Monday, January 27, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: Church-Related Institutions

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries. Dr. Scott is neither a lawyer nor an accountant, and thus the following should not be interpreted as legal advice.

As indicated in a previous post on the ownership of church assets, there is a lack of clarity in how the trust clause applies to one particular set of assets: those of church-related institutions. United Methodists and their predecessors have been persistent founders of a variety of non-profit institutions and organizations: colleges, universities, seminaries, hospitals, nursing homes, social service agencies, camps, retreat centers, and more.

Many such institutions founded by United Methodists and their predecessors have since become independent of The United Methodist Church. They may still recognize their Methodist or EUB heritage, but there are no longer any formal ties between them and the denomination.

Yet many such institutions do still maintain some sort of formal connection to the denomination. The trust clause in ¶2552 refers to “[t]rustees of schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, homes, orphanages, institutes, and other institutions owned or controlled by any annual, jurisdictional, or central conference or any agency of The United Methodist Church,” indicating that such institutions may be bound by the trust clause.

These connections raise a host of related questions: How does one know if an institution is bound by the trust clause? Are such institutions also bound by the Book of Discipline? If there is some sort of split within the denomination, does that effect the assets of these institutions? What happens if these institutions try to cut their ties to the denomination as a result of the church’s turmoil? And of course, how could conflicts over control of these institutions lead to lawsuits?

Conflict over control of church-related institutions has already generated one high-profile lawsuit: the South Central Jurisdiction of the UMC is suing Southern Methodist University over SMU’s unilateral decision to sever (most of) its ties to the jurisdiction. This case has served to increase the questions and anxieties around the relationship of the denomination to its church-related institutions: Will SMU be a pattern for other cases?

Several factors influence the answer to this question.

As previously noted in this series, assets can only be owned by legal persons, including corporations. All or nearly all church-related institutions are established as their own legal corporation, most of them 501(c)3 corporations, i.e., non-profits. This status as legal corporations gives these institutions the legal standing that they need to own assets and do business. It also requires them to have articles of incorporation, which lay out the basic structures and rules by which each institution will function.

These articles of incorporation may also establish some sort of relationship with The United Methodist Church. There is not, however, any formulaic version of that relationship. In writing articles of incorporation, each institution draws upon its own unique history, purpose, church context, and time of writing in laying forth what (if any) formal relationship it has with The United Methodist Church (or predecessor body, if the articles were written before 1968). Thus, each institution’s relationship with the UMC is in many ways unique to that institution.

In general, however, it is useful to think about the sorts of relationships church-related institutions have with the UMC as dealing with one or both of two major issues: ownership and control.

Under ownership provisions, the articles of incorporation would stipulate a body of the UMC that is itself a legal entity as the owner of the church-related institution. This could be a local church, an annual conference, a jurisdiction, or a board or agency. Part of the issue in the SMU case is that SMU’s articles of incorporation previously said that SMU was “owned … by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.”

Ownership gives a church body some right to the assets of the church-related institution. But that right can mean various things, according to the durability of the institution and the exact wording in its articles of incorporation.

Since each institution is itself a corporation capable of holding assets, ownership can be a largely theoretical concept if the institution is likely to endure indefinitely and has the right to keep all of its assets for itself, which legal persons generally do. On a practical level, an on-going, autonomous institution would continue to manage and control all its own assets, even if the church theoretically owned them.

The articles of incorporation would have to include an unusually strong ownership clause for a church body to take assets from a still-functioning, on-going church-related institution. Such provisions may exist for church-related institutions that are directly overseen and operated by church bodies, such as camps, retreat centers, and perhaps some social service agencies or clergy retirement homes (though I’m not certain about that). Yet for colleges, schools, seminaries, hospitals, and most social service agencies that are not directly run by church bodies, such strong ownership clauses are very unlikely.

Ownership becomes more relevant if an institution closes or dissolves. Who gets the remaining assets? Who assumes the remaining debts? Shutting down might seem like a remote possibility for a large university like SMU, but it might be a more realistic possibility for a church-related camp or retreat center.

Questions of what happens when an institution closes can be answered by a survivor clause in the articles of incorporation that stipulates who assumes assets and debts. If an ownership provision is accompanied by a survivor clause specifying that a part of the church would be the legal successor to that institution, should it ever cease to exist, that gives the church a good claim to the assets of the institution. Without such a clause, it might be hard for a church body to actually benefit tangibly from its theoretical ownership of an institution.

In addition to ownership, the other main avenue of relationship for church-related institutions is control. Here again, SMU’s articles of incorporation are illustrative. They also stipulated that the school would be “controlled by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.”

Control can come in a variety of forms related to personnel or policy. One common form is the power to appoint some portion of the institution’s trustees, who then exert big-picture control over the institution. Another possible form of control would be the power to appoint staff leadership for the institution, which might be the case for annual conference-related camps, retreat centers, and social service agencies. Yet another possible form of control is the power to approve or veto certain decisions by the institution. Alternatively, the articles of incorporation could require an institution to adhere to certain denominational policies for the institution, perhaps related to some provisions of the Social Principles. Again, the possibilities are many, and the exact arrangements vary from institution to institution.

Moreover, it is also possible for an institution to be church related without that being spelled out in its articles of incorporation. There may be historical ties, on-going funding patterns, missional collaborations, or other bonds between an institution and a body of the UMC. If those relationships are not spelled out in the articles of incorporation, however, then the church has very little leverage in asserting any claims of ownership or control over the institution. It would be easy for the institution (or the church body) to break such connections.

So, is the SMU case indicative of things to come? The answer is likely yes and no. It is possible that there will be other cases wherein ownership and control are contested and even litigated, but each case is likely to play out differently because of the unique relationship established between each church-related institution and the UMC in that institution’s articles of incorporation. SMU had relatively strong language in its articles of incorporation connecting it to the South Central Jurisdiction. Most church-related institutions will not have such a strong connection laid out in their founding documents. Indeed, three other colleges have disaffiliated without triggering lawsuits.

Moreover, while church-related institutions directly run by church bodies (such as camps) may allow those church bodies to claim the institution’s assets for their own use, assets for most church-related institutions will remain in the hands of those institutions and cannot be transferred to the church itself. Thus, the fights that do occur are more likely to be fights about control over institutions rather than fights about ownership of property, as is mostly the case for SMU.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Recommended Reading: European Bishops on the Protocol

One of the notable features of the "Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation" is that the process was initiated by Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone and included participation by United Methodists from the Philippines and Europe. One significant open question about the Protocol is how General Conference delegates from the central conferences will react to it, but leadership by central conference United Methodists in developing the Protocol likely makes the plan more acceptable to them.

In gauging the response by the central conferences to the Protocol, it is interesting to see the comments by three out of the four European bishops. Bishops Alsted, Streiff, and Rückert have each issued public statements on the Protocol. No statement by Bishop Khegay has appeared on the Eurasian UMC's website or Facebook page. Each of the three European bishops making statements is from a Western European background, but their statements are useful not only for what they say about how the Protocol is being received in Western Europe but also for what they say about responses from elsewhere in the Central Conferences.

Excerpts or translations of excerpts from each of the statements is below, along with links to the originals:

"Bishop Alsted on the Proposal to Divide the United Methodist Church" (original in Norwegian)
"The mediation team has succeeded in reaching a broad-based agreement between the large factions of the church, which provides annual conferences and local congregations around the world the opportunity in the future to carry out their ministry in their society and culture with integrity and faithfulness to the call God has given them.

"I joined this process at the urging of Bishop John Yambasu (Sierra Leone) in the summer of 2019. I wanted to give a clear perspective from the Central Conferences and from Europe in a conversation that had been dominated by the US until then, and at the same time encourage the various groups to talk together and seek common solutions. It has been an extensive and demanding work with much prayer. At times, tensions were great, and we were uncertain whether an agreement would succeed, but in the end, all parties showed a willingness to approach each other.

"It will be a grief and pain for many that the church will divide, which is also how I experience it. At the same time, it is clear that the distances between the various theological and ethical views in the church are so great that it is not possible to bridge them. A good, broad and respectful appointment before the May General Conference in Minneapolis aims to secure a peaceful and dignified treatment with a result that can help the Church continue in God's mission in the world, rather than a conflict-filled treatment with unmistakable consequences for our testimony and service.
...


"The necessary amendments to the church Discipline are being prepared and will be sent to the general conference via one or more extraordinary annual conferences. With that, the mediation group will entrust its work to the delegates' treatment and decision. ...

"In the Northern European and Eurasian Central Conference, as well as in the Nordic and Baltic bishops, there are divergent theological and ethical views, not least in relation to how we can be a church with people who identify themselves as LGBTQ. The decisions of the General Conference will also have a major impact on the annual conferences in the Nordic and Baltic countries, and the Central Conference as well as the Annual Conferences will face major decisions. I will do my utmost to help conferences to shape their future and to fulfill their ministry with integrity and faithfulness to the call God has given us all, to make people disciples of Jesus Christ."

"Receiving the mediation protocol with a grateful, yet grieving heart" by Bishop Patrick Streiff (original in English)
"As your Bishop, I have received the mediation protocol with a grateful, but at the same time also grieving heart. At all of the last General Conferences, we as bishops have experienced that narrow margins of vote on issues of deeply held faith convictions will only further more conflict. It will not build up the community of the church for living its mission. Therefore, I am grateful for the mediation protocol as a way out of an impasse into which General Conference has maneuvered itself. I support the mediation protocol for allowing helpful decisions at General Conference 2020. However, I do so with a grieving heart. We have to confess that we will fail to keep the unity in the bond of peace.

"The United Methodist Church in Europe is very diverse. Three of the four episcopal areas, ours included, are themselves very diverse, sometimes as a diversity between different countries and their particular legal, cultural and religious contexts, sometimes as a diversity within a country. The Eurasian area is the only one in Europe where there is no such diversity within the same episcopal area.

"In the three episcopal areas which are in themselves diverse, we as bishops have engaged in discernment processes with the leadership in our respective areas on how to remain as closely related as possible despite the deeply held diversity of faith convictions with regard to our ministry with LGBTQ persons. I continue in hope and prayer that these processes of dialogue and consensus building lead to maintaining the unity in the bond of peace despite the option of separation offered by the mediation protocol. ...

"I do not know what delegates will finally decide at General Conference 2020 and at our forthcoming central Conference in March 2021 and at Annual Conferences. I will continue the journey with the hope and prayer that we find other solutions than separation. I understand the mediation protocol also as a chance that the “Post-separation United Methodist Church” will acknowledge and put in place a world-wide connectional structure that allows for the contextuality needed for keeping the unity in the bond of peace in a region of multiple diversities like Central and Southern Europe."

"Explanations and Assessments of the Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation" by Bishop Harald Rückert (original in German)
"Nothing has been decided yet. It is open whether the delegates to the General Conference, which will meet in May 2020, will follow this proposal. However, from my point of view, what could speak for it is the fact that it was unanimously decided between the different stakeholders. At the same time, it is the only proposal - at least as far as I know - that explicitly takes the concerns of the central conferences into account. ...

"According to the proposal, The United Methodist Church should remain a worldwide church, with different perspectives on different questions. Deleting a few passages from the existing church order makes an opening in the questions about ordination, and blessing of LGBT people is no longer prohibited and can take place where this is desired. At the same time, however, all can remain with the traditional view and practice where people are convinced of it. Nobody should be forced to do anything against their conviction. ...

"Numerous national and international press articles claim that this new conservative form of the Methodist Church is likely to be composed primarily of African and Filipino conferences. In my opinion, this will not be the case. At least, numerous African and Filipino bishops are sending a clear signal that they want to stay with the continuing United Methodist Church in order to continue to live their conservative perspective within this church without demanding it from other parts of the church. It remains to be seen whether the respective general conference delegates share this view.

"Another important element is included in the proposal of the international mediation group. It affects the structure of the continuing United Methodist Church. It is about a significant further development of the Church, in which all parts - Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the USA - are equally to be given greater freedom and greater responsibility to adapt regulations and matters to their respective context, in this way to better carry out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. ...

"All in all, I am grateful for the proposal that was developed with the help of a mediator. For me, there is a way in which we can overcome the grueling, exhausting and constantly causing injuries of the past months (years and decades). At the same time, deep sadness and pain fill me, given that some of our conservative siblings can only see a way into the future through separation. I have to acknowledge this reality.

"As I write this explanation, the Central Round Table in Germany worked and came to a result. It fills me with astonishment and deep gratitude that, after an intense struggle, we succeeded in unanimously working out a proposal that would help us as the UMC in Germany to remain together as a church with fundamentally different convictions!" 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A System for Preserving the UMC Connection in Germany

Today’s post is a translation of Klaus Ulrich Ruof’s article “Verbund für den Erhalt der Verbindung,” first published on the website of the Evangelisch-methodistische Kirke, the UMC in Germany. The translation is by UM & Global’s Dr. David W. Scott.

A System for Preserving the Connection

After four meetings, the central Round Table of the UMC in Germany reached a unanimous outcome for a common way forward.

On January 10th and 11th, the round table chaired by Harald Rückert, bishop of the UMC responsible for Germany, had its fourth meeting. In terms of content, this meeting in Fulda was expected to be a critical turning point. The report written by two members of the Round Table is now available. An excerpt of the entire text is presented here:

“The fourth meeting of the round table: 19 Christians - 15 hours of struggle together for the future way of the Church.

“On January 10th and 11th, the members of the Round Table, who came together from all three annual conferences of the UMC in Germany and brought very different theological convictions with them, met together in Fulda under the leadership of Bishop Harald Rückert. Up for debate was the way forward for the UMC in Germany in the face of different basic convictions on questions of homosexuality. The crucial question way: Is it possible to work out a common proposal for the way forward for the church?

“The meeting began with a time of devotions and prayer, in which prayer partners of different theological positions came together with each other. Overall, prayer and an orientation toward God formed a special point of emphasis for the encounter. The first order of business was the analysis of the approximately 200 multifaceted responses to the proposals of the Round Table that were sent in by individuals, groups and congregations of the UMC.

“Afterwards, it was time to do continued work on the Book of Discipline of the UMC. Because of the clear disagreement in the basic convictions about questions of homosexuality, the members of the Round Table propose to delete all passages that speak about the ordination of people with homosexual orientation and the blessing of same-sex partnerships. Every phrase in each sentence here was considered with much diligence. No other wording has been added instead. With regard to ordination, the Board of Ordained Ministry would still have the task of examining all candidates concerning their basic suitability. The deletions in the Book of Discipline would neither prescribe nor prohibit blessings of same-sex couples. Church councils should be able to discuss blessings of same-sex couples in their own churches and can make decisions.

The third task was continued work on the description of associations that could be formed to give people a connecting point, if they cannot, out of conviction, support the named deletions. It was finally unanimously decided that the Round Table of the central conference for the moment only suggests the formation of an association: an association that expressly maintains the previous position of the Book of Discipline on homosexuality and thus offers a home for those with traditional, conservative positions. With its own theological statement, this association should give its members security in their beliefs and actions. The association is open to districts, congregations, and also individuals. It will choose a leadership team, and the leader will be in close contact with the church leadership. Congregations should be able to vote if they would like to join such an association.

“After a long and challenging struggle, the members of the Round Table finally voted unanimously for the overall package of the proposal worked out. There are still a few details to be clarified: The concrete form of the aforementioned association will now be designed by a working group of those siblings from the Round Table who will fill it with life. In addition, a name for this association is yet to be found – suggestions for it can gladly be sent to one of the two authors of the report (see below).

“The suggestion of the Round Table will now be presented to the district assemblies and annual conferences of the UMC in Germany and be discussed, before it will finally be laid before the central conference in Zwickau in November 2020 for negotiation. Of course, this happens within consideration of international developments in the UMC. Bishop Harald Rückert also mentioned the proposal recently made by an international group regarding a respectful separation of the Church. The General Conference will discuss this in May 2020.

“The fifteen hours of the meeting of the Round Table were characterized by an intensive struggle: How and in what way do we stay true to the word of God? How do we protect and accompany people in their identity without hurting them? How can we at the same time and as far as possible in our different convictions preserve the unity of the church and of congregations? The future will show if the hard work of the Round Table opens up horizons for this and is sustainable. We may, however, pray for it.

“For the Round Table of the UMC in Germany:
Steffen Klug (steffen.klug (at) emk.de)
Stephan von Twardowski (stephan.twardowski (at) emk.de) │ in January 2020”

“Wonderful Gift of God to Us”
Thus the central Round Table for the UMC in Germany has achieved the essential part of its task, which was to work out a model for the UMC’s Germany Central Conference, meeting in November. Very helpful in this regard were the around 200 submitted responses, for which the members of the Round Table “heartily thank all those who, as individuals, congregations, and districts thought to give feedback to our circle.” A thank-you letter to submitters states, “The various messages again and again seeped into the entire meeting in Fulda in our discussion and our prayers and found consideration. That at the end, a unanimous decision for a common way for the UMC in Germany could be reached by the Round Table, despite varying views, is not just luck, but before all also a wonderful gift of God to us.”

The full report (in German) is available here.

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: Trust vs. Ownership

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries. Dr. Scott is neither a lawyer nor an accountant, and thus the following should not be interpreted as legal advice.

As recounted in my previous two posts, the assets of The United Methodist Church are governed by the two principles of ownership by legal entities (usually non-profit corporations) and trust for the denomination. These two principles apply to all forms of property owned by any official entity within The United Methodist Church – including annual conferences, jurisdictions, boards and agencies, and others – not just to buildings owned by local churches.

Having laid out this basic framework, it is worth exploring in some greater detail the relationship between trust and ownership. Both give certain parties rights relative to property, but the nature of those rights and who holds them differs in the two scenarios.

Before I go further, however, it is important to note a couple of very important caveats. First, as indicated above, I am a theologian, not a lawyer. The following is an attempt to give a general explanation for laypeople of broad principles that structure the polity of the church. It is not specific legal advice that will be accurate in all cases.

Second, the specifics of property law vary from place to place. There are differences in property law between the different countries in which The United Methodist Church exists. But there are also differences across state property laws in different states in the United States. Since a lot of property law exists at the state rather than the federal level, that means there can be significant variation across annual conferences or other bodies of the church. Very little can be said with any specificity that will apply to all United Methodist bodies in all places.

Those caveats out of the way, here’s some of what can be said generally about ownership and trust.

Both ownership and trust come out of a Western legal tradition of understanding property wherein ownership is largely construed in terms of the rights to use that property and control over the use of that property. Put simply, an owner is a legal entity that has the ultimate right to control how and by whom a piece of property is used. The owner can use it themselves, or they can allow others to use it, but the decisions regarding that use lie with the owner. In general, an owner can do whatever they want with their property, within the limitations of the law.

Trust is an arrangement between three parties that puts some restrictions on the rights and use of property not found under the most basic form of ownership. In a trust, one party (technically, the grantor, trustor, or settlor) conveys ownership of a property to a second party (the trustee) with the stipulation that the property must be used for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary).

Prior to setting up a trust, the trustor owns the property outright. But they give up that ownership in transferring that property to the trustee. There are certain cases in which a grantor might be able to receive that property back (“revocable trusts”), but in general, they relinquish all claims of ownership to the property (“irrevocable trusts”).

The trustee assumes ownership of the property, but they are not free to do anything they way with it, as under basic ownership. Their rights to the property are limited by the stipulation that they use that property for the good of the beneficiary. They are legally prohibited from doing anything with the property that would harm the interests of the beneficiary. Yet as owner of the property, the trustee does get to make decisions about how to use that property for the good of the beneficiary.

The beneficiary does not own the property – the trustee does, but the beneficiary does receive the benefits of the use of that property. The beneficiary cannot make any and all decisions about the use of the property – again, that power is reserved for the trustee, but those decisions are supposed to be in the beneficiary’s best interest. The beneficiary may have some power to assert what they see as in their best interest, but that power is limited. They don’t own the property, so there are things they can’t legally force the trustee to do with the property.

To give an example from family property, let’s assume there is a wealthy parent with a chunk of money. As owner of that money, they can use it any way they want – spend it, invest it, give it away, even gamble with it. As long as they’re not doing anything illegal with it (buying drugs, offering bribes, etc.), it’s theirs to use.

Now assume that parent acts as a trustor to put this money in a trust administered by their lawyers, who would serve as the trustees, for the sake of their children’s education, the children thus being beneficiaries.

The parent relinquishes ownership of the money put into this trust, but they establish some rules for how that money should be used when they transfer it to the trust. Doing this with the money might bring a tax benefit to them, but they can no longer spend or use that money for themselves.

The lawyers, as trustees of the money, are responsible for making sure the money is being well-stewarded and used for the purposes set up. They cannot spend that money however they want, even though they are the executors of the trust, which legally owns the money.

The children benefit from that money, but they don’t own the money. They benefit from the money is thus limited by the rules set up by the parent. They cannot use the money to buy a car, for instance, since the parent stipulated that the money be used for their education.

How does this basic framework apply to the UMC? In this instance, individual donors are the trustors, giving over money to various UMC legal persons, who function as the trustees, for the benefit of the denomination as a whole, the beneficiary.

Not all donors may realize that’s what they’re doing when they give to the offering plate, but that’s essentially what’s going on. Except in rare circumstances, upon giving property to a church entity, the donor loses ownership of and rights over that property. Just as you can’t get your money back after a donation to the Red Cross, you generally can’t get back the money you give to the church.

The UMC legal entity (local church, annual conference, board or agency, etc.) as the trustee is the legal owner of the property. But they are required to use that property for the benefit of the whole of the United Methodist connection, within the restrictions and stipulations set up by donors for particular pieces of property. They cannot simply use their property in any way that they want. This is why, for instance, there are rules and restrictions regarding selling, mortgaging, or renovating local church buildings – those buildings must contribute to the good of the connection as a whole.

The UMC as a whole is the beneficiary of the trust, which means that all property owned by UMC entities is supposed to benefit the connection as a whole. But since the UMC is the beneficiary and not the owner, that means that there are things that General Conference (as decision-making body for the whole connection) might not be able to ask or require that various church entities do with their property, since the UMC as a whole does not own it and thus does not have full rights to decision how to use that property.

Again, there are many very complicated and technical issues at stake here, and it is impossible to comment on the application of these basic principles to all of them. Future posts will try to look at how these general issues play out in more specific cases and especially how this system can break down.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Meeli Tankler on "Sent in Love"

Today's post is by Dr. Meeli Tankler. Dr. Tankler is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary and a member of the Nordic and Baltic Central Conference Council. This post is part of a series on the UMC's new ecclesiology document, Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, which will be presented to General Conference 2020 for review and adoption.

In such a time as this when the church is debating structural, financial and administrative issues in the anticipation of a possible division, it is refreshing to be offered a different viewpoint and to be invited to reflect about the real essence of the church as „a redeemed and redeeming fellowship“.

However, my guess is that it’s not the best moment to present such a document for general discussion in hope to renew our ecclesial vision. The atmosphere seems to be too loaded with suspicion about possible subtext that almost every statement in this document could become interpreted as a support to one or another “camp”. My fear is that the text would not always be read with a sincere theological mindset and be approached with a sincere wish to define our denomination’s basic values and identity in this situation where diverse interpretations of Christian core values are painfully clicking with each other.

Having said all that, I still believe that the text as it stands carries in itself hope for healing. It covers a wide variety of important aspects about being church here and today, guides our thoughts toward a search for core values, and offers rich substance for further thinking and discussion in our diverse contexts worldwide.

I’m stepping into this discussion as a former theological seminary president in a small country, Estonia, where possibilities to get theological education became available only about 25 years ago, and Christian churches including the UMC are still in the process of finding their place and voice in the society that has been saturated with aggressive atheism for decades. In conversations with our students who have experienced their call to ministry, we have felt an urgent need to understand and define the very essence of church as a messenger of God’s grace in our particular time and context.

I’m also stepping into this discussion from the wider European perspective where secularism is growing fast, church membership is diminishing in most denominations, and at the same time people seem to be more and more interested in various spiritual practices that would promise them some “peace of mind.” In this context, it is utterly important to ponder seriously how to define and represent the church in a way that would also address un-churched people in their sincere search for spiritual values.

These are the main reasons why I first of all greatly appreciate the strong emphasis on outreach and mission throughout the whole document, and not exclusively in the part “Called to be Apostolic – The Saving Love of God Empowers the Missional Community.”

I myself am coming from a church that was forced to be almost invisible under the communist regime for decades (without any legal opportunity to reach outside the church walls) in order to merely survive. Functioning in this very restricted context has led to a serious struggle while trying to define ourselves anew as a church in the open democratic society with greater religious freedom than ever. Opening up to the local community, partnering freely with other charity organizations as well as local government, and proclaiming openly the Christian message in a meaningful way for believers as well as unchurched people continues to be a challenge. The temptation is still there to define the church as „a congregation of faithful“ people (43) but in a very narrow view which would focus the ministry to insiders only.

In contrast to this narrow perspective, the proposed document states that the “conviction that the work of God’s grace extends beyond the walls of the visible church has important implications for how the church understands itself in the relation to its non-Christian neighbors” (45). The document also provides numerous reminders about the importance of opening up and becoming a church that is “outward facing” (24), in the sense that it has “a sent character that should guard against an inward-looking and self-protective stance” (56). I do believe that these reminders urge and help churches like ours to re-think and re-define their identity.

Another helpful and encouraging emphasis throughout the whole document is its strong focus on contextualization. The appreciation and affirmation of regional diversity as a normality for a worldwide church is repeatedly expressed. The declaration that “we are brought together in the first instance by grace, not because we share the same views, customs, cultural practices, or even moral convictions” (108) emphasizes freedom of thought and allows a variety of practices in order to be “enculturated in ways appropriate” (73).

Even as there is unfortunately no background information about Methodism in the Central Conferences in the historical part of the document, it is clearly stated elsewhere how much the local ecclesiological circumstances besides historical, cultural, and social context are influencing and shaping the ecclesiology at the local level (72).

In the European context, the UMC is mostly a minority church compared to other denominations like Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran, and the UMC ecclesiology has clearly been influenced by the theology, practice and policy of other denominations, as in most cases ecumenical ties are also quite strong. The result is that the UMC in Estonia has somewhat different flavor compared to the UMC in Bulgaria or Lithuania etc. The statement in the very beginning of the document about the UMC being ecumenical in its very nature is therefore an encouraging reminder for our context.

The emphasis on contextualism could help us also understand a bit better the confusion and battles regarding the present conflict about LGBTQ persons and their place and role in the church. Churches develop and practice their ministry in their particular environment and face different challenges raising from their context. A great challenge in one part of the world may not have the similar weight in another region, even when these countries are geographically close to each other or have shared a similar history.

Furthermore, this challenge may even not be understood properly, as the terms used in the discussion arise from a particular context, and especially when translated into other language (and culture!) they may lose some of their original meaning or gain somewhat different flavor.

And while those actually facing the real challenge have grown into it gradually and have seen it emerging step by step, others invited to be part of the discussion are drawn into it in the middle of the conversation, so to say, and are presented only certain fragments of the whole thing.

This is the reason why I especially liked the statement in the end of the document that the central task of the church is “to creatively correlate the commitment to the marks of the church with the contextual challenges at hand” (115); my proposal would be to add: contextual challenges in their part of the world, not challenges of the whole wide world.

It is encouraging that Wesley also recognized that “Christians in different times and places will come to different conclusions regarding practices, modes of worship, or opinions enjoined by the Christian faith” (70). May we recognize the same.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: What Are They?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries. Dr. Scott is neither a lawyer nor an accountant, and thus the following should not be interpreted as legal advice.

As explained last week, ownership of UMC assets is determined by the concept of legal personhood and the trust clause.

Having looked at ownership, it’s worth looking more specifically at what exactly is meant by assets or property. The trust clause covers “all real and personal, tangible and intangible property,” which essentially means all assets. But what is real, personal, tangible, and intangible property?

First, “property” is defined as something that can be owned. Technical definitions of “asset” vary, but within accounting, an “asset” is something of positive value owned by a legal entity. For the sake of this blog series, I will use the terms property and asset interchangeably.

Real vs. personal property and tangible vs. intangible property are two separate ways of breaking down the categories of property. The inclusion of both in the trust clause implies that the trust clause applies to all property, regardless of type.

Real property is property that cannot be moved, like land and buildings. When most people think about the trust clause, this is what they think of – church buildings. It is worth noting, however, that the trust clause applies to all land and buildings owned not just by local congregations but by any United Methodist legal entity: parsonages, annual conference and agency headquarter buildings, church camps, land purchased for possible future use, and the property of church-owned social service or outreach ministries. Real property goes far beyond just the category of church buildings used by congregations, even while church buildings make up the largest share of real property.

Personal property, by contrast, is all property that can be moved, including financial assets, i.e., money, and intellectual property. The term “personal” here refers to legal personhood, not human personhood; thus personal property is a much larger category than the things you might think of yourself as owning. Few United Methodists own an ocean freighter or the rights to the use of a cartoon character, but these are also forms of personal property.

The breadth of the category of personal property makes the second distinction – between tangible and intangible property – useful.

Tangible property is any physical property that can be touched. It includes real property (you can touch land or a building), and a lot of personal property as well. Furniture, equipment, supplies, vehicles, books, clothing, jewelry, etc. – all of these are forms of tangible personal property. Thus, everything from a communion chalice owned by a local congregation to the books owned by GCAH to a van owned by an annual conference-run summer camp would count as tangible personal property and be subject to the trust clause.

Intangible property, then, is anything with value or potential value to a legal person that cannot be touched. This category of property can include patents, other intellectual property, brand reputation, and, perhaps most importantly, financial assets such as bank accounts and investments. Again, everything from the copyright of agency-penned books to a local church checking account to an annual conference trust fund to support new church starts is subject to the trust clause.

Within the world of financial assets, there is also a difference between cash on hand – money that is kept in bank accounts, cash, or other forms that can be spent immediately – and long(er)-term investments of one sort or another – stocks, bonds, mutual funds, managed funds, options, etc.

Among financial assets, there is a further distinction between designated and undesignated assets. Designated assets are those that can only be used for a particular purpose. Undesignated assets can be used for any purpose that the church, annual conference, agency, or another owner would like.

Usually, the purpose of a designated asset is determined by those who originally gave it. That designation is legally binding, especially when gifts are given as part of a will. Thus, were the church to use a designated asset for a purpose other than that originally intended by the donor, it might be sued for doing so, especially by relatives of the person who gave them money. The strength of such designations can persist even when the church no longer does whatever the money is designated for. Hence, if there is a local church fund that was donor-designated for choir robes, that money probably cannot be used for other purposes, even if the church choir hasn’t worn robes since 1984.

By now, it should be clear that when there’s a discussion of dividing up church assets, that potentially applies to much more than each of the agencies writing a check for a fraction of whatever’s in their bank accounts.

Where there is talk of dividing assets, it is critical to determine what type(s) of assets people are talking about: Does this division apply just to financial assets, or are all assets being taken into account? Within financial assets, are just undesignated assets considered, or are designated assets included in the calculation? Within non-financial assets, how will the value of the asset be determined? Who gets to say what a building, tract of land, van, copyright, vestment, or historical artifact is worth? Finally, when there’s a discussion of division of assets, what level of the church is being discussed: local congregation, annual conference, or general church?

As these questions show, the simpler the division of assets is, the less room there is for conflict. A specified lump sum from clearly designated sources is much simpler and therefore less open to litigation than a percentage of total assets or another more complicated formula.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Recommended Listening: Missionary Interviews

Several good, long podcast interviews with United Methodist missionaries have recently been published and are worth a listen. With five interviews to choose from, these interviews could even be used as resources for an assignment asking students to compare and contrast what two or three of the interviews have to say about mission.

Jennifer Farmer interviews missionary Grace Musaka for UMW's Faith Talks series

Joe Iovino interviews missionary Belinda Forbes for the Get Your Spirit in Shape series

Joe Iovino interviews missionary David Makobo N’Shikala for the Get Your Spirit in Shape series

Joe Iovino interviews missionary Israel Painit for the Get Your Spirit in Shape series

Joe Iovino interviews missionaries Jean Claude Masuka Maleka and Francine Ilunga Mbanga Mufuk for the Get Your Spirit in Shape series

All podcasts can be listened to directly from the links above or downloaded through your podcast app of choice by searching for the name of the series. Each podcast is approximately 40-45 minutes long.