deadline. Even more recently, the President of the Council of Bishops indicated that there would be no support for any new disaffiliation/departure legislation at the anticipated 2024 General Conference. The bishops will pivot at the end of 2023 by putting this season of disaffiliations in the rearview mirror. No need to rush? Our leaders are promising what they already know they cannot deliver. The door for disaffiliation closes for all congregations everywhere in December of 2023. In Northern Illinois it closes on Thursday, June 8, 2023, at the conclusion of the Annual Conference Session. There will be no exit ramp available after that.
So why the variations on the theme of disaffiliation requirements? Misinformation, disinformation, or some free-lancing by District Superintendents?
Come on, Scott. Don’t you realize they are all busy with the relocation and down-sizing of the conference offices in Chicago? They haven’t had time to work out a coordinated and consistent process for disaffiliation.
Besides, it’s Charge Conference Season. The calendars of the District Superintendents are already overflowing.
But here’s an alternate perspective.
Out of 53 Annual Conferences in the USA, only 10 have not posted their disaffiliation policies and processes on their conference website. The rest have provided it for all to see. All of our nearby conferences (Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois Great Rivers, Michigan, Minnesota) have posted their disaffiliation process and policies publicly.
Northern Illinois is one of the ten annual conferences that has not posted a detailed process and policies on the Annual Conference website.
Yes, it could be that our DS’s and administrative leaders have colluded to develop a practice of “strategic foot-dragging” to frustrate any attempts for congregations to consider leaving the UMC. I’d like to believe our leaders aren’t so nefarious.
I think it’s simply that the small number of congregations seeking to discern their congregational future and possible disaffiliation represent an administrative annoyance for our conference leaders. That helps explain, for example, receiving a form letter from the DS in response to one church’s request to begin a discernment process. The letter didn’t answer any of the specific questions that were asked of the DS in their initial request. And when one of the leaders of that congregation talked about it with a layperson from a neighboring UM congregation, he learned that the second congregation had received the same form letter in response to their request for to start a discernment/disaffiliation process, too.
You could understand why a form letter might be received as a bit of an affront. After all, this discernment and possible disaffiliation process is a MAJOR fork in the road for the entire congregation. For our DS’s, however, the form letter pretty clearly indicates that they’re over us already. They have, as the saying goes, bigger fish to fry.
So, here’s a suggestion for our conference leaders: if you want the annoyance of discerning/disaffiliating congregations to go away, pick up the pace, open the door and help them go on their way. Then you can go back to your priorities for the future of the NIC. Singing the same tune among our conference leaders would certainly help.