Archives for February 2019

A Matter of Belief or Action?

Ask the wrong question, and you will get a wrong or misleading answer. Asking the right question will help move toward understanding. A recent newsletter from the One Church Plan advocacy group “Mainstream UMC” makes the claim that, “The central question for every delegate is: ‘Are you willing to share a denomination with Christians who think differently than you?'”

With all due respect, that is the wrong question. Neither the Traditional Plan nor the Modified Traditional Plan nor the revisions being made to those plans ask for uniformity of belief in The United Methodist Church on the question of the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons. For fifty years, evangelicals and traditionalists have shared a denomination with Christians who think differently than we do.

The right question is, “Are you willing to share in a denomination that has mutually contradictory official teachings and mutually contradictory practices?” Under the One Church Plan, the denomination would officially say that marriage is “between two adults,” but elsewhere “traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.” Which is it? We would have two mutually contradictory teachings. Some would say marriage is one man and one woman, while others would say marriage is two adults. Essentially, the church would have two official definitions of marriage.

Furthermore, under the One Church Plan some annual conferences would ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy, while other annual conferences would not. Some local churches would accept an openly gay or lesbian pastor, while others would not. Some clergy would perform same-sex weddings or unions, while others would not. There would be mutually contradictory practices within the church.

While most United Methodists can accept the idea that there will be differences of opinion and belief within the church, many could not accept that the church would have mutually contradictory teachings or practices. The contradictions would undermine our connectional system, moving us toward a congregational arrangement and fundamentally altering our Methodist identity.

The Modified Traditional Plan requires annual conferences to vote on this statement: “The annual conference and its subsidiary units will support, uphold, and maintain accountability to the United Methodist standards found in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016, in their entirety, including but not limited to ¶ 304 ‘Qualifications for Ordination,’ ¶ 341 ‘Unauthorized Conduct,’ ¶ 613 ‘Responsibilities of the Council on Finance and Administration,’ and ¶ 2702.1 ‘Chargeable Offenses.'” The focus of this statement is not beliefs, but actions. Will the annual conference abide by the provisions of the Book of Discipline or not?

The Modified Traditional Plan requires bishops to certify this statement: “I, (Name), certify that I will uphold, enforce, and hold all those under my supervision accountable to the standards and requirements of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, in their entirety, including but not limited to standards on marriage and sexuality and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals (¶¶ 304.3, 341.6, 414.2, 5, 9, 613.19, and 2702.1a-b).” Here again, the focus is not on belief, but upon action. Will the bishop abide by, and hold his or her clergy and congregations accountable to, the Book of Discipline or not?

Clergy are not required to certify anything. They are merely required to “maintain their conduct within the boundaries established by the Book of Discipline.” That is what they have always been required to do.

It is false to say that the MTP seeks to drive out those who think or believe differently. It only requires those who desire to be United Methodist to maintain their conduct within the boundaries set by General Conference.

Any organization or business has standards and requirements, and consequences for failing to keep those rules. The church is no different. Those employed by the church, just like those who are members of organizations or employed by a business, are expected to keep the rules of the enterprise. This is not unreasonable, but essential. Inability to live by a common set of guidelines creates anarchy within an organization.

The question is what happens when a person disagrees with the rules that have been established. One may try to get the standards changed, while continuing to live by them. Progressives have worked for over 40 years to change the covenant standards of The United Methodist Church, but have been unable to convince a majority to make that change. Change in the near future seems unlikely. But this response has integrity and allows for the expression of dissenting opinions.

If the disagreement with the rules is a matter of deep conscience or fundamental belief, one may make the decision that integrity demands they resign their position in order to find another church that has standards they can live by. This response also has integrity, maintaining the identity of the organization while recognizing that one may no longer fit within it.

What does not have integrity, and a course too many have adopted, is when our church’s leaders, from some bishops on down, determine they do not have to live by the denomination’s rules. Whether it is failing to live by, or enforce, the Discipline or electing an openly lesbian bishop, their disobedience has fostered the crisis we are in. It distorts our church’s identity and forces the church to devote too many of its resources to gaining compliance with our standards in order to maintain our identity.

We agree with the statement, “In essentials, unity.” Standards of sexual morality are an essential for faith and discipleship. They are founded on the clear teaching of Scripture. They are essential elements in forming our United Methodist identity. Allowing various standards of sexual morality in the denomination would balkanize the church.

The Mainstream UMC caucus newsletter says, “Schism is NOT inevitable. It is a choice by a few.” That is right. The few who have chosen to flaunt the church’s standards and processes in disobedience have created schism. It is not only inevitable, it is already here. Proponents of the Modified Traditional Plan simply recognize a reality that proponents of the One Church Plan want to waive away.

The accountability provisions of the Modified Traditional Plan are not designed for the purpose of punishing people. They are designed to motivate United Methodist leaders to adjust their behavior to stay within the boundaries established by the church. Those who cannot abide by our requirements ought to have the integrity to withdraw from a denomination they can no longer support. Their insistence on disobeying and disrupting the church in order to impose their own judgments is an inappropriate response to 40 years of consistent decisions by our global church and is destructive of the very church they love.

Only by restoring uniformity of practice can our church begin to reestablish its identity. We insist our pastors baptize infants, encourage women to participate in ordained ministry, and offer ourselves in service through the appointment system. That is part of our DNA as United Methodists. Whether they agree with those requirements or not, pastors are expected to abide by them. A common standard of sexual morality is also part of our DNA. To dismantle it would be to deny or fundamentally change our identity.

Is it any wonder that many who hold traditional understandings of biblical sexual morality would find themselves unable to continue in a church that so dramatically changed its identity? Yet the Mainstream UMC and Uniting Methodists caucuses would deny such traditionalists an opportunity to act with integrity on their consciences by withdrawing as a congregation, keeping the mission and ministry of that local church intact. Instead, they want to force people to leave as individuals without church property, destroying a congregation’s ministry in the process.

Mainstream UMC says, “The Commission on the Way Forward did NOT introduce the idea of ‘exit.’ The ‘exit’ provisions were introduced by the few rogue anonymous bishops who wrote the Traditional Plan.”

As a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, I can tell you this statement is simply false. At every meeting of the Commission during the first year of its existence, members spoke of the need for an exit path for congregations that felt the need to depart, no matter what plan or proposal the General Conference passed. An exit path for all plans was included in the Commission’s preliminary report to the Council of Bishops in November 2017. Such an exit path was mentioned in nearly every news story reporting on the work of the Commission during 2017.

Why was there not an exit path in the Commission’s final report? It was because the Council of Bishops initially said they would discuss and recommend an exit path. Then the Council of Bishops decided that it was not necessary to have an exit path at all. Despite their initial support for an exit path, many centrist and progressive leaders have now adopted the Council of Bishops’ position that an exit path is not necessary.

The General Conference faces several important decisions.

  1. Will the church’s leaders vote to fundamentally change our church’s identity by adopting mutually contradictory teachings on marriage and mutually contradictory practices regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals?
  2. Will the church’s leaders ignore the reality of schism currently present in the church and expect its members and clergy to put aside their conscientious objections (on either side) and all “just get along?”
  3. Will the church’s leaders attempt to keep a lid on the pressure cooker by failing to provide a consistent and fair exit path for congregations to depart with their property?

The answers to these questions will determine whether The United Methodist Church has a faithful future ahead, or will simply follow all the other mainline U.S. Protestant denominations into legal conflicts, decline, and irrelevance.

 

 

 

Some Progressive and Centrist Groups Reject Exit Path

The Rev. Mike Slaughter, front, speaks at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida. “I support the One Church Plan, but if we can’t agree to disagree, I would support a gracious exit plan that is just,” Slaughter said recently. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Recent statements from two different groups portend an agenda of institutional survival taking precedence over resolving the conflict in The United Methodist Church at the upcoming General Conference. Many across the theological spectrum (including many members of the Commission on a Way Forward) have previously said that a gracious exit path for congregations to leave the denomination with their property would be necessary regardless of which plan General Conference adopted. Now, some leaders are pulling back from that position in an attempt to coerce churches into maintaining the current institutional structure.

Reconciling Ministries Network, a pro-LGBTQ organization in the UM Church, recently posted a statement on their Facebook page that demonstrates the level of hypocrisy or denial it takes to try to preserve a broken institution.

They state, “Already built into The UMC are ways to leave the Church agreed upon by the Church.” That is only partly true. The Discipline contains a provision allowing an annual conference to deed a local church property over to “another evangelical denomination.” The conditions for such an action would depend upon whatever the annual conference chooses to impose upon the local church. Some congregations have not been allowed to leave with their building at all, despite the fact that over 90 percent of the members voted to withdraw. Other congregations have been asked to pay large sums to keep their property. The local church is at the mercy of the annual conference, which can choose to be gracious or play hardball in what they require. What congregations are asking for is a fair, gracious, and standardized exit path that assures them there is an equitable way to keep their property.

It is helpful for United Methodists to keep in mind the congregations of brothers and sisters who have attempted to depart from other mainline denominations over issues of marriage and sexuality. The legal fees spent by the national Episcopal Church exceeded $45 million, not including what local churches spent. Presbyterian churches spent millions, and found that the disparity between different presbyteries (equivalent of our annual conferences) in how they treated departing congregations created unfair and often punitive and adversarial conditions. We can learn from their experiences and do better.

The Reconciling Ministries statement goes on, “What we need at General Conference 2019 is the resolve to come together to further the well-being of the Church, not to dissolve it.” The statement thus equates some local congregations leaving the denomination with “dissolving” the church. Such hyperbole does not serve us well and distorts the truth. Even if hundreds of congregations were to depart, there would still be a United Methodist Church. We have nearly 30,000 congregations, and no one is suggesting that all or even most are going to depart. And how is continuing the current conflict (by not allowing those opposed to our standards to leave with their property) “furthering the well-being of the Church?”

Finally, the statement says, “Plans for so-called ‘gracious’ exit are plans for schism, dissolution, and disobedience to the mission of the Church.” It is highly ironic that those causing the schism in United Methodism are now blaming those who want a fair and gracious exit path for fomenting schism. It goes beyond irony to arrogance for those who are currently disobeying the United Methodist Discipline and covenant to be charging those who want an exit path with disobedience.

On the contrary, those desiring an exit path want the church to provide that so the congregation desiring to depart is NOT being disobedient in choosing to do so. Evangelicals and traditionalists have consistently operated within the boundaries of the Discipline.

Those who have fomented this crisis through their own disobedience have no standing to call others schismatic or disobedient, nor to prevent congregations from living out their Christian faith and mission in a way that is faithful to their conscience.

Only slightly less objectionable is a statement from Uniting Methodists, a newly formed caucus group advocating for the One Church Plan, calling for all exit paths to be referred to the 2020 General Conference.

“It’s clear that the first priority for the Body of Christ is always to search for unity rather than division,” said the Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish, spokesperson for the group. While unity is indeed a value for followers of Jesus Christ, there are other even higher values. Values like remaining in Christ (John 15:5), allowing the Word of God to remain in us and bear fruit in our lives (John 15:7), and keeping Christ’s commandments (John 15:10). Faithfulness and obedience to God’s will take precedence over unity. Fostering a “pretend” unity through structural coercion is an unhealthy approach to resolving our crisis.

Traditionalists are not “searching” for division, but recognizing the division that already exists and the practical impossibility of continuing structurally united with those who deny the teachings of Scripture and disrespect our United Methodist identity and covenant.

Harnish further maintains, “Action on exit plans are [sic] not consistent with the primary purpose for establishing the Commission on a Way Forward.” However, if one reads the motions adopted at the 2016 General Conference, they do not anywhere mention preserving the unity of the church. Instead, they reference ending or resolving our conflict and providing a way for the church to move forward. We all wish that we could find a way forward that would preserve the unity of the church. But the deep theological divide and unwillingness of some to submit to our agreed-upon covenant makes unity impossible without repentance and a change of behavior.

Harnish’s final reason for postponing action on exit paths is “Delegates will not have adequate time to gather all of the facts, understand the consequences, and participate in thoughtful debate.” These proposals have been publicly before the church for seven months. Much ink has been spilled with writings on all sides of a complex issue. Delegates have had ample time to study the proposals and understand the possible consequences. If the delegates are not ready to act now, they never will be.

Proposals for exit are found in seven of the 78 petitions to be considered. Only two of them need to be enacted (one from the Modified Traditional Plan allowing transfers out by annual conferences and congregations and one exit path for individual congregations). One of those proposals already passed a legislative committee in 2016. In 2020, General Conference will be considering hundreds of petitions spanning dozens of topics. Despite having more days of sessions, the delegates would not have any more time to focus on the exit paths than they do in 2019.

Even some Uniting leaders have publicly supported an exit path. According to a UMNS article, “the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, agrees that exiting the denomination should be done with grace.

“‘I support the One Church Plan, but if we can’t agree to disagree, I would support a gracious exit plan that is just. In other words, one that would come up with a just ‘buyout’ that would cover the liabilities that we are all accountable for. Not unlike divorce, where two parties have to determine fair support for what they have created together,’ he said.”

Since making that statement, Slaughter has reiterated his personal support for an exit path, saying “he doesn’t think discerning a just exit plan should top the agenda but should definitely be part of what’s under consideration. ‘I want to do whatever to keep the majority of us together, and we need to look at that first,’ he said. ‘And then we need to look at, if that doesn’t work for some, how there can be a gracious, just exit.’”

Uniting Methodists’ call to refer the exit path petitions to 2020 is a way to kill those proposals or, at best, once again “kick the can down the road.” If the One Church Plan is adopted, many proponents undoubtedly want to coerce traditionalists into staying in the church so that proponents can continue to try to change our minds while benefiting from our continued financial support of the institutional structure. Our church has reached a decision point on ministry with LGBT persons. Our lay members will not withstand another delay in resolving a crisis that is severely damaging our church’s ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Delaying any exit path would only exacerbate the conflict in our church, not resolve it.

The question is, do our leaders care more about enabling our church to move forward in effectively carrying out our mission, or about trying to preserve an institutional structure? If the latter, our denomination will continue to decline and the kingdom of God will lose.

Here, another saying of Jesus is instructive. “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). We need to be willing to surrender our instinct for institutional self-preservation for the sake of allowing the church to move into a healthier place. We cannot continue to operate in the current way and expect to see fruitful ministry in the years ahead. A healthy institution would allow those who can no longer conscientiously participate in the institution’s mission to amicably withdraw and pursue their own mission as they perceive it. Anything else is simply an institutional power play.

The Plans’ Impact on Clergy

As the special called General Conference in St. Louis is less than two weeks away, it is understandable that one group of people is experiencing perhaps the most anxiety –clergy. Clergy are on the front lines of ministry in local churches. They have to deal with conflicting opinions in their congregations, as well as criticism from members for the denomination. While guaranteed an appointment, clergy see the declining congregations around them that diminish future appointment options and call into question their job security. In some ways, clergy may have the most to lose if the General Conference is not able to find a constructive way for the church to move forward.

In the midst of this anxiety, what are the implications and possible consequences of adopting one or another of the various plans General Conference is considering?

Clergy and the One Church Plan (OCP)

In one sense, adoption of the OCP would set clergy free. They could make their own choice regarding same-sex weddings without any denominational restrictions. Those who felt strongly about the need to do such weddings could proceed without fear of formal complaints and a trial. Those who oppose doing same-sex weddings could continue to follow their conscientious beliefs. Openly gay or lesbian persons could be ordained in at least some annual conferences.

The downside of this freedom is that local congregations would also gain the right to make decisions that until now have been made at the general church level. If a congregation wanted to host same-sex weddings, it could vote to do so at a church conference. Congregations opposed to hosting could also adopt a policy statement at their church conference. This means that many local churches will experience another arena of conflict that the pastor will need to manage and help them navigate. In a congregation of mixed opinions and strong feelings, such conflict could pose a threat to the church’s vitality or even continued existence.

Many evangelical clergy by conscience could not continue to serve in a denomination that they believe has contradicted Scripture by approving same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. For them, the need to leave the denomination would lift anxiety to a completely new level. Will their local congregation also seek to leave? Will there be a place of ministry outside the UM Church? Will they find a place that matches their gifts and graces, as well as meeting the needs of their family? Despite the uncertainties, many evangelical clergy will stand on conviction and choose to withdraw.

For clergy of all stripes who stay, they will have to contend with a dramatically decreasing denomination. Every other denomination that adopted a OCP-type plan has experienced at least a doubling of its rate of decline. In The United Methodist Church, worship attendance is falling at the rate of 3 percent per year in the U.S. Doubling that to 6 percent per year would have a devastating impact on local churches and annual conferences, both financially and programmatically. The clergy who stay will have to deal with the fallout of such a decline. In many annual conferences, clergy morale is already low. This increased decline is bound to decrease morale even further.

Availability of appointments for clergy could become more quickly restricted, as congregations decline to the point that they can no longer afford a full-time pastor or even an ordained pastor. This trend is ongoing now, but could dramatically worsen if the denominational decline gets worse. In addition, since clergy tend to be more liberal in theology (in general) than congregations, there may be a shortage of churches willing to have a pastor who wants to do same-sex weddings. This plan relies on the bishop and cabinet to take into consideration the needs of both congregation and clergy, which might be more difficult to do as options for appointment become more limited.

Clergy and the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP)

The CCP was designed to move into a new church structure with the least possible disruption. Clergy would need to determine which connectional conference they want to serve in, but could continue to serve their current appointment on an interim basis until an appointment opens up in their preferred conference. In addition, clergy could make themselves available to serve in a different connectional conference, as long as they were willing to abide by its requirements. This would most likely be seen in progressive clergy serving in a “unity” (or local option) conference.

Adoption of the CCP could bring about the challenge of dealing with the guaranteed appointment for conferences that have more clergy than congregations. This would be somewhat alleviated by the ability to serve in a different connectional conference. There may also be evangelical clergy who find the need to withdraw because even being in the same denomination with those who affirm practices the Bible calls sinful would be untenable, leading to the issues around leaving mentioned above.

Clergy and the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP)

For clergy who are willing to abide by the current requirements of the Book of Discipline, there would be little change. Clergy who wanted to continue living by our current teachings but happen to be in an annual conference that votes to withdraw from the UM Church would be able to remain in the UM Church. They could either serve their existing congregation, if it decided to also remain United Methodist, or receive another appointment to a church in the new annual conference formed in the area covered by the withdrawing conference.

It is possible there would be more progressive clergy than congregations, in which case there may be a shortage of appointments for clergy wanting to perform same-sex weddings. Such clergy could remain United Methodist as long as they were willing to abide by our Disciplinary requirements.Clergy who want to perform same-sex weddings or be part of a church that ordains self-avowed practicing homosexuals could withdraw from the UM Church. They could either serve their existing congregation, if it decided to also withdraw, or receive an appointment in a congregation in a newly formed self-governing (progressive) Methodist church. If they were in an annual conference that withdraws from the UM Church, they would simply remain in that annual conference.

Local Pastors

The most vulnerable clergy are local pastors, who are licensed but not ordained — and have no security of appointment. Local pastors who are more evangelical in theology would find a ready welcome in the UM Church under the Modified Traditional Plan. There would also be a ready welcome in any new denomination formed by evangelicals leaving the denomination under the One Church Plan. In both scenarios, there could be a shortage of evangelical clergy, and there would be an emphasis on planting new churches, which would also increase the need for clergy.

Clergy Pensions

Many rumors are flying around about the impact of the plans on clergy pensions. The Commission on a Way Forward worked with Wespath (Board of Pensions) to minimize any effects on clergy pensions. Regardless of which plan is passed at General Conference, Wespath is recommending two changes to the pension program.

  1. Clergy who leave The United Methodist Church would have their pension account converted to a defined contribution plan. This means that all the money contributed in your name would be set aside for your pension, but there would be no further money contributed to your account under this plan. You could participate in a pension plan in your new place of service, but it would be a new plan. So your pension would combine what you have accumulated under the UM plan, plus what you accumulate in whatever new plan you participate in. (Under the MTP, departing clergy could participate in a new plan with Wespath.) This would extend pension benefits in line with how our pension program was from 1982 until 2007. The only loss a clergyperson would experience is the loss of a guaranteed 2 percent annual increase in pension amounts after retirement. Instead, the pension would depend entirely upon how well the person’s investments perform prior to and during retirement.

 

  1. Wespath is asking General Conference for permission to bring back to the 2020 session a pension plan that goes back to a completely defined contribution plan, as it was earlier. The portion of the pension plan that is currently defined benefit may not be sustainable, especially in the face of continued denominational decline in membership and finances. To prevent annual conferences accumulating large unfunded pension liabilities in the future, Wespath is recommending a return to a completely defined contribution plan. This is the way most businesses run their pension programs now, and it would place our plan on a secure foundation for the future.

In addition, the MTP provides for an equitable way to secure funding for unfunded pension liabilities. Most of these liabilities relate to clergy who served prior to 1982. Some of the liability relates to the current post-2007 plan. If recommendation #1 above is adopted, there would be no further accumulation of pension liabilities under the current plan for clergy who withdraw, and future liabilities under the post-2007 plan would be eliminated. If recommendation #2 is adopted, there would be no further accumulation of pension liabilities at all for any clergy, once the new pension program was implemented.

Every effort has been made by the Commission and proponents of the various plans, regardless of theological perspective, to ensure the continued viability of the pension program for all clergy and to minimize any pension impact of a particular plan. The language used in the MTP and in some of the exit paths concerning pensions was supplied by Wespath and vetted by them. Those wanting additional information about the impact on pensions can visit the Wespath FAQ page.

 

 

 

Revisions to the Modified Traditional Plan

In November, the Judicial Council declared portions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional. Since that time, a team has been working on revisions to the Traditional Plan to bring it into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366. Any of the Traditional Plan petitions that are not mentioned below can be adopted without change.

For those of you who like to delve into all the details, here are the proposed revisions to the Traditional Plan. We are also proposing revisions to the Modified Traditional Plan petitions (two petitions submitted by Maxie Dunnam to augment the Traditional Plan) to bring them into compliance with JCD 1366.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition can support any one of three petitions on Disaffiliation (Boyette, Ottjes, or Taylor). The latter two also need revisions in order to make them compliant with the exit path ideas put forward by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Traditional Plan. The linked document contains margin notes that explain the reason behind each of the recommended revisions.

The proposed revisions have been endorsed by the Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Mrs. Patricia Miller, and myself, who were all endorsers of the original Traditional Plan as members of the Commission on a Way Forward. The revisions are also endorsed by the Renewal and Reform Coalition. You can find more information about the coalition and our perspective on the various plans at methodistcrossroads.org.

Episcopal Accountability

The Judicial Council declared unconstitutional the proposal that the Council of Bishops hold its members accountable through a process that could result in an involuntary leave of absence or involuntary retirement. We do not see a way of salvaging this proposal. Therefore, we ask that petitions #2-4 of the Traditional Plan not be considered.

Instead, we propose that Petition 90078 (p. 211) – Modified Traditional Plan Global Episcopacy Committee submitted by Maxie Dunnam – be substituted in place of the original accountability proposal. This petition creates a Global Episcopacy Committee to administer the complaint process, in place of the current jurisdictional college of bishops. We have proposed revisions in Dunnam’s petition to clarify some matters that were raised as questions. We have also deleted provisions that were declared unconstitutional.

Board of Ordained Ministry Membership/Responsibilities

Petition #5 of the Traditional Plan needed to have the word “practicing” inserted, to clarify that we are talking about self-avowed practicing homosexuals in terms of ordination. The word was inadvertently left out in the original version.

Petition #6-9 were revised to broaden the responsibility for upholding the entire Discipline, including all the qualifications of ordination and all applicable disciplinary standards (JCD 1366). Revisions also indicate who is to “certify” to whom that these provisions are being observed.

Traditional Plan Implementation

Petition #10 is the implementation of the Traditional Plan. We propose to substitute Petition #90079 (p. 212) – Modified Traditional Plan Implementation Process submitted by Maxie Dunnam – to replace petition #10. It is nearly identical to petition #10, with the following additions:

  • The Global Episcopacy Committee becomes responsible for investigating complaints against annual conferences for not upholding the Discipline and would administer complaints against bishops for not upholding the Discipline or committing chargeable offenses related to homosexuality.
  • Bishops who cannot affirm their willingness to uphold and enforce the Discipline would not receive money from the general church for expenses (travel, office, and housing).
  • Annual conferences that choose to withdraw from The United Methodist Church would receive a one-time grant of $200,000 to help defray transitional expenses.
  • Technical language is added insuring that the plan takes effect upon adjournment of General Conference, rather than January 1, 2020.

This Modified Traditional Plan petition has been revised in light of JCD 1366 to broaden the requirement of upholding the Discipline to include the whole Discipline, with special emphasis on provisions related to qualifications for ordination, unauthorized conduct, responsibilities of the Council on Finance and Administration, and chargeable offenses. The revisions clarify that annual conferences or bishops that declare unwillingness to uphold the Discipline are not thereby given the right to negate, ignore, or violate the Discipline. The Council of Bishops accountability process is removed as being unconstitutional. Clergy are reminded of their accountability to the whole Discipline and withdrawal is allowed, but not “encouraged” (again, to address JCD 1366). The process for local churches to withdraw (transfer) from the UM Church to a self-governing Methodist church is revised in light of ¶ 41, which requires a 2/3 vote by both the charge conference and the church conference, as well as a 2/3 vote by the annual conference. Revisions correct the effective date of withdrawal in light of ¶ 41 and specify the annual conference trustees as the body to deal with withdrawing congregations, rather than the bishop. All of these revisions then would make this petition constitutional under JCD 1366.

Just Resolution

Petition #14 is revised to state that all just resolutions for clergy shall include a renewed commitment by the respondent to adhere to the Book of Discipline in its entirety, including the provisions that were the subject of the complaint. This brings the petition into compliance with JCD 1366.

Church Right of Appeal

The Judicial Council did not declare petition #16 unconstitutional, but they raised some questions about it. Proposed revisions would define “egregious errors of Church law or administration” that would justify a church appeal. Revisions also clarify that such an appeal does not constitute double jeopardy (since egregious error invalidated the original trial). We anticipate these revisions would answer the concerns of the Judicial Council.

Exit Plans

For a more thorough evaluation of the need for an exit path, please see my previous blog. The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes a standardized exit path for congregations should be available, regardless of which plan (or no plan) is passed by General Conference. We encourage the Conference to take up an exit path first, to alleviate anxiety and avoid the exit path being unfairly influenced by whichever plan is adopted. The exit path/transfer provisions in the Modified Traditional Plan (see above) are rendered a bit problematic by Judicial Council 1366, in that they would now require a 2/3 vote by the annual conference. We believe the annual conference should not be able to block a local church from withdrawing from the denomination. The solution, then, is to pass in addition one of the exit plans discussed here.

All three exit plans supported by the Renewal and Reform Coalition allow individual local churches to withdraw from The United Methodist Church in a way that allows them to keep their property and assets, as well as liabilities. None of them dictates that a local church must join a new denomination, since that is what would cause problems with Judicial Council 1366. However, most congregations departing the UM Church would want to form part of a new connection.

The Boyette disaffiliation petition (Petition #90059, p. 201) is acceptable to the Renewal and Reform Coalition as it stands. It requires a 2/3 vote by the charge conference OR a 55 percent majority vote by the church conference, but no vote by the annual conference in order to withdraw. It stipulates that unfunded pension liabilities must be paid, but requires no other payment. This proposal uses general church unrestricted reserves to offset pension liabilities, reducing the amount a local church might pay. If that provision is objectionable, it can be removed by an amendment.

The Ottjes disaffiliation petition (Petition #90058, p. 201) is also acceptable to the Coalition. It has the advantage that a legislative committee already adopted it in 2016 before it was referred to the Commission on a Way Forward process. Under this plan, local church withdrawal could happen with a 2/3 vote of the church conference, but no vote by the annual conference. This proposal needs amendments to include payment of unfunded pension liabilities. Revisions also include technical language to clarify implementation and insure that the legislation would take effect at the close of General Conference.

The Taylor disaffiliation petition (Petition #90066, p. 205) is acceptable to the Coalition with revisions. It mandates a ¶ 213 review of the church’s ministry and projected viability, which would add months to the disaffiliation process and give persons outside the congregation a decisive voice in that congregation’s future, which the Coalition disagrees with. It gives the annual conference the ability to require additional conditions and/or other payments from the disaffiliating church, which defeats the purpose of having a standard exit path and creates the possibility of an annual conference insisting on unacceptable payments. In addition to a 2/3 vote by the church conference and the payment of unfunded pension liabilities, this proposal requires the local church to be current on paying its previous 12 months of apportionments and pay an additional 12 months. Adding all these payments puts the local church at risk of not being able to thrive in its ongoing ministry and could jeopardize its viability. Technical revisions are required, as well, to bring the proposal into compliance with JCD 1366 and clarify implementation. With these revisions, the Coalition could support the Taylor proposal. However, it might be simpler to adopt the revised Ottjes proposal or the Boyette proposal.

Conclusion

Our team believes that the proposed revisions bring all of the petitions into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366. We encourage continued prayer for the delegates and the decisions of the General Conference. We look forward to a prayerful, positive General Conference that will determine the future direction of our church and allow us to move forward in vital mission and ministry.