Image by Marco Verch

Over the last 20 years, I have witnessed friends and colleagues in other mainline denominations struggling with principled disagreements over the definition of marriage and the role of LGBTQ persons in the church. It was always clear to me that these other denominations were just a few years ahead of where the conflict in The United Methodist Church would lead. I hoped United Methodists could deal with our differences in a more Christ-like manner. Now, we are presented with that opportunity.

The two other mainline churches most like the UM Church in governance structure are The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Both are relatively hierarchical in their structure and both have trust clauses that restrict local churches from leaving the denomination with their property.

The Episcopal Church ordained its first openly gay bishop in 2003, which touched off a firestorm in the denomination and in the worldwide Anglican Communion. At the same time, some dioceses (equivalent to our annual conferences) began affirming the blessing of same-sex unions. Openly gay priests were allowed beginning in 2006. Permission for priests to bless same-sex unions, subject to the bishop’s approval, was given denomination-wide by the 2009 General Convention (equivalent to our General Conference). In 2015, the General Convention permitted same-sex marriage, unless a particular bishop forbid it in his or her diocese. In 2018, same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons was required in all dioceses.

As these developments took place over a 15-year period, more and more conservative Episcopal congregations and even a few dioceses sought to leave that denomination and start a new one. The Anglican Church of North America was formed to preserve traditional biblical values. However, the General Convention made no provision for local churches or dioceses to depart with their property. Instead, the denomination adopted a “scorched earth” policy, challenging in court every attempt to depart with property.

Since 2003, The Episcopal Church nationally has spent over $45 million in court costs for lawsuits over property. Local churches and diocese have probably spent an equivalent amount, meaning that the denomination as a whole has probably spent nearly $100 million in lawsuits. Although a few congregations and dioceses prevailed, most lost in court, meaning that the denomination could keep their property. Remarkably, this included congregations whose buildings pre-dated the formation of The Episcopal Church in 1785.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) removed restrictions against ordaining partnered homosexual persons in 2010, which was ratified by the various presbyteries (equivalent to our annual conferences) in 2011. In 2014, their General Assembly changed the definition of marriage to “two people,” a change that was ratified by the various presbyteries in 2015. Many conservative congregations left the denomination for other, more conservative Presbyterian denominations, and a new traditionalist Presbyterian denomination (ECO) was formed.

However, the PC(USA) General Assembly did not provide a specific path for local congregations to exit from the denomination, but left it up to each presbytery to develop its own policy. Some presbyteries were generous in allowing congregations to depart with their property, while others were very strict, requiring high payments or refusing exits altogether. The national church bureaucracy pressured the lenient presbyteries to toughen up their stance and require higher payments from departing congregations. A number of congregations found themselves in court, trying to defend their property. Again, millions of dollars were spent on legal costs, and a highly contentious atmosphere prevailed.

What was the impact on membership?

The Episcopal Church went from nearly 2.3 million members in 2003 to under 1.7 million in 2018. That represents a loss of over 600,000 members, or more than 26 percent. That works out to the loss of nearly 40,500 members per year (a rate of 1.8 to 2.4 percent per year).

The Presbyterian Church (USA) went from over 1.8 million members in 2010 to less than 1.4 million in 2018. That represents a loss of over 450,000 in only eight years, or more than 25 percent. That works out to the loss of nearly 57,000 members per year (a rate of 3.2 to 4.1 percent per year).

By comparison, The United Methodist Church has averaged just over 1 percent membership loss since 2000, although since 2012 the membership decline has increased to 1.6 percent per year, and it hit 2.1 percent in 2017.

It seems that this approach of moving into a “local option” on homosexuality, coupled with drastic attempts to keep churches from leaving, has only accelerated the decline of these two denominations. In addition, the denominations have been embroiled in ugly and vitriolic disputes over property and the right to exit the denomination. Such a highly conflicted atmosphere is not conducive to making disciples of Jesus Christ, as we have seen in our own denomination since 2012.

The United Methodist Church has an opportunity to do things differently – and better. As the 2020 General Conference approaches, we can arrive at a fair plan of separation that allows annual conferences and local churches to choose their ministry direction without heavy-handed interference from denominational bureaucrats. Instead of fighting over every last penny, we can provide for a fair distribution of resources to each new denomination coming out of this separation and seek to offer love and consideration to each other as we go our separate ways. The Golden Rule comes to mind, “Treat others as you yourselves want to be treated.”

The Indianapolis Plan offers a framework for just such an equitable plan of separation. It allows annual conferences and local churches to decide by majority vote whether to identify with a “One Church Plan” denomination, a denomination that upholds traditional biblical values, or a fully affirming progressive denomination. No matter which direction is chosen, annual conferences and local churches get to keep their property. The plan further envisions the General Conference approving a fair way to divide up general church resources among the separating groups, since all shared in contributing to those resources. Disputes would be settled through binding arbitration, rather than resorting to expensive lawsuits. A two-year process of separation would enable each group to be free of the conflict and free to pursue the ministry of the church in the way it believes is most faithful to God’s intent.

The UMC Next Plan, however, does not provide for fair separation, but continues the fighting in 2020 and beyond. It would call for the denomination to change its stance on marriage and sexuality by defining marriage as between “two people,” and it would remove all restrictions on the ordination of practicing homosexuals. If this change is attempted at General Conference 2020, it in itself would cause a major fight and is not at all likely to pass. At the very least, the plan calls for a moratorium enacted in 2020 on all enforcement of the Discipline regarding same-sex weddings and LGBT ordination, which would be a highly controversial and conflict-ridden decision and again unlikely to pass. The plan provides that any congregation (but not an annual conference) that disapproves of the switch to a “One Church Plan” denomination could withdraw by a two-thirds vote (not a majority). The plan calls for a task force to develop a formula for giving some general church resources to the departing traditionalists, but not a fair division of the general church assets. So rather than allowing a choice between equal alternatives, the UMC Next Plan forces traditionalists who cannot agree to a “One Church Plan” to leave the denomination – if they can muster a supermajority vote of their local congregations. This will result in thousands of congregations having to take a vote to leave the church, engendering disruptive conflict in local churches. Churches where a majority favors disaffiliation, but not two-thirds, would probably lose a sizable chunk of their congregation, severely damaging their ministries.

So far, annual conferences have taken a hardline approach to churches wanting to leave the denomination. The exit path enacted in St. Louis was supposed to give a fair and straightforward way for churches to leave the denomination. I have spoken with a law firm that is working with churches wanting to leave the UM Church. They have dealt with around 800 congregations of varying theological perspectives that are interested in leaving. However, in every case, the annual conference has imposed additional requirements and in some cases onerous payments on local churches wanting to leave. This is contrary to the spirit, if not the letter of the exit path that was enacted in St. Louis. If we go down the same pathway that The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) took, we will only create a generation’s worth of hard feelings against the church and fail to demonstrate to the world that Christians can treat one another differently.

It is time for the delegates to General Conference to acknowledge that separation is necessary, as well as beneficial for the church through the multiplication of different forms of United Methodist ministry. What matters is that we do the separation in a fair and loving way, not trying to punish one another for our disagreements or gain the last ounce of flesh from those with whom we cannot pursue common ministry. We need to let one another go in as fair and loving a way as possible. The United Methodist Church has the opportunity to show the world that we can resolve our conflict in a peaceful way, in the spirit of Jesus Christ. We can learn from the mistakes of those who have faced these issues before us and be the first denomination to take a different approach. After all, the world is watching