Archives for September 2013

UM Church Trust Deficit

Comments in a recent article by Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, caught my attention.

Trust is difficult to earn, easy to lose, and even more difficult to regain. It has been said, “Trust leaves on horseback and returns on foot.”

The Call to Action task force identified a lack of trust as one of the key problems besetting United Methodism today. As we all know, actions speak much louder than words in building trust or losing trust.

United Methodists lose trust in their denomination when:
• A retired bishop travels around the country advocating that United Methodists disobey the Book of Discipline, and there are no public reprimands from the Council of Bishops, or any sign of negative repercussions for that retired bishop.
• The Council of Bishops goes 18 months between open meetings, having two meetings closed to the public at which actions took place that were not reported to the church membership.
• Clergy think that they can disregard their promise to abide by the requirements of the Discipline and perform same-sex weddings or unions, while still availing themselves of the benefits of being United Methodist clergy. What business in the world allows its managerial employees to violate company policies and even advocate for such violation, while still remaining employees in good standing in the company?
• Bishops and district superintendents fail to follow the Book of Discipline’s requirement for consultation with congregations before making a pastoral change.
• A general board of the church engages in partisan politics and advocates positions that are at odds with the church’s positions as adopted by General Conference.
• Annual and jurisdictional conferences pass resolutions advocating disobedience to the Book of Discipline.
• Leaders manipulate the process of General Conference to prevent legislation to which they are personally opposed from coming up for a vote.
• Pastors preach a message at odds with the doctrinal standards established by our church.

The list could go on. This erosion of trust causes some to throw up their hands in despair and leave The United Methodist Church. It causes others to withhold or reduce their financial support for the church, since they cannot trust that the money will be used in agreement with their Christian principles. It causes the morale of clergy and laity to suffer, leading to a marked loss of enthusiasm for expanding the ministry of their local church. I have had people tell me they are reluctant to invite their friends to visit their UM congregation because they might lead their friends to support an organization in which they no longer have confidence.

Trust is being rebuilt when:
• A United Methodist bishop brings a complaint through one of his superintendents) against a pastor who openly acknowledges disobeying the Discipline, rather than pretending to be “neutral” and insisting that the complaint come from some other source. Such an action restores confidence that the Discipline means something and is to be taken seriously as more than just flowery words.
• The Judicial Council voids resolutions and actions that are plainly contrary to the Book of Discipline.
• The Judicial Council, Board of Global Ministries, and Council on Finance and Administration impose financial accountability when there is evidence of misspending of designated funds given for mission projects.

We need more of the latter actions and fewer of the former. Trust-building actions need to outweigh trust-eroding actions by at least three to one over a period of several years before trust can begin to be rebuilt in our church. Unfortunately, it often seems the ratio is going the other direction.

When a family, business, or government gets in extreme debt, it takes a while to dig out of it. Of course the first rule when you’re in a hole is “stop digging!” Unfortunately, our church leaders keep digging the hole of mistrust deeper and deeper. Even when we stop digging, it will take a long time to get out of debt. In the same way, it will take a long time for UM Church leaders to restore trust that has been eroded and broken.

If the people cannot trust their church leaders, how can we expect them to participate enthusiastically in support of our church—and in the gospel ministry which is supposedly at the heart of our church’s purpose?

A Balanced Path to Holiness

Christianity is full of tensions or paradoxes between seeming opposites: Jesus Christ being both fully God and fully human; the “already” and “not yet” of God’s kingdom arrival; salvation by faith vs. works; a God of love and judgment; and many more. Orthodox Christian doctrine attempts to hold these paradoxes in balance. Emphasizing one side or the other of the tension could lead to a distortion of our Christian faith — even to heresy. (Thanks to Morgan Guyton for reminding me of this recently.)

The call to holiness, which is central to Christianity and to our United Methodist heritage, has been suffering from imbalance lately. The tension here has to do with the role of law in producing holiness of heart and life.

At times in church history, holiness has been reduced to following a set of rules — usually having to do with forbidding certain activities common to society at the time. “I don’t drink, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls who do” is one version. Another is “no card playing, no dancing, and no movies.”

A reaction to this shallow, reductionist approach to holiness has more recently emphasized that “we are no longer under law, but under grace.” The idea is that we can ignore law altogether because, if we are living in Christ, we will naturally live holy lives.

The risk of this second approach is that it makes each person a law unto themselves. In other words, as individuals, we get to define what holy living is. If I decide that, living in Christ, I am still allowed to get drunk on the weekend, no one can call me to account because I am no longer under law. Or if I believe that cheating on my income tax or putting down a coworker through gossip is consistent with holy living, I can define it that way.

After all, Jeremiah reminds us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In our sinful state, we are infinitely capable of rationalizing any sin we want to commit and find a way to call it holy living.

A better approach to holiness is to hold the two extremes in tension.

No laws or set of rules can comprehensively define a holy life. However, the commandments and laws of Scripture are meant to be teachers and guides to holy living. (The primary meaning of the Hebrew word “torah (law)” is “instruction.”) The Bible repeatedly calls upon us to obey God’s word. Jesus’ Great Commission to us as his disciples includes the instruction to “make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis added). John tells us that we “receive from [God] anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him … Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them” (I John 3:22, 24).

In fact, “obey” or “obedience” appears in Scripture over 175 times, most of them referencing obedience to God’s word and teaching. As Samuel said, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (I Samuel 15:22). To ignore or change the boundaries set by God in Scripture would be disobedience to God.

We quickly find out, however, that we are not capable of obeying the Bible’s teachings. So we focus on just the ones we can obey, or we reduce the requirements of Scripture to the ones we feel comfortable with, or we figure out excuses as to why we can’t obey this or that particular teaching (therefore, it must not really be required of us). “Lord, I can’t forgive that person — you don’t expect me to, do you?”

The only way around this dilemma that is faithful to God is to truly live each day in Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us, “the righteous requirements of the law [are] fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). Living in the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to fulfill God’s commands, and his presence guides us in applying God’s word to the various circumstances we encounter throughout the day.

This approach is not as simple as drawing up a (short) list of rules to live by or as disregarding the commands of Scripture altogether and relying on our feelings to guide us. But it is the only balanced way to live a life that is pleasing to God and personally fulfilling. What do you think?

Who Owns Church Property?

Can congregations leave their denomination and keep their property?

That question has been percolating within Methodism and other mainline denominations for two decades. The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and The Episcopal Church all have language in their constitution and church law that states that the local congregation holds its property “in trust” for the denomination. That language is known as the “Trust Clause.” (See the Book of Discipline, ¶2501 and ¶2503)

The practical result of the Trust Clause is that local congregations may not keep their property, should they decide to withdraw from their denomination. (Many lay members of the church are surprised to find this out in the midst of a conflict over theology and administration with their denominational hierarchy.)

Over the past ten years, there have been numerous court cases where denominations have sued local churches and vice versa over who gets to keep the property when a local congregation withdraws. On top of the wrenching emotional consequences of such legal battles, millions of dollars have been spent to determine property ownership.

The key point to understand here is that each state is different. In some states, a Trust Clause established by a denomination is regarded as final. There is no appeal and no way a local church could keep its property and withdraw (unless they negotiate a property settlement payment to the denomination).

In other states, the courts have said that the denominational Trust Clause is not final, and that “neutral principles of trust law” must be applied in deciding property ownership. Under those principles, the local congregation must have agreed to the trust and placed it in its property deed. And unless the local church trust is specified as irrevocable, the local church can revoke the trust at any time.

Just last week, the Texas Supreme Court decided two cases regarding The Episcopal Church in favor of the “neutral principles” approach. The Court sent back to trial an effort by the Fort Worth Diocese of The Episcopal Church to withdraw from the denomination and keep its property, with instructions to follow “neutral principles.” (This would be the equivalent of an annual conference withdrawing from The United Methodist Church.) The Court also overturned two lower court rulings awarding a local church property to its diocese.

These decisions open up the door for mainline denominational churches in Texas to withdraw from their denomination and keep their property. Given the potential for separation in The United Methodist Church, these rulings hold significance for the future of our denomination.

What is the state of trust laws in your state? Do you have the Trust Clause in your church’s deed? (This is not required, and it could work against a congregation seeking to leave the UM Church.)

I am not advocating separation at this point in our United Methodist Church. If such a separation were to take place, I believe it should happen at the General Conference level, where local churches could be given the option and the process to withdraw and keep their property. However, if the worst were to occur, it would be helpful for local churches to know what their legal options are.