by Chris Ritter
The United Methodist blogosphere was abuzz this week with a post asserting that the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) would cause “financial devastation” to progressive clergy, costing them “$300,000 in average benefits.” Images were pasted from actual Wespath (UM General Board of Pensions & Health Benefits) reports to lend an air of credibility to the claims. The analysis has been widely rejected. Wespath posted actual Way Forward financial analysis on Twitter that same day to combat the fear and misinformation. The fact that so many liked/shared the post on social media, however, leads me to believe that it’s time to discuss what would actually happen to progressives under the MTP. Is the plan punitive?
The Modified Traditional Plan reaffirms United Methodist teachings on marriage and human sexuality. It is not designed to end debate and disagreement on these topics. The intent is to restore obedience by granting structural freedom to those who cannot abide by the collective discernment of the UMC. A new self-governing status gives autonomy while providing continued access to United Methodist general agencies like Wespath and UMCOR.
If the Modified Traditional Plan is passed next month, there will be a vote in every annual conference as to whether that conference will abide by and uphold all United Methodist standards, including those on marriage and ordination. Agreement is not required… only compliance. (We will still debate these rules every four years at General Conference because that is what we do.) Those who cannot live under the UM covenants are automatically granted the new self-governing status. Conferences in this status keep all their assets and properties. Relationships with outside institutions (colleges/charities) will continue unless negotiated otherwise.
The Modified Traditional Plan makes the following requirements:
- Self-governing conferences must give clergy and congregations wishing to remain under United Methodist rules the opportunity to do so. A congregation so voting would be placed in a conference by the jurisdiction according to the new boundary map it approves. Security of appointment for clergy will be respected.
- Those conferences with unfunded pension liabilities must agree to satisfy any negative balance with Wespath and approve a new pension plan.
- If a conference refuses to obey to Book of Discipline and also refuses to take the new self-governing status, they are placed under a financial embargo and prevented from using the UMC name and insignia.
Self-governing conferences are really their own little denomination. If they wish, they can welcome progressive congregations and clergy from UM conferences. The Modified Traditional Plan has fair and open provisions for that. This means progressive conferences might become significantly stronger if they are willing to extend their borders a bit. Self-governing churches may contract with any of the UM general agencies for services.
The same process described above is available to all United Methodist conferences, congregations, and clergy… regardless of ideology. The plan anticipates that conservative United Methodists wanting more organizational autonomy might take the same offer. These are not provisions written only for progressives. And, again, all progressives willing to live under the UM Discipline are welcome to retain their current relationship.
Progressive bishops will remain bishops of The United Methodist Church by default. Those unwilling to uphold the UM Discipline have time to move into a new relationship. Presumably, some would take leadership in the newly self-governing conferences. There are several new accountability measures that are a part of the MTP that make it more difficult for UM bishops not to uphold the Discipline. This includes moving their accountability from their jurisdiction to a new structure in the general church.
Someone reading the MTP for the first time might walk away with the impression that the plan will trigger a flood of new clergy trials. If the MTP is successful that will definitely not be the case. Any clergy or congregation wishing to perform same-sex weddings need only to first join the new network of progressive Methodist conferences. The new accountability measures are only in force for those clergy, conferences, and congregations under United Methodist rules. It is hoped that the accountability provisions will never be employed.
Wespath provided the legislative language on pensions for all three Way Forward proposals, including the MTP. This was done to avoid any disruption or confusion with clergy benefits no matter what decision GC2019 makes. Contrary to claims, the provisions were not designed to be punitive but fair and equitable. [Check out petition #17 of the One Church Plan and you will see identical language addressing those who will be leaving the UMC under that plan.]
Annual conferences are the plan sponsors for clergy pensions in the UMC. All participants are 100% vested and cannot lose any of their pension. A conference that votes to take the self-governing status would move through the Wespath-designed process to switch their clergy over to whatever new plan they agree to provide.
UM clergy have been through similar processes before. Whenever General Conference has changed the pension plan, the actuaries at Wespath do the calculations to make sure every clergy gets the appropriate credit as one plan ends and another begins. This is complex with the partial defined-benefit system we have now. The actuaries at Wespath will sharpen their pencils to convert the defined benefit portion to a cash equivalent and credit each clergy with their fair amount. [Note: Wespath is proposing that GC2020 end the Defined Benefit Plan entirely anyway.]
The outlandish claims that the MTP takes “$300,000 from the average clergy” presupposes a scenario where self-governing conferences provide no pension plan whatsoever for their clergy. That will certainly not be the case. It would be suicide for a denomination to do so. They will want to offer benefits at least comparable to UM benefits or else they will lose their gifted leaders back to a UMC conference. In fact, they may provide their clergy with an even more generous pensions to encourage high-quality transfers from surrounding UM conferences.
The New Shape of Things
Most Progressives, I expect, will stay in the UMC under the Modified Traditional Plan. They would help form a global church with a common, traditional understanding of marriage. Their experience might be similar to that of socially progressive Orthodox or Roman Catholics Christians.
The Modified Traditional Plan anticipates that the dozen or so annual conferences who have already rejected United Methodist teachings on marriage would move into the new self-governing status and create a network of conferences stretching across the U.S. In the West, it will be pretty much business as usual except for the name change. In the South, progressives would help form new conferences or they might join nearby existing conferences accepting the self-governing status. These may or may not relate themselves to conferences of the Western Jurisdiction. They will decide this by their own processes.
I live in Illinois just a few miles from the progressive Northern Illinois Conference. If the NIC took the new self-governing status, I expect they would be joined by several strong progressive congregations from my conference. They would likely give back a few of their more traditional congregations to the UMC. A natural sorting will take place.
The Modified Traditional Plan is not out to hurt progressive clergy, congregations, or conferences. It is seeking to end the crisis we have now over broken covenants. If the One Church Plan passes, traditionalists are very likely to request the same self-governing status for themselves. (I am prepared to make such a motion should that become necessary.) Whatever General Conference 2019 does, I hope we are guided by the Golden Rule. Let’s do to our brothers and sisters what we would want done for us if General Conference defines marriage in a way with which we cannot live.