When Can a Trust Not Be Trusted?

Simpsonwood Retreat Center

The United Methodist Reporter recently reported that the North Georgia Annual Conference is considering whether or not to sell the Simpsonwood Retreat Center located near Atlanta.  The 227-acre property has been used for 40 years by the church as a setting for a retreat ministry, as well as the annual conference offices.  Members of the community have also enjoyed its walking trails and outdoor picnic pavilion, and groups like the YMCA and Girl Scouts have used its facilities for their programming.  The property is thought to be extremely valuable for development into a housing tract because of its pristine character and location along the Chattahoochee River.

What makes this case significant is that, in order to sell the property, the North Georgia Annual Conference had to go to court to remove deed restrictions placed on the property by the original giver of the land.  Miss Ludie Simpson sold the land to the conference for $1.00 in 1973, provided that the North Georgia Conference “shall hold the property conveyed herein intact except [it] may deed property without cost to Wesley Homes, Inc.”  In August of this year, the conference went to court to have the restriction removed, claiming that the covenant is “no longer valid.”  A judge agreed.  Local residents are now attempting to fight that decision.

I am not qualified or informed enough to comment on the legal aspects of this case.  What troubles me, however, is the ethical issue of breaking a trust.  When people give gifts to the church, they expect that any conditions placed upon that gift will be honored.  Since they will not be around to ensure that those conditions are honored, they “trust” the church to do so in their absence.  That is why gifts like these are called a trust.

What happens when the church cannot be trusted to keep its word?

Just a few years ago, there was a dispute over the trust created by people who gave the United Methodist building in Washington, D.C. to the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS).  The building and its proceeds were to go toward advocating for abstinence from alcohol and related problems.  Instead, for many years, GBCS used the proceeds to support all of its many programs of advocacy on a wide variety of issues, of which abstinence from alcohol or drugs was a very small part.

GBCS also went to court to remove the restrictions on the building and its proceeds.  They were opposed by some then-current and former GBCS board members, as well as the district attorney for D.C.  The judge, however, sided with GBCS and broke the trust, removing the restrictions.

As the United Methodist Church’s financial situation gets tighter in the years ahead, due to falling membership and revenue, the temptation will be there for congregations and church agencies to access resources that have been restricted.  We need to consider very carefully the ramifications before taking such a course.

First, there is the moral issue of keeping our promises to people.  In Psalm 15, David asks, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?”  The answer, in part, is “He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart … who keeps his oath even when it hurts.”  Keeping our promises is part of the bedrock of moral integrity and one of the characteristics of a righteous life.

Second, if our people begin not to trust that we will honor the promises we make when we receive their gifts, they will stop giving them.  People will not entrust us with their resources if they do not trust that we will use them as we say we will.  Breaking trusts might free up some resources in the short run, but it will dry up the flow of resources to the church in the long run.  Once the church has lost that trust, it will take a long time to restore it.

There are times when a trust’s conditions are no longer able to be fulfilled and that trust needs to be broken.  I question whether either of the situations above meet that “last resort” criterion.  One instance of breaking a trust is an incident.  Two instances indicate a trend.  More instances would establish a pattern—one that we should be very reluctant to establish.  What do you think?

4 thoughts on “When Can a Trust Not Be Trusted?

  1. I follow these postings and am a “cradle” Methodist who is having a hard time finding the church as a whole in which I grew up. I currently attend a “progressive” church and would change to another UMC if it weren’t for family and friends that also currently attend the same church location. This congregation has done away with the Apostle’s Creed, deeming it politically incorrect and has tried the gender neutral route, but didn’t get far.
    The “pastor” is more than obscessed with social justice, etc, and just about anything goes.
    I have thought much about these problems and feel that it is likely from the seminaries that have thrown John Wesley’s teachings to the dogs and have pushed a “progressive socialist agenda”. I note that Claremont Seminary in California, a few years ago, was going to start teaching the basics of Islam to the seminaries students so they wouldn’t be “steeped in Christianity”. All this makes for serious problems.
    PS- a “Sunday School” class for adults is named Topical Discussion Group, and I have sat in and been appalled at the shallow, empty garbage being discussed. One day, it was praising the Jefferson bible. It did no good to point out that he owned many slaves and worked them for his own profit.
    I will say that in the Ozarks of Arkansas there are many Methodist congregations that are basically conservative and have not fallen to the scriptureless agenda.
    We Methodists need a Revival in the worst way. I would guarantee that if I told my congregation this, I would be singled out as weird and old fashioned, etc.
    I have heard an associate pastor describe from the pulpit that some of the scriptures were dismal. Also, she explains to attendees that we have a mixture of religious and secular music !!! It seems that they are intentionally spewing negativism from the pulpit.
    This posting may have gotten off subject, but we had a very elderly lady pass away and left greater than 100K to the church and some groups wanted to skim if off for their “pet” projects. We on Finance are planning to use it to pay off a massive debt that a previous preacher was allowed to accumulate when it seemed that no one was putting the brakes on her flagrant spending.
    I am currently starting to send more of my offerings to my little country Methodist church where money probably goes 10X farther than the city one I attend. In the country church much work is done as volunteerism rather than everyone having to be paid for everything they do.

  2. I understand where Tom is coming from. The majority of our churches are rural and conservative/traditional. I don’t think spending patterns and trust are politically oriented, but a lack of listening may correlate with a lack of respect for maintaining a trust. And maintaining trust and integrity does not require strict legalism – just the discipline and courage to do the right thing. Why should we even have to explain this?

  3. Many of our leaders within the UMC have two functioning sacraments: MONEY & POWER. Theology and moral integrity are just annoyances to be tolerated As the financial pool gets smaller, many of those who sit on the boards and agencies, and are in-charge of such trust will begin to liquidate assets as to help themselves politically and monetarily. Call me a cynic, but follow the money trail and you’ll discover the rationale behind the decisions that are made. Start asking for accountability, and you’ll quickly get labeled a “trouble-maker” who is against the “connectional system”.

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