Why many Traditionalists feel stuck

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By Thomas Lambrecht

The United Methodist Church is currently in an extremely awkward position. The vast majority of church leaders acknowledge the need for separation to take place in order to resolve the decades-long controversy over biblical authority and interpretation, sexual ethics, and the definition of marriage (among other topics). A Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was negotiated and appeared to have broad support across the church in 2020. The pandemic has interfered, causing the postponement of the 2020 General Conference, which was set to potentially adopt the Protocol. Now, the General Conference will not meet until 2024.

There is now no clear, denomination-wide process for local churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church in order to align with the Global Methodist Church. We thought by adopting ¶ 2553 (the Taylor disaffiliation plan) in 2019, that the General Conference had created such a consistent process. However, the way ¶ 2553 is being applied, every annual conference can make its own rules about what is required for a local church to move to the GM Church. In effect, there are 50 different sets of rules in the United States for local churches to follow. And the various annual conferences outside the U.S. are in different situations, operating under their own sets of rules and legalities.

In the absence of a clear, denomination-wide process for disaffiliation, many traditionalists are feeling “stuck” in a denomination that has abandoned what they believe and stand for, particularly in the U.S. It is important to understand the factors creating this “stuck” feeling and to move toward addressing the causes. Only as an amicable separation is able to take place will The United Methodist Church, as a whole and all its parts, be able to move forward into a new and more faithful reality (regardless of which perspective people hold on our issues of disagreement).

Lack of Information

One of the factors in a feeling of “stuckness” is the lack of information being shared. Many average church members have been unaware of the depth of the division within the UM Church. Many clergy have bent over backwards not to tell them what has been going on. With the announcement that the Global Methodist Church is launching, there are many laity saying, “Wait – what?!” It is important for clergy and lay leaders in local churches to inform their people about the issues dividing our denomination and the potential for separation. Being kept in the dark creates feelings of powerlessness and mistrust among members toward their leaders.

Information is available on the Good News website and on the Wesleyan Covenant Association website that delves into the issues around separation. Most of my articles are collected on my blog site for people to read, and they cover the issues involved over the past several years.

Even more problematic is the lack of information about the process of separation for local churches. Once a church wants to explore its options, those options must be explained in a way that allows for church leaders and congregations to make informed decisions. UM News Service has a comprehensive article that helps understand the process of disaffiliation in general. Wespath (the church’s pension board) has prepared information about disaffiliation and how it affects clergy and congregations in relation to the pension program. Other general information about disaffiliation is available on the Wesleyan Covenant Association website, including information about the Global Methodist Church, for which you can also see the GM Church website.

This is all good general information, but the problem I mentioned above is that there are different rules for disaffiliation for each annual conference. Many annual conferences have not published their unique rules or made them available even on request. In some annual conferences, repeated calls to the conference office go unreturned. Again, where people are kept in the dark, they feel helpless and “stuck.”

One important piece of information is how much money a church would owe in order to disaffiliate. Under the prevailing rules of ¶ 2553 enacted in 2019, a church must pay two years’ worth of apportionments and its share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liability. That pension liability payment is calculated individually for each congregation by its annual conference. Yet, many annual conferences are not making that payment amount available to congregations, even when they request it.

The North Georgia Annual Conference has taken the lead by publishing that pension liability payment for each local church on its website. An annual conference receives its pension liability number from Wespath each year in the fall. It can then allocate the local church’s share of that pension liability using a formula determined by the annual conference. Most often, this is the apportionment formula, but various annual conferences use different formulas to calculate the individual congregation’s share.

It is unfortunate that many annual conferences are refusing to make that number available to their local churches in a timely way when they request it. This is a simple math problem. The number for all local churches in an annual conference could be calculated in an afternoon. Yet, some conferences are holding on to that information and keeping their churches in the dark. The local church is then “stuck” because it cannot move forward toward making a decision on disaffiliation without knowing how much it is going to cost.

Delay

Another factor in causing the feeling of “stuckness” among traditionalists is that some bishops and annual conferences are refusing to move forward with the disaffiliation process, even though it is outlined in the Book of Discipline. Several annual conferences are not moving forward with disaffiliations this year because they have yet to figure out their rules to govern the process. This is despite the fact that ¶ 2553 has been the law of the church since 2019. At the very least, this situation betrays the level of incompetence among some annual conference leaders in failing to consider and develop plans in a timely way for local churches to disaffiliate. (One hope for the Global Methodist Church is that it will be much more nimble, able to respond to changing circumstances rapidly and anticipating needs and planning for them ahead of time.)

A more nefarious motivation may be behind some delay tactics. Some annual conference leaders may be hoping to make the process so long and torturous that local churches give up and remain within the UM Church. One district superintendent responded to a request for disaffiliation from a local church by saying that his district already had several churches disaffiliating this year and he did not have time to deal with more. So this church would just have to wait until next year. Other superintendents have refused to schedule a church conference to vote on disaffiliation when requested to do so by the local church. After all, the longer it takes a church to disaffiliate, the longer that church will contribute its apportionments to support the annual conference. Of course, that assumes congregations will be willing to continue paying apportionments in the face of what appears to be bad faith actions.

The failure of some annual conferences to draft the rules for local church disaffiliation can fall under this delay category, as well. Some annual conferences are saying, “Sorry, we have to draw up the rules and then they have to be approved by this year’s annual conference in order to take effect. You will have to wait until next year to disaffiliate.” Again, conferences have had three years to draw up their rules for disaffiliation, and the failure to do so, even amid the pandemic, is inexcusable. Some conferences are finding a way to work around this by holding a special annual conference session later in the year to deal with disaffiliating congregations. Others could do the same.

These delay tactics will not cause traditionalists to want to remain United Methodist. If anything, they will reinforce traditionalists’ desire to move into a new denomination that is more responsive and provides better leadership. Unfortunately, some traditionalists will not be willing to wait for the annual conference to get its act together. Individual members may just decide to give up and go down the road to another denomination’s church that is in line with their beliefs. That will, of course, weaken the traditionalist UM congregation. It also plays into the hands of the annual conference, which could then potentially send in a liberal pastor to shift the congregation in a more theologically progressive direction, hoping to keep it in the UM Church. Or, if the church declines too much, the conference will just close the church, sell the property, and live longer off the legacy of resources accumulated by traditionalist congregations.

In any event, the delay makes that congregation feel “stuck.” It cannot move forward because of the roadblocks put up by its annual conference.

Egregious Financial Payments

A final factor in keeping traditionalists feeling “stuck” is the imposition of egregious financial payments on a disaffiliating congregation. The requirements of ¶ 2553 amount to roughly six to nine times the congregation’s annual apportionment figure. Many churches find it challenging to raise that amount of money in a lump sum to be paid at the time of disaffiliation. Some congregations resort to borrowing the funds from a bank, from the UM Foundation, or from their members. Of course, that imposes a long-term drag on the church’s ability to fund ministry, but at least it gets them into a more desirable denominational situation. But if they cannot raise the funds or are unwilling to pay that amount, they will be stuck.

On top of that already challenging financial payment, some annual conferences are requiring local churches to pay additional costs. Most egregiously, some are charging a percentage of the church’s appraised property value (anywhere from 20 to 50 percent). One conference is even trying to get 50 percent of all the church’s assets, including mission funds, local foundation, memorial funds, etc.

Essentially, these annual conferences want their disaffiliating congregations to pay twice for the facilities they will carry into the new denomination. In many cases, those congregations have been faithfully paying into the conference apportionments and program for decades, and the annual conference has put none of its own money into those congregations. To charge congregations for a percentage of their facilities is grossly unfair and amounts to a “poison pill” that effectively prevents a congregation from departing. For most churches, there is no way for them to raise the kind of money that would double purchase their buildings and assets.

These egregious financial payments again make traditionalists feel “stuck” and unable to change their congregation’s denominational alignment.

The Consequences of “Stuckness”

To the extent that UM leaders are pursuing a strategy to slow-walk disaffiliation in hopes of keeping traditionalists “stuck,” it is a strategy that could backfire. Weakening local churches serves neither the interests of the UM Church nor the GM Church. Nor does it advance the work of God’s Kingdom.

Keeping unwilling traditionalists boxed into the UM Church only increases resentment toward the denomination and jeopardizes continued apportionment payments and other forms of participation and engagement in the work of the church. It also prevents centrists and progressives from moving forward with their agenda to change the UM Church in a more progressive direction. Instead, it is in the interest of centrists and progressives to allow traditionalists a clear and feasible pathway to disaffiliate. Only as congregations are sorted out to where they want to be will both denominations be able to put the conflict behind them and move forward into a positive future. Here’s to hoping that the “stuckness” ends soon!

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo by Shutterstock.

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