Recently, the Connectional Table convened a panel discussion to consider “how the efforts to end the church’s decades-long dispute over homosexuality might affect the denomination’s mission.” According to the article by Heather Hahn, “‘It is untrue that this decision will not affect the agencies and their mission – it will directly,’ said the Rev. Kim Cape, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. She noted that about 2 cents of every dollar placed in U.S. church offering plates supports general church ministries. ‘Any church that leaves The United Methodist Church stops giving to that larger mission fund,’ she said.”
No matter what happens at the February special General Conference, our general agencies will not be able to function as they have in the past. The General Council on Finance and Administration recently voted to propose an 18 percent cut to the general church budget starting in 2021, which will result in a 23 percent reduction for the general agencies of the church.
Change is coming, and the decisions made in February will undoubtedly hasten the changes. Here is a look at how each of the three plans proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward would likely affect the general agencies and the overall mission work of the church.
Connectional Conference Plan
In the short term, the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) maintains the current level of financial support for the general church structure through 2025. This plan, which forms three theological connectional conferences in the U.S. (Progressive, Unity, and Traditional), would continue sharing certain general agencies among all connectional conferences. These would include Wespath (pensions and health benefits), Publishing House, UMCOR, Archives and History, and parts of Global Ministries. These would continue to be supported by general church apportionments long-term.
The rest of the church’s general agencies would serve at the pleasure of each connectional conference. Each conference would decide which agencies or which services it would like to receive from the general church. A task force would then put together a new general church structure to implement those decisions, beginning in 2026. This approach gives the church a rare opportunity to radically reconfigure the general church structure in a way that is more responsive to the grass roots of the church. Most of the church’s work would be contingent upon the support of the various connectional conferences.
Under the CCP, partnerships between annual conferences and support of mission work could continue, even linking together partners from different connectional conferences based on mutual agreement. The only impact on mission work would come from the number of congregations that would find it necessary to leave the church under this plan. At this point it is very difficult to estimate how many churches would find it necessary to leave.
One Church Plan
The One Church Plan (OCP) tries to keep everyone together, despite our differences. However, it must be acknowledged that this outcome is not likely. For many evangelicals, the change in the church’s position on the practice of homosexuality would be an unacceptable violation of Scripture and of our consciences. We have heard from hundreds of individual lay members and dozens of congregations that they would seek to leave The United Methodist Church if the OCP passes. And those are just the ones we have heard about. In a poll this year in North Georgia, fully one-fourth of the annual conference members said that they would leave the church if the OCP is adopted. I estimate that the U.S. part of our church could lose anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent of its membership in this scenario, and it is possible that up to a half-dozen annual conferences might seek to withdraw.
Such a significant loss of membership would greatly impact the work of the general church. Losing an additional ten to twenty-five percent of its apportionment income would cause the need for significant personnel and program cuts to general agencies. Most other mainline churches have seen significant reductions in their general church programs after they changed their position on marriage and sexuality. Ours would undoubtedly follow the same path.
There is no provision in the OCP for churches to exit with their property, nor is there any provision for exiting churches to continue any kind of missional cooperation with The United Methodist Church. If General Conference provides no exit path, it is likely that much money will be spent on court battles over local church property. Money that could have gone to mission and ministry will instead go to pay lawyers. Such an adversarial outcome will also act to discourage future cooperation between exiting churches and those who remain in the UM Church. The long-term cost to mission and ministry could be quite severe.
The Traditional Plan (TP) envisions a gracious exit for those unwilling to abide by the current requirements of the Book of Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. It provides an exit path for annual conferences, local churches, bishops, and clergy that is not punitive.
If all of the annual conferences that have voted not to conform with the Discipline were to withdraw from the UM Church, they represent about ten percent of the U.S. membership. Of course, not every local church in those twelve annual conferences would want to leave the denomination. But there would be local churches in other annual conferences that would want to leave the denomination to join a new, more progressive church. The numbers would probably equal out.
Thus, the TP might see an additional ten percent reduction in apportionment income to the general church. However, the TP also provides that exiting churches can negotiate with UM general agencies to receive services for a fee, meaning that agencies could receive additional financial support by serving those exiting churches (based on mutual agreement). In addition, exiting churches could continue missional partnerships and participation with the mutual agreement of the receiving annual conference or mission. So the funding reduction might not be as severe under the TP as the ten percent estimate.
One must consider also whether more traditional annual conferences outside the U.S. would want to continue relationships with exiting churches that have openly gay clergy and bishops. For some annual conferences, that might pose a challenge.
On the other hand, the churches remaining in the UM denomination might want to enhance their outward focus on mission and ministry, and therefore be willing to devote more dollars to these causes. Such a reorientation of priorities might make up for the loss of some funding from exiting congregations. It also might enable that funding to be more focused and more effective, rather than continuing to support a bloated bureaucracy that continues to exist due to institutional inertia.
There are many factors in play, some of which are difficult to predict. If the above analysis is correct, it appears that the smallest short-term reduction of general church structure and mission funding would likely be from the Connectional Conference Plan. The smallest long-term reduction would likely come from the Traditional Plan. And the largest reduction overall would likely be by adopting the One Church Plan.
Delegates will need to consider the likely impact of each of the plans as one factor in their decision about which plan would best assure a faithful future for The United Methodist Church. We continue to pray for the delegates as they make their decision in the weeks ahead.