by Beth Ann Cook

David Livingston, a clergy person from Great Plains Annual Conference, recently published a piece calling Traditionalists hypocrites because we are bemoaning the less than gracious exit options available to traditionalist churches.   You can read his piece, “Mixed Up Memories of GC2019,” here.

He was responding to a Chris Ritter piece, The Deficiencies of Disaffiliation,  which can be found here: 

Since my name features heavily in his piece I feel compelled to respond.   It is important to know that he reflecting on the closing events of General Conference in St. Louis which Livingston linked in his piece.

First I stand by every single word I said on the platform in St. Louis. I meant it then and I mean it now.  I leaned heavily into Jesus teaching in Luke 6:31 which is known as the “Golden Rule”-that we should treat others the way we would want to be treated. I also leaned into Jesus’ commandment for us to love one another in John 14:15.  These passages of Scripture are important to me.  Virtually every member of every congregation I have served will testify to that fact.  If I’m to be called a hypocrite it will be because of something else not because of what I said that day in St. Louis.

Allow Me to Share Some Background:

  1. The proposal to offer a gracious exit was not intended for liberals as David maintains in his blog—it was genuinely intended as a fail-safe for whoever could not remain in the UMC.  We all went into that special session knowing that some people would feel, as a matter of conscience, that they could not remain UMC after that vote. 
  2. Months before GC 2019, I argued in favor of voting on a gracious exit proposal BEFORE the main motion.  I contacted numerous GC delegates seeking consensus across the theological spectrum.  I still believe that this timing for a gracious exit vote would have benefited everyone.  Mike Slaughter, a prominent centrist who I consider a friend, should be able to verify this fact for you.  This alone is proof that my proposal not was part of some grand scheme by Traditionalists to take over The United Methodist Church.  
  3. I selected the “Taylor” plan as the minority report, even though I did not like some aspects of it, because I felt it had the best chance of passing.  Taylor was NOT authored by a Traditionalist; I felt that anything authored by a traditionalists would have no chance of getting the necessary traction. 

In his article David Livingston implies that I no longer stand by Paragraph 2553.   I do, in fact, stand by 2553, if applied fairly.  My single biggest problem with exits under Paragraph 2553 is not that it is too costly (although they are extremely costly).  My problem is that they are not being applied fairly and consistently across the denomination. 

Many people know that I was in Human Resource Management prior to entering ministry.  In HR we followed the “hot stove rule”.  To be considered fair a rule or procedure must “burn equally” whether you are the favorite employee of the boss or someone who might need to be protected from discrimination.   What is happening with 2553 horrifies me.  Procedures should be the same procedures for everyone. 

Two Judicial Council Decisions opened the door for this:

  • 1424, in which the Arkansas annual conference voted to require repayment of grants made to disaffiliating churches over the previous ten years
  • 1425, in which the New England annual conference voted to require an eight-month discernment process for disaffiliating local churches, including a community impact study and other procedural steps involving people outside the congregation influencing whether that congregation could disaffiliate

After these Judicial Council decisions various Bishops and annual conferences began adding disincentives for congregations to exit.   Other annual conferences have simply failed to acknowledge the paragraph or develop procedures. 

As a female pastor I’ve helped a number of domestic violence victims leave difficult situations.  Honestly this feels like the kind of stuff that happens to them when they say they are leaving—every kind of barrier is put in place to make it difficult to go. 

Here are examples:

  • I know of no church in the Western Jurisdiction that has been allowed to disaffiliate under 2553, although I do know of churches who have requested disaffiliation under this paragraph.  Keep in mind that many interested churches are non-Caucasian congregations that contribute a significant share of the conference budget. 
  • Licensed local pastors in multiple annual conferences have been moved or removed from ministry for requesting disaffiliation numbers from their annual conferences—even when the church members were the ones who instructed them to do so.  
  • The Bishop of Baltimore Washington and Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conferences is attempting to impose a 50% of the assessed value of real property above 2553. 
  • The Bishop of Illinois Great Rivers recently announced that churches wishing to disaffiliate under 2553 will begin negotiations at 50% of all assets on top of the requirements of 2553.
  • In North Georgia, Mt Bethel UMC is currently in litigation with the Annual Conference which is refusing to allow them to disaffiliate under Paragraph 2553.  Some other churches have had difficulty obtaining deadlines and information on disaffiliation in order to try to meet the requirements for this year.
  • In Greater New Jersey Annual Conference no church has been allowed to enter the process despite multiple requests.  Again these are mostly non-Caucasian churches whose giving comprises a large percent of AC budget.
  • In Louisiana churches have been told there will be no disaffiliations prior to 2023.  Their Bishop is promoting a required payment above 2553 that is a percentage of assessed church value.
  • One Wisconsin church submitted a request to disaffiliate that was in order only to be declined.  No other churches have been allowed to enter the process in 2022. 
  • In Susquehanna AC,  leaders have yet to announce a standard process. Previous departures have been on a case by case and included negotiation for church property above 2553.
  • In Florida, where all churches buy insurance together, the annual conference is requiring 3 years of “tail insurance” fully indemnifying Florida UMC  for the past professional and sexual misconduct liability of church staff members.   This insurance is so difficult to find, in the wake of the Roman Catholic Church and Boy Scout lawsuits, that churches wishing to exit are approaching Lloyds of London seeking an underwriter.  
  • Multiple annual conferences seem to be using the lengthy “discernment process” they have established to make it difficult to complete the steps of disaffiliation within the timeline so that churches can actually exit prior to the sundown of 2553 at the end of 2023.
  • In annual conferences like mine where Paragraph 2553 is being fairly applied many congregations and pastors are nervous.  Will this fair process change at some point in the future?  Will Jurisdictional Conferences result in a new Bishop who will handle it differently? 

All of this is the exact opposite of what I believed was the one good moment in St. Louis!  In the midst of our brokenness, pain and anger we voted to treat one another like Christians even though we disagreed.  I was comforted by that moment.  I stood on that platform and gave UM New Service a photo op with friends who disagreed with me. 

Is Identifying A Barrier To Where We All Want To Go Hypocritical?

I will agree with David Livingston that Chris Ritter’s recollection of the exact order of events on that day at GC 2019 may not be 100% accurate.  I think Chris is conflating two different votes together.   [Honestly you can’t pay me to watch that video again—so I’m going by memory.  I literally have some PTSD.]

However, I think David needs to own that Chris is correct that the progressive coalition helped get us in this mess with their obstructionism.   Another delegate from his annual conference gave his famous “till the monster trucks roll in” speech that bluntly and publicly stated their intent to halt and stall all General Conference action.  That tactic succeeded. 

I’m not as interested in assigning blame for the problem as I am fixing it. 

 While I still support 2553, I do not think 2553 is the ultimate solution to our denominational impasse.  Why?  The financial barrier is so high it won’t help everyone get where they need to be.  I don’t think acknowledging this is hypocritical.  It is just being honest. 

Few, if any, delegates knew how high of a cost there would be with 2553 when we voted it in.

  • At the current needs assessment value we were using (what gets reported to your annual conference) all but 2 annual conferences in 2019 were fully funded.  I knew Indiana Annual Conference certainly was as we had worked hard to make that happen.
  • Earlier in General Conference 2019 at the advice of Wespath we voted to move to the more conservative “market valuation” standard for the purpose of exiting congregations.  We understood this was a “worst case scenario” for the market valuation.  Because we are all committed to supporting the viability of the pension fund, that vote was the easiest and first vote at GC2019.  We care about widows and orphans and retirees.  WesPath recommended and we said yes.
  • I don’t think anyone (at least outside of WesPath) had any idea that the new market valuation would be $2 Billion in unfunded liability.  Let that sink in—from fully funded in almost all cases to $2 billion unfunded. 
  • I certainly did not know how high of a hurdle that would create for the average church exiting under 2553.  I’m hearing from churches in my annual conference who have requested the number from their District Superintendent.  Tiny churches get an exit number in the $50,000 range.  Typical churches might be $200,000.  A church with several hundred members might be around $500,000.   Large membership churches get a price tag in millions.

We have already seen wealthy congregations easily raise the money to go.  But do we really want less wealthy churches with Traditionalist beliefs to be “stuck” in a post separation UMC?  How does that help anyone?  How does that sit with of our sense of social justice when many of these congregations are immigrant congregations?  Isn’t this a time to think about checking our privilege?   

On the other side of the justice equation we have those who believe LGBTQIA+ individuals have waited long enough—they don’t want to wait longer.  Having traditionalist churches stuck in their midst means their dream of changing the church to match their vision is delayed.  It may even mean that the window of opportunity is lost if Central Conferences choose to #BeUMC and reject regionalization plans.

Finding a way to care for our pension obligations faithfully while also allowing churches to self-sort into their vision for the future is best for everyone.

As far as hypocrisy goes—it is far easier to see hypocrisy in others than ourselves.  Jesus said that we all need to look for the log in our own eye first.   Maybe instead of looking for hypocrisy in others, we need to look for viable solutions that will help us get unstuck.   

I still believe that finding ways that will let each other go graciously is the best witness we can have to the world of our faith. If 2553 is too expensive and support for the Feinberg negotiated Protocol has weakened we need to look for another way.

In 2019 I served a church with a large preschool that taught children the Golden Rule.  I’m now in a new appointment.  Guess what?  We have an after school program where I am teaching children.  Let’s seek to live out child-like faith.

Blessings and peace,

Beth Ann Cook

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