By Chris Ritter
When two kids have only one cookie to share, well-established playground rules apply. One child breaks the cookie and other gets first choice of the halves. It’s fair. The one breaking the cookie will naturally seek to make the pieces as even as possible knowing the smaller of the two may be theirs. It is a safeguard that the Golden Rule will be followed by the one with the power.
Maybe it was something like this that “United Methodists for a Gracious Exit” had in mind when they issued their statement back in September. This ideologically diverse group is calling for General Conference 2019 to approve an exit path for local congregations before it decides what will happen to church positions about human sexuality. It is acknowledged that our specially-called session will leave some looking for a life raft. The framers of the statement believe delegates will build a nicer raft if they think they might be the ones who have to use it. To date nearly two thousand clergy and laity have endorsed the statement. But what is a Gracious Exit? What is at stake?
Coming out of West Ohio, the Gracious Exit statement is remarkable in its own right. The clergy behind it reside in one of the most hotly divided annual conferences in United Methodism. Disagreements there are sometimes venomous and have spilled into headlines of the Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Their joint statement on any subject is remarkable.
No one is really talking about dividing properties owned by the denomination or even the annual conferences. Sorting assets at the judicatory levels of the UMC would be impossibly complex. The West Ohio plan is really only talking about local churches being able to leave with their own buildings and assets intact. It calls for a five-year period in which congregations could elect to leave with their assets. Any debts to denominational entities would be resolved and a share of any unfunded pension liability would be paid. The church would also pay one year’s worth of apportionments to the conference… slightly more if they have not been paying their fair share in the past. No church, the plan says, should pay an amount exceeding one year of their own operating budget.*
Property, Pensions, and Payments
There are significant spiritual stakes related to the topic of Gracious Exit. As you can see from above, there are also many fiscal issues to consider. Some United Methodists assume the property their congregation bought and paid for belongs to them. In the UMC, each church does own its own property, but a trust clause is attached to all our deeds. It stipulates that if the church ceases to be a place of United Methodist ministry, the building and land are returned to the conference. Congregations are free to leave, but they are not free to take their property with them unless some sort of agreement is reached.
The Episcopal Church has spent millions of dollars in legal fees fighting over the real estate held by local churches and dioceses that have pulled out following their own human sexuality debates. Large downtown churches might own an entire city block worth millions of dollars. But there are other factors.
Annual Conferences, our regional bodies, have made pension promises to their clergy. Although rules changed several years ago requiring all conferences to fund pension promises as we go, some conferences are still trying to cover their past unfunded commitments. This creates a financial liability of which the congregation, many argue, owns a share. Others might contend that the exiting congregation is already forfeiting its right to its share of the conference assets (which they helped fund) and should not pay more.
Conceptual agreement has already been reached in all the Way Forward Plans calling for the sharp-penciled actuaries at Wespath (our board of pensions) to be the arbiter of an individual congregation’s minimum amount due. But a few conferences have already begun crafting their own policies about exit and some will undoubtedly expect more than just this minimum.
Folks advocating the One Church Plan are loathe to include an exit path because this amounts to an admission that the plan does not live up to its marketing of providing a stable and unified future. Early on, the Commission on a Way Forward promised a gracious and generous exit provision would be attached to any plan they propose, but this offer was negotiated out by our bishops. Some of our bishops are fond of saying that there is already an exit provision in the Book of Discipline so we don’t really need another. Here is how that process often works:
The Current Exit Process
When a local church indicates that it might be ready to leave the denomination the bishop and cabinet respond to initiate talks aimed at reconciliation. The general strategy is to slow things down and move away from rash decisions. If the congregation is resolved in its decision, the cabinet analyzes the congregation with respect to its size, location, and other factors. The question is whether or not there might be enough denominational loyalists left in the congregation to keep the doors open under the UMC name.
Any number of factors can come into play at this point. Some churches have such valuable properties that the conference might seek to retain them just so it could be resold. If a viable United Methodist presence is found to be possible in the building, the bishop and cabinet usually appoint a pastor to serve the remnant congregation. The denominational dissenters, although a majority, are then left to meet elsewhere. In some conferences, the bishop and the conference deliberately play hardball to make an example of those seeking to leave. My own Illinois Great Rivers Conference took such an approach with a small Southern Illinois congregation that disaffiliated. Such was also recently the case in Mississippi. The Orchard, the largest church in the conference, successfully negotiated their exit for the payment of one year’s apportionments. However, when First UMC of Louisville voted to leave, the conference sought control of the property. What was the difference?
The Orchard entered into a long, open, and respectful conversation with the bishop. They also had $4.5 million in debt on a property that probably could not be sold for that amount. Louisville First may have strategically assumed their recent $1 million in renovation debt in preparation for a planned exit. They seem to have given the bishop must shorter notice of their intentions. As part of a hard-ball policy, the bishop appointed a former pastor of the congregation to serve the small remnant while the 90+% of the congregation worshiped temporarily at a local funeral home. An injunction was filed against the conference and litigation is pending.
There is great concern that current exit provisions (if that is what they are) rely on the winners in our denominational battle to negotiate with generosity. This fight has already failed to summon the better angels of our nature. Local UM congregations control $64 billion in assets. This dwarfs amounts held by the agencies of the denomination (except for pensions, but all pensioners are fully vested). The stakes are indeed high.
The strategies employed by annual conferences to deal with single churches seeking exit may not be sufficient to address the larger numbers of congregations that are hanging on by their fingernails awaiting the outcome of GC2019. In Part Two, I explore why congregations are better together, as opposed to divided by denominational officials between loyalists and separatists. I also offer some suggestions about Gracious Exit.
*The 2018 Legislative Assembly of the Wesleyan Covenant Association also passed a resolution about Gracious Exit in November: “We urge the delegates to approve a gracious and equitable process for congregations and institutions desiring to exit the UM Church with all their property and assets following the adjournment of the special General Conference. Such a process for exit should be adopted prior to the consideration of any other proposed legislation to ensure fairness to all perspectives. The process should be non-punitive, require the departing entity to fund its proportionate share of unfunded pension liabilities within its annual conference, and the continued regular repayment of any outstanding loans to the UM Church or related entities. Additional payments beyond pension liabilities should not be required in order to allow congregations adequate seed money to thrive in a new ministry reality. Any plan adopted by General Conference should include a gracious exit according to the terms outlined above.”