Setting the Record Straight: Clarifying Intentions
By Thomas Lambrecht
As hundreds of churches seek to discern their future alignment – whether to remain United Methodist or disaffiliate and seek another denominational connection – information and misinformation is flying around the denomination. It did not have to be this way. General Conference could have been held in August of this year as planned. The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation could have been considered and hopefully adopted by General Conference. An orderly, consistent process for discernment could have been implemented across the church. There would have been no need for frantic, rushed time lines or adversarial maneuvering on either side.
Since adversarial maneuvering is what we have, it is important to clarify some of the misinformation that is being spread by official denominational channels. The most recent example is Part 3 of a UM Communications series, “Is the UMC Really …?” Some questions arise out of that information piece that traditionalists need to answer.
Are disaffiliating congregations trying to get out of paying their fair share of pension liability and other expenses?
The UM Communications piece states that one of the motivations behind traditionalists’ desire to use Par. 2548.2 to disaffiliate was that “no payments would be required.” (Note that the recent Judicial Council decision 1449 has effectively ruled out the use of Par. 2548.2 for disaffiliation – see my previous article on that.) Others have alleged that traditionalists are using a double standard because Par. 2553 was promoted by traditionalists for progressives to use, but now traditionalists object to using it.
First, let me state that traditionalists unequivocally support the financial integrity of pensions for clergy and other employees of the church. That is why we supported including the payment of pension liabilities in Par. 2553.
With the greater number of churches that are disaffiliating, however, it has become apparent that the pension program will be significantly overfunded. At the time Par. 2553 was adopted by the 2019 General Conference, we did not have a clear understanding of what the costs would be for pension liability or the way Wespath would calculate those costs. Due to changing economic conditions, those costs have come down significantly, making the pension amount less onerous for the local church to bear. But the provision under which pension liability payments were needed was designed for a few dozen churches to disaffiliate, not for hundreds or thousands of churches to disaffiliate. And the money paid by disaffiliating churches may never be needed. It envisions a “worst-case” scenario that is unlikely to happen.
What traditionalists were after by using Par. 2548.2 was the ability to stretch the payment of pension liabilities over time. (Par. 2553 requires they be paid at the time of disaffiliation.) What is onerous for some congregations is having to come up with the whole amount up front. Congregations could much more easily handle the payments over a period of years, enabling more churches to afford disaffiliation.
Of course, the denomination has little interest in making disaffiliation more affordable, so most annual conferences have resisted efforts to pay down or otherwise reduce pension liabilities. This has priced some congregations out of the disaffiliation decision altogether.
However, most traditionalist congregations can now afford the Par. 2553 requirements of two years’ apportionments and a pension liability payment, especially with new access to funds that may be borrowed by local churches at low interest rates to help make that payment. Traditionalists are not trying to escape paying their fair share, only seeking to make the payment of necessary funds more easily affordable by local congregations.
Do traditionalists object to using Par. 2553 for disaffiliation?
No, traditionalists are quite willing to use Par. 2553 as written.
Traditionalists do object to annual conferences adding financial and process requirements designed to make it harder or even impossible for local churches to disaffiliate. The 19 annual conferences currently identified for the recommended placing of apportionments in escrow are conferences that have taken Par. 2553 and placed additional requirements. These additional requirements can include things like a percentage of the property value of the church, a percentage of any endowment funds, additional years of apportionments, extra liability insurance costs, payment for conference facilitators, and even payment for clergy salaries and moving expenses for clergy remaining in the UM Church. Some conferences require an eight- or nine-month discernment process with rigid deadlines. At least two annual conferences are not allowing any churches to disaffiliate at all.
These additional requirements are preventing hundreds of churches from disaffiliating. The use of such coercive tactics is an abuse of power and contrary to the original intent of Par. 2553, as well as the Golden Rule. Many churches in these 19 annual conferences feel they have no other option but to place apportionments in escrow in an attempt to gain a hearing for disaffiliation terms that are at least reasonable, if not favorable.
“Is the UMC really allowing local churches that refuse to pay apportionments (as the Wesleyan Covenant Association is now directing) to ‘get away with it’?”
The way UM Communications phrases this question is inaccurate and prejudicial.
First, the Wesleyan Covenant Association is not “directing” churches to place apportionments in escrow. The WCA does not have the power or authority to direct anyone to do anything! Instead, the WCA is calling on churches that feel powerless to use the only negotiating tactic they have left – the power of the purse.
Placing apportionments in escrow is a way to call attention to a dire situation and advocate for a negotiated solution to that situation. Churches in the 19 annual conferences only want a fair and reasonable path to disaffiliation, but are being blocked. Why should these local churches continue to fund a massive system that is hostile to their interests?
The escrowed apportionment money will eventually be paid to the annual conference, once a reasonable solution has been negotiated. We are beginning to see some possible elimination of these onerous additional requirements in some of the annual conferences where they have been imposed. A positive change in annual conference disaffiliation requirements will bring about the full payment of apportionments, including the amounts that have been escrowed.
For annual conferences to take a punitive approach toward churches that escrow their apportionments would only heighten the conflict and entrench people on both sides. Traditionalists believe they have been forced into an untenable situation that pushes them to confront their annual conferences in this way. But traditionalists would much rather take the Isaiah approach, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). If people of good will work together, these situations can be resolved favorably for all.
Do traditionalists believe “The United Methodist Church is going to require its clergy and clergy candidates to agree to offer same-sex weddings as a condition of candidacy, status, or appointment?”
Some traditionalists do believe this. It may not be explicitly required in the Book of Discipline, but a majority of those on district and annual conference committees who make decisions to approve persons for ministry will undoubtedly be reluctant to approve those who are unwilling to promote the affirmation of LGBTQ+ persons and behaviors, including a willingness to perform same-sex weddings. Whether or not this happens, of course, depends upon who serves on those committees and will probably vary from one annual conference to another.
The even larger issue for local churches, however, is whether they would support having a pastor who performs same-sex weddings. Since pastors are given ultimate authority in deciding whether to do a particular wedding service, there will undoubtedly be pastors willing to do same-sex weddings appointed to serve churches that do not approve. Because of the open itinerant system, every congregation remaining in the UM Church ought to be prepared to accept a pastor who does same-sex weddings. The congregation might be able to rule out any same-sex weddings in their church building, but the pastor would still be free to perform them in other venues.
These are all important issues for congregations to weigh as they discern their future. The issues are complicated, and nuances are often lost in the heat of disagreement. As much as possible during this time, it is important to shed as much light on these questions as possible and to seek to understand both one’s own opinion, as well as the opposing point of view.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.