by Chris Ritter
An organization as conflicted and costly as the United Methodist Church does not hold together without significant internal controls. If you marvel at how long we have endured together, this cohesion is a testament to some bedrock legal, cultural, and organizational bonds. In the first installment of this series we looked at the advantages of the UMC for the local church. Part Two explored the burdens imposed. We now turn to the ways the UMC maintains control.
United Methodists value unity. After all, Jesus prayed for it (John 17). The UMC was birthed at the height of an Ecumenical Movement that sought to bring spiritual Christian unity into institutional form. At that time we downplayed unity of belief and poured our energies into perfecting our organizational unity (particularly around race). Fifty years later, we can see the weaknesses of this one-handed grasp. It turns out that structural fluidity is what allows Christian faith to infiltrate into the cracks and crevasses of the larger culture. Living faith systems divide and multiply into varied, yet cohesive, splendor. Rigid, declining systems dissolve into larger cultural movements.
But the ideal of unity persists in the UMC. John Wesley is (selectively) quoted to say that Christians should not separate. Remember, he famously refused to abandon is clergy credentials in Anglicanism. But Wesleyan and Whitfieldian Methodists split early on amid considerable theological acrimony. Protestants, by definition, believe there are issues worth walking over. Our United Methodist bent toward unity and openness is used (sometimes in mercenary fashion) to justify an institution in need of fundamental reform. The risk of having ones niceness questioned is enough to keep some United Methodists in line.
A Matter of Trust
I had dinner with a Baptist colleague during the week of their heated recent convention in Nashville. Like most U.S. denominational meetings, conservatives battled with progressives (these labels mean much different things in different denominational contexts). I asked my friend what holds the Southern Baptist Convention together. After all, they have no trust clause binding local church property to the denomination.* Imagine UMC institutional decline if congregations could leave whenever they liked!
The Southern Baptist Church, my friend suggested, is held together by interest in shared mission. The SBC International Mission Board has an annual budget of $255 million. With about twice the members as the UMC, Baptists give ten times as much to their primary mission agency. (United Methodists are increasingly more likely to give through alternative organizations because of our lack of theological alignment.) A church, even a conflicted church, that is united in mission stands a chance at making a future together. A church without this is just waiting for the divorce to be finalized.
United Methodist congregations, of course, can’t just leave… at least not with their share of the $60 billion in local assets and facilities. Once a local church ceases to be a place of United Methodist ministry, the property reverts to the annual conference. It’s on the deed. Historically, the trust clause dates back to the earliest days of Methodism when John Wesley’s name was attached to every Methodist property with the stipulation it was to be used for the preaching of the Gospel in keeping with his Notes on the New Testament. The “model deed” was intended to keep Wesley’s Methodists preaching houses (paid for through his fund-raising efforts) from being taken over by Calvinistic Methodists of George Whitfield’s tribe. Upon Wesley’s death, ownership of the properties were transferred to the conference of Methodist preachers. The irony is that a mechanism intended to protect our theology is today being used to lock Methodists in a pluralistic institution.
A trust clause is a pale alternative for actual trust. The Global Methodist Church envisions “a community of the committed, not a community of the constrained.” The Transitional Leadership Council has repeatedly communicated the intent for the GMC to release the trust clause on all local church property. The congregation will own its properties free and clear. This represents a significant power shift back to the local church. The denomination will be required to provide ample value for whatever is asked in return. The GMC will need to find ways to prevent congregations from joining simply to wash the trust clause from their properties.
There are other controls beyond culture and trust clause. The bishop, of course, exercises full discretion over pastoral appointments. The fact this is a prayerful process does not change the fact that many a United Methodist congregation has received a pastor charged (unbeknownst to them) to tamp down denominational unrest. Watch the current drama unfolding with Mt. Bethel, the largest congregation in the North Georgia Conference. Even though the congregation is in the process of disaffiliating, lay leaders have opted to receive the appointed pastor, Steve Usry. They do so on a limited capacity and at minimum conference salary. Mt. Bethel, of course, has several appointed clergy. And lay leadership hired the former lead pastor, Jody Ray, as their “CEO and Lead Preacher” after he surrendered his UMC credentials. The bishop and her appointee are protesting and citing the authority the Book of Discipline grants to the appointed Lead Pastor.
What is that authority? The pastor is the chair of the nominating committee. If a UM pastor is having trouble with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (or any other committee, for that matter) after their first few years in office, it is their own fault. The pastor leads the process that results in who is nominated to key roles. This authority is variously exercised, but the bishop picks the pastor and the pastor (to a large degree) picks the lay leadership.
Another control exercised by the appointed pastor is the pulpit itself. The appointed pastor is the chief communicator both for the congregation and to the congregation. This should not be underestimated. It is the reason that some United Methodist congregations will stay in the UMC contrary to majority will. A pastor is in a position to prevent congregations from exercising their options under the Protocol by withholding, slanting, or delaying communication about those options. Some conferences, like Iowa and the Dakotas, are preparing standard information for all congregations to receive. Some conferences, like Florida, seem to be actively working to keep congregations from talking about exit (this strategy runs a risk of backfiring). Most U.S. conferences are leaving communication in the hands of local clergy. In doing so, they know the institution has some advantage.
District Superintendents, also appointed by the bishop, operate additional and significant levers of control. Major decisions of the congregation can only happen at meetings presided over the D.S. or his/her designee. These decisions include the pastor’s salary, the election of officers, real estate transactions, and adoption of the church budget. In the case of the church budget, the superintendent is there to insure that full payment of apportionments is included in the spending plan of the local church. When real estate is purchased, the D.S. makes certain that the trust clause is affixed to the deed.
There are modest checks upon the significant power invested in clergy in the UMC. Concerned laity will want to remember that Disciplinary Par. 248 allows a church conference (all-member vote) to be called by request to the district superintendent by ten percent of the membership of a local church. Where the church council is out of touch with the larger congregation, a petition can be circulated requesting a church conference to consider the matter of re-affiliation. Both progressive and traditionalists congregations may exercise this right.
Over the years, the UMC deck has become considerably stacked against laity. The irony is that Methodism was birthed in an explosion of lay leading, preaching, and disciple-making. The Global Methodist Church represents an attempt to shift power and resources back to the local church. Lower apportionments, local ownership of church properties, and more collaboration in the appointment of clergy are the pillars of this new approach. As the Separation Protocol is approved at the next General Conference, it will be up to the laity in many locations to insist upon a fair hearing for both the UMC and the GMC.
Ready or not, a denominational open enrollment period is soon upon us. It is time to get informed and start holding crucial conversations.
* Sometimes the argument is made that the UMC is not doing all that bad in terms of decline when compared to the Southern Baptist Church. We are only shrinking only marginally faster than them. But this analysis fails to recognize that SBC congregations that leave whenever they want. If the UMC operated by that standard, we would be a much faster declining denomination in terms of membership.