Just Say No to EPA’s Disaffiliation Process:
There are OTHER Paths to leave the UMC
(Released by the EPA WCA)
- The big obstacle for congregations leaving the UMC is the trust clause, which gives ownership of local church property to the conference.
- Conferences have suspended the trust clause many times, even before the passage of the new disaffiliation paragraph (2553) in 2019, to allow properties to leave the UMC.
- Conference Trustees can choose to let a church leave for next to no cost at all.
- Local churches can choose other paths out, including legal action, waiting for a plan to be passed at General Conference in 2024, or simply abandoning their property.
Last week, we reviewed EPA’s disingenuous disaffiliation plan. With arbitrary and prohibitive required payments, plus other even higher required payments which won’t even be known with certainty before a congregation votes, it is clearly designed to prevent churches from disaffiliating, not graciously allow them to follow their consciences. Here is the link to that article: https://epawca.org/2022/08/19/epas-disaffiliation-process-just-say-no.
This week we will consider other possible paths for congregations to leave the UMC. But first, a brief primer on the big obstacle in all this: the trust clause.
The trust clause is language written into the deed of every UMC property to ensure that a local congregation holds it in trust for the larger United Methodist Church. As a practical matter, this means that the annual conference owns the property, and must vote to release the trust clause for a property to transfer out of the denomination. (By the way, in the Global Methodist Church there will be no trust clause – churches will remain in the denomination by choice, not force of law.)
The trust clause dates to John Wesley’s “model deed” in the 1700s, which was originally designed to protect Methodist doctrine. As Methodist chapels were being erected around the British Isles, Wesley realized that the local trustees could transfer its use to preachers of other movements (like the Calvinists). The deeds were modified so that only those preachers who advocated Wesleyan doctrine could preach there. This stands in contrast to today, in which the trust clause is being used by United Methodist leaders simply to keep for themselves the money and assets congregations have built up sacrificially over the decades. (For a great article on how modern United Methodism has twisted the use of the trust clause, see Timothy Tennent’s article at https://timothytennent.com/how-the-trust-clause-got-turned-on-its-head/.)
In any event, paragraph 2553 was passed in 2019 to encourage conferences to release local churches from the trust clause so that they could leave the UMC, with their property, as a matter of conscience. But here is the little secret no one is talking about: annual conferences have always had the ability to suspend the trust clause and have done so innumerable times!
Long before paragraph 2553 was passed, the trust clause has been suspended when a church closed, and its property sold for another use; or when a church transferred to another denomination; or when a church became a federated congregation with another denomination. In addition, the trust clause has been suspended whenever churches have negotiated their way out of the UMC before 2019 – and yes, it has happened! Here in EPA, Wesley UMC in Quarryville (a large church in Lancaster County) negotiated with conference trustees to leave the UMC back in 2015 for a grand total of $150,000!
Conference trustees, can, if they wish, allow church properties to leave without paying much of anything. Another, recent example: In June 2021, the congregation of Radnor UMC, Delaware County, ceased to be viable. Despite high property values in the Main Line township in which it resides, the conference trustees decided to sell the entire Radnor property to an AME congregation for one dollar. (Here is the EPA conference news story: https://www.epaumc.org/news/all-in-the-family-historic-mainline-um-church-transfers-its-property-to-ame-church-june-7/.
The point: past practices – and the Book of Discipline – make it clear that 2553 is NOT the only pathway for church property to exit the UMC, despite what bishops are saying. Still, in our neck of the woods, the powers that be are not acting graciously, nor willing to permit the annual conference to allow churches to leave, as they have many times in the past. So, what other options are there for congregations wishing to leave the UMC and unite with the GMC?
- Wait for the 2024 General Conference. Paragraph 2553 expires at the end of 2023, but the following May, the General Conference will meet, and various plans will be proposed to address the ongoing split of the UMC. A plan passed at General Conference would legally override any that bishops have imposed in the interim. However, it is very uncertain as to what will happen. Africa’s increasing levels of representation could mean a conservative majority of delegates globally, but it will likely be razor thin – and, once any legislation is in the hands of the delegates, it can be amended and modified in ways we can’t anticipate. In addition, while The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation certainly will be resubmitted, its prospects are doubtful, now that the progressive and centrist groups which signed on recently withdrew their support. Therefore, waiting for 2024 is a high-risk strategy for congregations wishing to withdraw from the UMC.
- Legal action. As announced in early August, nearly 30 EPA churches have banded together, obtained legal counsel, and are seeking to leave the conference and the UMC through legal means. [See https://epawca.org/2022/08/09/for-immediate-release-epa-wca-churches-take-legal-action/] This approach is now spreading to other US conferences. EPA congregations may join this effort and become part of the coalition of churches using the same legal team to represent them. Acting as part of a group provides far more leverage, strength and support than a congregation negotiating alone. For more information on how to join this movement, contact us at [email protected].
- Leave Your Building Behind. Church buildings often have hallowed associations and leaving one behind can feel like a family losing its ancestral home. But during the COVID pandemic, when many of us could not meet in our buildings for months, we were reminded that the church is not the building, but the people of God united in Christ and connected by the Holy Spirit. So, if a congregation is struggling to maintain an aging facility which needs major repairs, or has a cemetery, or debt, the people can simply leave, go down the street and start meeting in a rented space as a Global Methodist Church. And no particular process needs to be followed, either. The people can just leave, then send a note to the DS with the keys! If the conference wants the building, they can have it – along with the debt, the cemetery, the liability insurance, and everything else that comes with it.
Finally, recognize that doing nothing means staying UMC. No decision is, in fact, a decision. A church which does not become informed and prayerfully consider its long-term future may wind up stuck permanently in post-separation UMC, which will certainly become more and more progressive and politicized in its theology once many conservatives leave.
Become informed! Be proactive! Again, if you have questions about any of the options above, contact us at [email protected]. Someone from our team will reach out to you.