by Chris Ritter
With the Global Methodist Church rising on the near horizon, some congregations may be wondering if “staying” and “leaving” are the only options. It has long been possible for a United Methodist congregation to belong to more than one denomination. Using the nomenclature of our Book of Discipline, a “federated church” has members of two or more denominations worshipping together under the same roof as one congregation. A “union church” maintains one membership roll and all members belong to the denominations involved. A covenant agreed upon by all parties defines how pastors are chosen, what apportionments are paid, property issues, and representation granted in judicatory bodies. To my knowledge, no formal statements by either the GMC or the UMC have been issued related to UMC/GMC dual alignment. But both the UM Discipline and GMC transitional Discipline issue guidelines for federated and union churches (For the GMC example, see “Ecumenical Congregations”, Par. 353).
Specialized denominational arrangements arose on the frontier as an efficient way to use church buildings. They have continued as congregations struggle to maintain viability in smaller communities. Some progressive UM congregations have sought to yoke themselves with with the UCC or other progressive denominations as a way to allow same-sex weddings in their buildings. Is it possible that a dual affiliation with the GMC could serve as an insurance policy against a radical shift in the UMC?
In a post-denominational world, most congregations would seemingly want less denominational ties, not more. Denominational branding of all types has become something of a barrier to evangelism. And wishy-washy compromises sometimes leave congregations perpetually stuck. There is wisdom in the adage: “Make a decision and live with it.” But as the United Methodist Church divides, federated and union churches have been suggested as a way to navigate divisive times without dividing the local church. Most recently, Doug McKinney, a Colorado-based clergy, resurfaced the idea on the UM Clergy Facebook group.
Nuts & Bolts
If transfer of property to the full discretion of the local church is part of the covenant, the process for that is very similar to that used for denominational transfer. In 2548, the consent of the bishop, charge conference, a majority of the district superintendents, the district board of church location/building, and annual conference is required for the property to be deeded to the local federated/union church. As local church property seems to have become a guarantee of conference pension debt, most conferences would likely not release the deed without payment.
Absent thorny property issues, the process of dual affiliation is about what one would expect. The relationship with each denominational body is defined by a covenant mentioned in Par. 209 of the UMC Discipline:
Covenanting—Congregations entering into an ecumenical shared ministry shall develop a clear covenant of mission, set of bylaws, or articles of agreement that address financial and property matters, church membership, denominational askings and apportionments, committee structure and election procedures, terms and provisions of the pastorate, reporting procedures, relationship with the parent denominations, and matters related to amending or dissolving the agreement. Ministries shall notify the district superintendent of any amending of the covenant agreement and shall consult with the district superintendent prior to dissolving the covenant agreement. In the formation of an ecumenical shared ministry, ¶¶ 243 and 247.1-.2 shall be followed in its organization. In an interdenominational local church merger, ¶¶ 2547 and 2548 shall be followed. In the case of federated and union churches, ¶ 2548 shall be followed.Par. 209, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church
The foundational work is comparable to establishing the congregation as an independent with bylaws, polity, and the like. Here are sample bylaws from a federated UMC/UCC congregation.
Navigating a Unique Methodist Moment
United Methodists find themselves in a muddled limbo now that General Conference has been postponed until 2024. Choices between UMC, GMC, and complete disaffiliation are available, but there is no universally agreed upon path, price tag, or process. A federated or union church model may, in select situations, be an opportunity to choose a path of “mere Methodism” with an à la carte approach to denominational alignment and services. Congregations could negotiate a custom relationship that is more realistic that the “we own you” stance of the UMC. This already happens with some megachurches that hire a search firm to select their next pastor and work with the UM power structures to get their selection blessed by the bishop.
Imagine First UMC (Anytown, USA) becoming a federated or union church with the GMC. They don’t mind the trust clause staying on their deed (for now), and they are fine with their current pastor. They are concerned about the leftward lurch happening in the UMC and would like a bigger voice in future pastoral appointments. If they pay half apportionments to the UMC and half the GMC askings, that would be a net reduction in costs. Or perhaps they follow a federated model and let each church member decide their own affiliation, paying on a percentage basis. First Church could conceivably pick and choose between what the GMC and UMC have to offer in terms of programming, supervision, and support services. The federated/union model might last indefinitely or provide some assurance awaiting a Protocol or other scripted separation plan.
Not for Everyone
The reason most estranged couples don’t pursue the path of legal separation is that the process is as onerous as a full divorce… and less freeing. Significant time and effort would be necessary to assume this specialized status. But the same is true for exit outside the Protocol. Full exit may be divisive in some congregations (as lingering UMC ties may be to others). I expect the impact of denominational change upon the current pastorate will drive many local conversations. A federated or union model could allow congregations to navigate these thorny issues while continuing to be served by their current UMC pastor. It might be politically “safer” for pastors to shepherd their church through a process of federation as opposed to a process of full exit.
I expect most congregations will do well to make a choice (as they can) and stick to it. There is certainly an argument to be made for getting the whole denominational debacle in the rearview mirror. But it is also possible that denominations of all stripes will be moving to a humbler, background role in our post-denominational culture. Congregations may be like apps that run pretty much the same whether the operating system is iOS or Android. It would be most healthy for conferences to re-invent themselves based on the value added to local churches as top-heavy UMC structures mercifully collapse under their own weight. When a congregation federates wisely, they may have opportunity to re-negotiate what they need from a denomination, how much they are willing to pay, and how much control is reasonable to share.