by Chris Ritter
Early in their work, the Commission on a Way Forward admitted that they would not be able to keep everyone in the United Methodist Church. One of their first status updates included the statement that any plan they propose would be accompanied by an exit provision. Those who can’t live with the solution will presumably be free to go. I have never liked talk of exits. I am under vows to the UMC and my general optimism leads me to believe there must be a way to stay somehow connected. But if the people charged with our unity feel the need to talk about exits, we should all probably give this some thought. What does an exit ramp look like? Who would take it? How generous and open-ended would it be? Will it allow a free and clear exodus, or would it merely an opportunity for a buy-out?*
United Methodists are tethered together by many things. Not the least of these is something called the trust clause. This is a statement mandated by the Book of Discipline to be included in the deed of every congregational and institutional property. It states the real estate is intended for United Methodist ministry. If a local congregation ceases to be United Methodist, their property reverts to the annual conference.
Property disputes have recently become the #1 reason that churches are involved in litigation. Our Episcopal/Anglican brothers and sisters have spent millions of dollars in legal wranglings over the status of disputed real estate. In a UMC split, billions of dollars in assets would suddenly come up for grabs. United Methodist congregations that have successfully exited the denomination free of lawsuits have usually negotiated some sort of buy-out from their annual conference. These payments are in light of the fact that the annual conference started the congregation, contributed to its success, and has accepted financial responsibilities (like clergy pension commitments) based on the participation of the exiting church.
One of the fascinating twists of the United Methodist human sexuality debate is that those who are defying our Discipline often nevertheless want to stay in. They see themselves as on a social justice crusade to transform the UMC from within. Our clergy standards, however, are rooted in Scripture. For UM’s whose primary guide for sexual ethics is the Bible, the importance of the Word far outweighs the life of any particular denomination. This dynamic gives us the odd situation we have today. Those who agree with the UMC often want to leave it while those who disagree often want to stay.
If you support what the Book of Discipline teaches about human sexuality, you are frustrated that it has long been ignored or even defied by those sworn to uphold it. Some are disgusted by a perceived lack of integrity. Others want out because of what they see as denominational incompetence and/or irrelevance. The Orchard, a megachurch in Mississippi, recently negotiated their exit from the UMC with their annual conference. The leadership reasoned it better to leave sooner over the incompetence of the denomination than leave later during some highly-publicized human sexuality split… a topic on which every local church is at least somewhat divided.
My conversations around the church over the past year have led me to believe there are a fair number of folks that are fine with the UMC voting to worship Ganesh the Hindu elephant god… as long as there is an exit. The are d-o-n-e done and are only awaiting someone to show them the door. Imagine, for instance, that you are the pastor of a United Methodist megachurch:
Defying the trends of your denomination, you are making disciples of Jesus Christ at a remarkable clip. You have a staff of dozens and your own HR department. You get your ministry inspiration much more from other effective churches of various tribes than from UM hierarchy and agencies. You likely pay hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars annually into the coffers of a denomination from which you get little in return and which may be led by those with whom you may not share much theological or practical affinity. Sure, there are worthy causes supported by apportionments. But the overall feeling is that you are being used to financially support a system that should have been radically altered decades ago. You feel you could find a much better use for those tens of millions of dollars sent away each decade, like hiring more ministry staff, building needed facilities, starting more community-based ministries, or supporting your international partnerships. What you are doing is working, and you could do more of it if you didn’t have to financially prop up what is clearly not working. Years ago you began downplaying your denominational affiliation in order to reach more people. Now the only thing holding you in the UMC are the millions of dollars in property that you would abandon if you left. You may even be purposely holding onto your debt. If the conference tries to take your property, they would get your mortgage, as well. You know they can’t afford that and this is the only bargaining chip you currently hold.
The above description represents the feelings of some of our largest and most effective congregations, including those of a progressive bent. Even if the human sexuality debate magically went away, we would still be a denomination in major need of reform. What we are doing is not effectively making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are top-heavy and our bureaucracy is several steps disconnected from the local church it was created to serve. There are many anecdotes of bright spots, but our influence in American culture is dwindling.** A good number of folks are ready to try something new.
In addition to those who want out, some solutions may also create a situation where some will need out for the sake of conscience. If we more strictly enforce the Book of Discipline, the most strident Progressives will be forced out. We are at the point where regaining accountability would require strong medicine indeed. But accountability is exactly what every General Conference since the 1970’s has voted. This is a real possibility. The only reason GC2016 didn’t follow suit is because of the Way Forward Process. Some see this as a mere delay of the inevitable. Progressives may need the exit ramp.
If we create some sort of Local Option, groups like The Wesleyan Covenant Association (of which I am part) have stated that they could not continue under a denomination that makes up its Christian anthropology on the fly, is selectively congregationalist, and subjects Traditionalists to open-ended pressure to conform to the values of the sexual revolution. WCA has over a thousand American dues-paying United Methodist clergy in its membership and many more who sympathize with their position, including the vast majority of the global UMC. A vote for the local option is a vote for major schism.
Exit to What?
It is hard to not imagine a future where at least some United Methodist congregations leave to a new reality. A separate question is what they will be leaving to. This depends partly on the way the exit ramp is structured. There are congregational exits and connectional exits.
One exit ramp suggestion that I hear repeatedly is a temporary “trust clause holiday.” General Conference 2019 would allow a window of time in which the trust clause is suspended church-wide. The trust clause is called “irrevocable” (¶2501.2) except as “provided in the Discipline.” Removing it, however, would affect the UMC at the molecular level.
Our denomination is organized much like the U.S. government with three branches and a federalized approach to its member bodies. A “trust clause holiday” would require annual conferences to forfeit their right to properties. It would be like the federal government requiring a state to surrender some of its counties. Annual conferences have taken on financial obligations (like pension promises to retired clergy) based on the size and scope of their work. While conferences are now required to pay as we go, some have unfunded liabilities that will need to be addressed in order to keep their promises. At the very least, some mechanism for financial equity will need to be included. A general “everyone unhappy is free to leave” will not be practical.
An exit ramp based on removal of the trust clause would release a congregation to itself. Connectional congregations would become congregational by default. When The Orchard in Tupelo left, they were granted their own property. They immediately incorporated as an independent church (which is really easy to do in Mississippi) and ordained their own clergy. Maybe they only did this as an interim step while the UMC works out its various branches. Would megachurches likely rejoin a connectional denomination or would they look for something more akin to a Willow Creek Association? Would independent Methodist congregations retain their Methodist distinctives or would they assimilate into the landscape of generic U.S. Christianity? These are all issues to consider.
There is another way to provide an exit ramp besides giving each exiting church their own property. General Conference can adjust the process whereby congregations transfer from their annual conference to other bodies. ¶2548 governs the process whereby deeds are conveyed to “other evangelical denominations.” If we allowed some like-minded congregations to form a separate body, we could streamline the transfer provisions. The trust clause would not be suspended but passed forward. If the new body afterwards wanted to loosen its hold on local church properties, that would be within its purview.
My preferred solution allows the creation of affiliated autonomous annual conferences in the U.S. like we have overseas. This would be a simple matter that does not require constitutional changes and it would allow churches to transfer their deed to bodies approved by General Conference. The creation of affiliated autonomous conferences are allowed by our polity, but they do not stand under our polity once created. General Conference can mandate the connection these new, domestic autonomous bodies have with the UMC through a pre-approved concordat agreement. Joining an autonomous body would necessitate accepting the terms of the concordat, which General Conference could make as generous or restrictive as it likes. What general agencies they participate in, what they pay into the UMC, how they are organized, and who can join would be matters for negotiation.
Ramps for Clergy
In addition to ramps for congregations, exit provisions will need to be included for clergy. Currently, a clergy cannot transfer out of their conference except by permission of their bishop… or by surrendering their credentials. This will need to become less restrictive. Clergy will also undergo a separate process for the body they are joining. The “on ramps” to new denominations/conferences might be an interesting matter for study. When the ECO formed from the most recent Presbyterian split, they wanted to make sure the same dysfunction they had in the PCUSA was not repeated. Their entering clergy are carefully vetted. It is not a “ya’ll come” invitation. Even the individual members of local presbyteries undergo a theological examination to make sure they are in harmony with ECO commitments. Both Conservative and Progressive Methodists have their own orthodoxies they will want to protect. Membership in new Methodist bodies should not be assumed as automatic.
I am eager to see the legislation The Commission on a Way Forward puts forth for their promised exit ramps. When pen touches paper, I think they will find it more complicated than they thought. I also wonder if the promise made by The Commission will be difficult for the Council of Bishops to keep. Will our bishops recommend a plan that would allow millions of dollars in apportionments to march out the front door? What is fair and just? Check out my latest proposed solution for the UMC. It has gained encouraging support and is in the hands of The Commission. Let me know what you think.
*Some Episcopal diocese refused to even let congregations exiting to Anglicanism purchase their own property. This contributed to the discord.
**Globally, United Methodism seems to be producing the desired results. I have many friends and partners in Liberia and Guinea. The UMC is respected and growing there. In Liberia, the second United Methodist president in a row has just been elected. The church is a bright, guiding light in the midst of disastrous economic and social climate. Our Central Conference delegates do not particularly want exit ramps for traditionalists. They want everyone to be a faithful United Methodist in the full sense of that term. This is a significant voting bloc that will be supporting both accountability and unity at General Conference 2019.