by Chris Ritter
Even without a General Conference, 2022 is shaping up to be the most eventful year in a generation for American Methodists: (1) The General Conference that was to have approved a historic Separation Protocol was delayed until 2024, amid a cloud of political intrigue. (2) The Global Methodist Church launched on May 1. (3) Annual conference exits were ruled out of order by the UM church court. (4) The Feinberg Protocol was pronounced dead when key Progressives pulled out. Most recently, (5) the Judicial Council ruled1 older denominational transfer paths unusable. But the biggest development in an otherwise eventful year has been something quite new to Methodism: A growing wave of individual church disaffiliations.
The provision for disaffiliation from the denomination, approved at General Conference 2019, was never designed as a primary peace-making solution for the woes of American Methodism. It was submitted by Way Forward Commissioner Leah Taylor as a supplement to whichever of the three Way Forward plans would be chosen. The assumption was that the primary plan would satisfy the needs of most UM congregations. Disaffiliation was offered for the few that might want out of Methodism altogether. While the accountability features of the Traditional Plan were approved, the “Heart of the Traditional Plan,” (a new Par. 2801 providing a wide exits for conferences and congregations by simple majority votes, see pg. 72) died in committee. General Conference 2019 approved half a plan. Half proved not enough, as later acknowledged in the Feinberg negotiations which provided a timeline and mechanism for congregations and conferences to exit to a new denomination.
Now that the Feinberg Protocol is dead, disaffiliation is the only show in town for those that want to join the Global Methodist Church or otherwise have a future apart from the present denomination. Consider: The 2008 Gracious Dismissal Policy of the Presbyterian Church (USA) required exiting churches to join another Reformed denomination as a way to discharge their pastoral responsibility over churches and protect the overall Reformed witness. The UMC actually requires exiting churches to become (at least momentarily) non-denominational! Whether by accident or design, this communicates greater concern for befuddling the Global Methodist Church than fostering a healthy Wesleyan witness to a divided nation.
Designers of escape rooms could take a lesson from the labyrinthian patchwork of processes imposed by UMC conferences upon disaffiliating congregations. Some conferences, like North Georgia, have made the process blessedly straightforward. Others seemingly take glee in imposing timelines, prerequisites, and complex negotiation processes. The Greater New Jersey Conference serves as example of a kitchen sink approach to exit fees. The Arkansas conference recently faced criticism for rejecting a disaffiliation request that was not worded explicitly enough. Anecdotal reports indicate a slow-play approach by some conference officials.
Imagine, please, a large concert in a major American stadium. Now imagine the main entrance being chained and a small side door left as the only point of egress. Now imagine the advertised band replaced at the last-minute with Nickelback2. Finally, imagine an announcement over the intercom that all those wishing to exit must purchase variously-priced tickets from members of the Nickelback Fan Club stationed throughout the stadium to make sure concert expenses are well covered. “But please stick around. It’s going to be a heck of a show.” See the problem?
My heart was momentarily encouraged when the recent Council of Bishops press release mentioned a new unified approach to disaffiliations being approved at their August 22-26 meeting. No details were offered, so I contacted a bishop to see if I could get a copy of this new unified approach. I was told that COB produced no new guidelines for handling disaffiliation requests. A COB Disaffiliation Task Force simply underscored that the disaffiliation provision in our Book of Discipline, Par. 2553, expires 12-31-23 and that all exits must be fully complete by then. Because this cut-off includes plenary annual conference approvals, the real deadline is the last session of each annual conference next year. Some resident bishops had been soft-pedaling next year’s deadline by saying that exits could be allowed after the expiration date. No need to rush. The Disaffiliation Task Force, however, underlined the deadline as a drop-deadline. I know of one bishop resistant to disaffiliations that came back from the COB meeting and initiated planning for a late-2023 special session. The deadline, he realized, is real.
The Council of Bishops press release signals an approach to General Conference 2024. Institutional-minded bishops are very keen to stop the bleeding of congregations from the UMC. The last thing they want is another round of exits following a contentious human sexuality vote. I predict the following episcopal talking points:
The United Methodist church was formerly in a crisis over human sexuality. Among the actions of a special called General Conference 2019 was a mechanism of disaffiliation for congregations desiring to leave the UMC. Hundreds of congregations disaffiliated, anticipating the widening of understanding of marriage that seems most likely to happen at General Conference 2024. But that disaffiliation process expired at the end of 2023. Obviously, those who wanted to leave over changes in our human sexuality standards did so preemptively. In the interests of mission and unity, it is time to move past the season of division and go on being the big tent the UMC has always been.
If I am right on this, the losers are traditionalists lulled into complacency. There is a lingering narrative among some Methodists that the UMC’s teachings, at least on paper, are still orthodox and there is no reason to exit until General Conference acts. But the illusion that General Conference runs the UMC has been dispelled. In the face of certain division, institutional-minded bishops are getting what they always wanted: an exit just wide enough to bleed off the most motivated traditionalists and their leaders. The door will then be once again locked.
Local Responsibility for the Future
All this intrigue and conjecture about the Council of Bishops may obscure the real arena of action. Precious few United Methodist congregations will successfully disaffiliate without the tacit support of their pastor. Clergy, generally more progressive than the people in the pews, are significant gatekeepers for information and organization. Senior leadership is helpful for building consensus toward a super-majority vote. I outline various reasons for clergy resistance to disaffiliation here. We face the prospect of millions of traditional-minded Methodists trapped against their will in a growingly progressive UMC.3
Given the myriad of complicating factors associated with disaffiliation, one might pause to admire the determination of those who are successfully completing exit. There is afoot a genuine grass-roots movement of congregations seeking a new future beyond the current sagging denominational tent. The fact that hundreds of churches are finding their way through the labyrinth to a new future is a testimony to hope. The quality of the future they are exiting to, of course, will be found in their ongoing responsiveness to the Gospel and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The same can be said of the left-overs and left-leaners that will comprise the future UMC.
My advice to any congregation is (1) know who you are, (2) know what Jesus has called you to, and (3) know your mission field. If the United Methodist Church is the best fit for your identity, you should use this time to re-invest. Just as some congregations will find a better fit in the future UMC, others will be better served in the Global Methodist Church. But the disaffiliation window is quickly closing… permanently (I think). May we begin to welcome all purposeful decisions as a step toward brighter futures for all.
It is a big year, indeed.
1 It came as no surprise that the Judicial Council closed down Par. 2548 as an option for congregations to exit the UMC. The high court has dependably given the Council of Bishops what it wants when it comes to institutional preservation. The COB request for a ruling allowed them to run down the game clock on exits in full assurance that whatever came back would be more restrictive, not less. Following the stall in negotiations for a wider exit using Par. 2548, it was only a handful of bishops that were willing to use the transfer paragraph as a means of exit. These same bishops are likely to be generous in their application of 2553, the disaffiliation process.
2 “Some love ’em, some hate ’em.” Some, like me, don’t care and just think the jokes about them are funny.
3 The most unfortunate congregations are those who fall just short of the super-majority needed for disaffiliation. There have been several cases where a majority voted for a new denominational future but were unable to exceed the 2/3 needed for exit. In at least one case the local church divided and new GMC church plant formed.