Monday, February 24, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: Departing Annual Conference and Remaining Local Churches

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.

The vast majority of UMC assets (over 90%) are held by local churches. While local churches own this property, the trust clause stipulates that local church property (of all sorts – real estate, tangible personal property, and intangible property including financial assets) “shall be held in trust for The United Methodist Church and subject to the provisions of its Discipline.”

Yet annual conferences have important roles to play in managing these UMC assets. They exercise oversight of local assets held in trust for the denomination, as is also made clear in the BOD. ¶2503 states that local church property is “subject to the Discipline, usage, and ministerial appointments of said Church as from time to time authorized and declared by the General Conference and by the annual conference within whose bounds the said premises are situated.” (Emphasis added.) Elsewhere, annual conferences are given clear rights in the purchase and sale of any real property by local churches.

If, as explored last week, a US annual conference were to declare itself independent of the UMC, this would raise the question of what would happen to the assets of the local churches within that annual conference. Would they remain with the UMC or go with the departing annual conference?

While the Protocol (and perhaps other proposals) would address this question, since the BOD currently makes no provision for US annual conferences to leave the denomination, the answer to this question is complicated, more so than the relatively straightforward answer to the question of the property of local congregations exiting annual conferences that remain within the UMC.

The BOD connects local church property both to the denomination as a whole and to the annual conference in which it resides. This would raise complications for local church property within a departing annual conference. There would be conflicting obligations of trust for the local church to the departing annual conference and trust to the continuing denomination.

A local church who wanted to abide by the annual conference’s decision could say that it was acting in accordance with its obligation to use its property in trust for the annual conference. A local church that wanted to stay in the UMC in opposition to the annual conference’s decision could say that it was acting in accordance with its obligation to use its property in trust for the denomination. The latter might be the stronger case, but that doesn’t mean the former would have no case. Either way, lawsuits would likely ensue.

Here’s where the difference in legal statuses of the UMC as a whole and of the annual conference would come into play. The denomination as a whole is not a legal person able to own property or bring lawsuits to claim property; the annual conference (or at least its board of trustees) is.

Since the annual conference is generally the body tasked with enforcing the trust clause on local churches, a departing annual conference would have no incentive to enforce that clause on its churches on behalf of the denomination it was leaving. Thus, it’s safe to assume churches that wanted to leave with the annual conference would not face trust clause property barriers from that annual conference.

However, a local church or factions within a local church that wanted to stay with the denomination probably could sue to sever their trust clause obligations to the departing annual conference, arguing that they were instead being faithful to their trust clause obligation to the denomination.

One of the questions they would face in making their case would be how the situation could be remedied under a legal settlement. In other words, they would probably have to propose joining another annual conference to remain part of the UMC, thus entangling the other annual conference and probably the jurisdiction (who has authority over annual conference boundaries) in the lawsuit.

It is also possible that either loyalist churches or individuals within the departing annual conference or an adjacent loyalist annual conferences could sue to try to gain control of the property of local churches that willingly depart with an annual conference. They would have to prove standing, as discussed last week. That is, these loyalist players would have to demonstrate that they were harmed by the departing local churches and indicate who should receive the property if it was found that the property should stay with the UMC.

The BOD makes no provisions for the transfer of local church property to another church or an individual without consent of the annual conference, so it would probably be difficult (though not impossible) for other local churches to sue to gain control of the property of churches departing with their annual conference. That property would probably need to be given to a loyalist annual conference.

Adjacent annual conferences could also sue, since under current principles of United Methodist polity, they could, with the jurisdiction’s consent, claim the territory “vacated” by the departing annual conference. Such a case might be weaker for annual conferences trying to cross jurisdictional lines to claim territory, since the BOD clearly gives jurisdictions the right to set annual conferences boundaries within their own territory.

GCFA could also use its authority to “safeguard and protect the interests and rights of the denomination,” but it is unlikely that GCFA would have the resources to bring thousands of suits against all departing congregations.

A departing annual conference could also try the reverse strategy: to sue a local church within its borders that wanted to remain in the UMC, seeking that their property be transferred to the departing annual conference. It’s not clear that the annual conference could win such a suit. It’s likely that a lot of the argument would hinge on when and to what extent the BOD applied to a departing annual conference vs. when and to what extent whatever new rules it adopted for itself were in effect.

Of course, sometimes the threat of a lawsuit is an effective tactic to force others to negotiate. Thus, even if they weren’t confident that they could win, departing annual conferences could threaten to sue loyalist local churches, hoping to provoke negotiations about financially severing the tie between the church and the annual conference.

The bottom line is, again, that there are plenty of opportunities for lawsuits. Note that I am not recommending any of the lawsuits mentioned in this piece. I am merely trying to explore some of the legal issues around property that might arise in the UMC within the tumult of the next several years with the hope that by surfacing these issues, such lawsuits can be avoided.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Recommended Viewing: The Central Conferences at the Pre-General Conference Briefing

Resource UMC has posted videos and PowerPoint slides from the presentations made at the Pre-General Conference Briefing held in Nashville on Jan. 23-24. Among the presentations are several that will be of particular interest to the readers of this blog.

A panel on "Central Conference Perspectives," including presentations by Rev. Ole Birch of Denmark, Rev. Igmedio Domingo of the Philippines, and Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. UM & Global has published a transcript of Rev. Domingo's remarks. PowerPoint slides from Rev. Domingo's presentation and from Rev. Birch's presentation are also available. Both Rev. Domingo and Rev. Kazadi Musau are signers of the Christmas Covenant, and thus this presentation gives important background into what is another significant structural plan presented to General Conference.

The panel on "Young Panel's Voice in the Church" also included two speakers from the Central Conferences: Jani Djamba of Germany and Venus Mae Gatdula of the Philippines. This panel, which focuses on the proposed restructuring of the Division of Young People's Ministries and the role of young people in the church, is another opportunity for American United Methodists to listen to the voices of United Methodists from the Central Conference before General Conference.

While presented by US representatives, portions of the panel on "Our Global Connection" are highly relevant, too. George Howard's presentation (beginning at 11:00) describes the work of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and the role of bishops in Africa. Bishop Palmer (beginning at 14:00) describes the comprehensive plan for adding bishops to Africa. Bishop Palmer's slides are also available. Dee Stickley-Miner I(beginning at 20:45) describes work on the General Book of Discipline.

Finally,  Rev. Dr. Kyle Tau discusses the ecclesiology statement "Sent in Love" in his presentation, starting at 1:30. His presentation will be of interest to those following UM & Global's series assessing "Sent in Love."

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Obituary of The United Methodist Church

Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.

There are several petitions before the 2020 General Conference proposing various separations, divisions, and even dissolutions of The United Methodist Church. If this marks the end of the UMC, what will its legacy be? What would the obituary of the UMC look like? Let us imagine:

Surrounded by family and friends, The United Methodist Church took its last breath on May 5, 2020. United Methodist is survived by its parent, The Methodist Church of Great Britain, older sibling churches African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Free Methodist, The Wesleyan Church, and Church of the Nazarene; numerous daughter autonomous churches in Korea, Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore, Bolivia, Peru, Cuba, India, Puerto Rico, and other offspring.

Born in Dallas, Texas on April 24, 1968, to parents The Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church, The United Methodist Church (nicknamed the UMC) had a happy childhood growing up in an ecumenical community. United Methodist’s birth allowed for the fuller integration of African American churches into the family.

In its formative years, the UMC adopted the Social Principles derived from its parents, Methodist and EUB. Albert Outler played an influential role tutoring the UMC in “Our Theological Task” with the four guiding principles of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. One of the greatest values instilled in the young UMC was inclusiveness. The General Commission on Religion and Race and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women held the UMC accountable to these principles. The caucuses were formed to advocate for certain theological and racial-ethnic members of the body. The oldest was the Methodist Federation for Social Action, followed by Good News, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, MARCHA, and younger siblings such as Renewal and Affirmation.

As it grew older, there were multiple educational opportunities through 112 UM-affiliated colleges and universities—11 of them historically black institutions—and 13 seminaries. One of the UMC’s greatest achievements was launching Africa University in 1984. The UMC expanded its horizons as a global church with new mission churches in Cambodia, Honduras, Senegal, Russia, and other former Eastern Bloc countries such as Latvia and Estonia.

Although daughter churches in Latin America and the Caribbean were encouraged to become autonomous, churches in Africa and the Philippines remained part of the family. The UMC also welcomed 1 million members from the Ivory Coast.

The UMC grew up alongside the United States social movements such as Civil Rights, equal rights for women, and LGBTQ+ inclusion. After all, our tagline was “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Like any family, we lived, we loved, we cried, and we fought.

From a tender age, the UMC saw gender equality modeled, as even before its birth women earned full clergy rights in 1956. The UMC never lived up to the idea of complete gender equality, but it did make progress. The UMC witnessed the election of its first woman bishop in Marjorie Matthews in 1980, and four years later its first African American woman bishop, Leontine Kelly. Now women comprise 28% of the Council of Bishops. The number of women clergy has continued to rise, and women students now outnumber men at UM seminaries.

In the US, the UMC launched the National Hispanic Plan in 1992. Later came the Korean, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Asian Ministry Plans, and Strengthening the Black Church.  The UMC grew, responding to difficult social issues such as race, social inequality, and divorce. During the 1992 General Conference, the UMC responded to the Los Angeles race riots by launching “Shalom Zones” to strive for racial reconciliation and economic justice.

In areas of discipleship and evangelism, the Disciple Bible Study began in 1986 and was a big hit. The UMC Hymnal replaced the old Methodist Hymnal in 1989, and Mil Voces launched in 1996. The UMC loved quadrennial study commissions and two notable studies resulted in resources for the sacraments: By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery. The UMC birthed Path1 to plant new faith communities, but it wasn’t too successful and was defunded. The UMC honestly wasn’t the best at evangelism and new church starts, but there were some major successes, such as the Church of the Resurrection, Ginghamsburg, The Gathering, and Grace Church in Florida.

The UMC saw the signs of the internal divisions that would eventually lead to its demise when Good News did not like the General Board of Global Ministries’ emphasis on social justice and in 1984 started the Mission Society for United Methodists in Atlanta to send more evangelistic missionaries.

Tensions grew in the UMC’s home when all of God’s children were not equally welcome. The UMC said that it had open hearts, open minds, and open doors, but yet the LGBTQ+ community did not feel welcome, and their lifestyle was called incompatible by the Book of Disciple. Every four years, the UMC fought about this issue. Eventually, the fight became unbearable and tore the UMC apart. The ultimate cause of death was self-inflicted wounds.

The UMC lived a good life. It was far from perfect, but it did some great ministry. It built wonderful relationships. Members of the body who would never have met, interfaced through our global connection. We pray that, while the UMC is no longer with us, those who mourn its passing may find comfort in the relationships that the UMC gave us. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to UMCOR.

RIP UMC 1968-2020

Monday, February 17, 2020

Igmedio Domingo: Philippine Central Conference Perspective on the Future of The United Methodist Church

Today’s post is by Rev. Igmedio Domingo, District Superintendent of the Southwest Metro Manila District in the Manila Episcopal Area and a signer of the Christmas Covenant. The post contains remarks made by Rev. Domingo at the Pre-General Conference Briefing. They are republished here with his permission.

I am honored and privileged to represent the Philippines Central Conference in this post. We seek to assert our rights within our Connection, and our desire to be included as an equal part of the global United Methodist Church - not just seen and treated as a subordinate member of our faith community.

Our vision AS A CHURCH in the Philippines is strongly founded and deeply anchored in the visionary prayer of Jesus “THAT THEY MAY BE ALL ONE” (John 17). We are one in mission, ministries, and service to all people, especially the marginalized and excluded, who are in need of God’s compassionate love.  Our vision of “unity in mission” is grounded in our unique Filipino cultural and political context wherein we continue to struggle against colonial influences. It is in our work to share the gospel of love that binds us. Our polity needs to reflect this vision.

We envision a Philippines Central Conference where human dignity, human rights, and the integrity of all people are upheld. We envision a United Methodist Church that respects and honors all, regardless of their race and ethnicity, political views, class, location, age, gender and gender identity, and sexual orientation. I believe that being Wesleyan means that we extend grace and love to all. We need to work for a church that promotes the highest standard of equality, justice, and fairness. There is too much arrogance, division, violence, and hate in our society and unfortunately, even in our church. Our division has brought so much agony, frustration, and pain in the body of Christ. Thus, our witness and mission to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world have suffered.

Extrajudicial killings, the murder of innocent lives, political and economic oppression, and even the murder of church people fighting for justice are the historical elements that continue to inspire us in the Philippines to raise our voices in this season before General Conference, that WE ARE STRONGLY UNITED, WE ARE DEEPLY ENGAGED IN MISSION and STRONGLY COMMITTED IN SERVICE.

As a central conference, we have a distinct missional context. We have a diverse culture with many languages. We minister in a country of 1,641 islands. We have three episcopal areas: Baguio (Ilocano region), Manila (Tagalog region), and Davao (Visayan region). We have differences in culture, location, language, and theological leanings, but we are united in being United Methodists. Our voice as a central conference has to be heard and our context understood and respected. Central conference perspectives should not be an afterthought. In fact, we should be an equal partner at the table envisioning the future of the church, and not just an audience whose perspectives are being asked after others have made plans and decisions that affect our mission work. This demands equity and respect.

Whatever happens after GC2020, I can assure you that the Philippines Central Conference will remain part of The United Methodist Church.

As a central conference of United Methodists in the Philippines, we are intensely opposed to any move that dissolves the United Methodist Church. We value the witness of the early church as shown in the book of Acts of the Apostles, wherein division and schism were avoided and unity in mission was their highest aspiration.

The PHILIPPINE CENTRAL CONFERENCE College of Bishops passed a UNITY STATEMENT dated last August 31, 2019. This statement strongly embraced Unity in Mission and also promotes our desired structural legacy that we can be proud of, namely:

1.    Locality or contextuality: that is why we have local churches, annual conferences and central conferences; being responsive to our missional context is obligatory.

2.    Connectionality in relationships; that is why there is a General Conference and a Council of Bishops; having a global identity and organic structure are necessary.

3.    Globality in inclusiveness; that is why the UMC reaches out in mutual relations with all governments and civil communities that promote Christian values and principles. Wesley said: “The world is my parish.”

It is clear to us in the Philippine Central Conference that a church empowered by God’s dynamic spirit and biblical wisdom requires that these structural legacies be maintained and promoted in any restructuring of the UMC. These principles are all opposed to the move to dissolve or splinter the UMC.

To support effective mission work across the connection, our Philippines Central Conference College of Bishops has recommended the following, and I quote:

1.    “The UMC is to be restructured into regional conferences, within which will remain central and jurisdictional conferences, annual conferences and local churches.

2.    “The UMC will remain as one global church in which regional, annual and local conferences are organic parts; but have the authority to decide their witness, mission and ministry, thus, preserving locality and connectionality.

3.    “The Council of Bishops shall be retained as both the living organic symbol of the globality of the UMC; and the mechanism for general and local oversight over all the UMC.

“These elements for restructuring the UMC will both preserve the organic integrity and identity of the UMC and make it free and responsive to the new world that is aborning.”

Parallel to this Resolution, the Rev. Jonathan Ulanday, a GC delegate from the Davao area, submitted a Petition dated September 18, 2019, entitled “Oppose Dissolution and Preserve the Unity of The United Methodist Church”. We believe keeping the UMC united against dissolution and schism is affirmed by the Preamble and Articles 4, 5, and 6 of The UMC Constitution.

This petition highlights the following principles that promote the unity and inclusiveness of the church described in the Preamble and Articles 4, 5, and 6 of The UMC Constitution:

1.    “Any form of structure and relationship that defines and treats one part of the church as a mere extension of another is colonial in nature and unjust.

2.    “Contextualization is a missional, structural, and connectional endeavor that is an expression of our historical unity and core heritage, church order, and discipline.

3.    “The diversity of our ministry and cultural contexts is real, but unity rooted in fulfilling the mission of the church can be maintained by identifying such differences and allowing for contextual authority to be exercised equitably by both central and jurisdictional conferences, or any regional structure formed by General Conference.”

This petition asks General Conference to:
1.    “Suspend all actions furthering any dissolution, disaffiliation, and separation plans in favor of preserving the unity of the church in compliance with our Constitution and the biblically founded values of unity, inclusiveness, and redemptive grace and mission in our Preamble, also the wisdom and practice of contextual central conference authority (Par. 31.5, Par. 31.6, and Par. 543).

2.    “Authorize the Connectional Table and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to jointly study and submit a report with proposals to the next General Conference session that preserves and strengthens the unity of the church in mission through a restructured polity that affirms and values broad contextual ministry policies and practices, including parity in contextual authority among existing central and jurisdictional conferences and/or any future regional bodies established by General Conference.”

As I close let me share a bit about the Christmas Covenant. Together with Rev. Dr. Betty Kazadi here and other central conference GC delegates and alternate delegates, I am a signatory to the Christmas Covenant. The Christmas Covenant is a vision coming from our central conferences that is guided by this frame, and I quote:

“As United Methodists from central conferences, we envision a Church that connects globally, engages in mission together, respects contextual ministry settings, celebrates the diversity of God’s creation in its many beautiful expressions, and values mutually empowering relationships in order to strengthen our core mission of evangelism, discipleship, and social witness for the transformation of the world. This is our covenant.”

The Christmas Covenant legislation will focus on establishing a regional conference structure for the future United Methodist Church. This legislation has been sent by the Philippines Annual Conference – Cavite to the General Conference. Possibly, it will be the only restructure proposal from central conferences. We are claiming our place at the table.

As we draw closer to General Conference this May, may we be one in prayer and strongly sustain our position to stand for UNITY IN MISSION, EVEN IF IT IS A RISK-TAKING MOVE. In any event, the Philippines Central Conference will seek to sustain ourselves and be part of The United Methodist Church.

Friday, February 14, 2020

"The Christmas Covenant and the Protocol complement each other"

The most significant piece of news in the UMC this week is undoubtedly the actions of the Philippines Annual Conference - Cavite, although many may have missed the significance. The PAC Cavite, meeting this week from the 12th through the 14th, passed two pieces of legislation on to the General Conference: the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation and the Christmas Covenant legislation. UMNS has this report about the conference's actions.

It is significant not only that PAC Cavite was the first annual conference to send the Protocol to General Conference, but that it sent the Protocol and the Christmas Covenant legislation together. The legislation for the Protocol has been critiqued in US social media for failing to include provisions for regionalization or the repeal of the Traditionalist Plan. That legislation focuses solely on the process of creating new denominations out of the UMC and asset division among them.

While the text for the Christmas Covenant legislation has not yet been released, the principles of the Christmas Covenant are clear, based on the Covenant document itself and comments made in a UMNS story about the document's release. That legislation is likely to include provisions for regionalization of the church in a way that will allow each region to make whatever adaptations necessary for the missional realities of that region, including those related to the qualifications for ordination and the services offered to all members of congregations.

Thus, the Christmas Covenant supplies the mechanisms for regionalization and adaptation of UMC policies by the US that the Protocol legislation is missing. As Bishop Rudy Juan said to UMNS, "I believe that the Christmas Covenant and the Protocol complement each other, and I am glad that both are endorsed by PAC Cavite."

But PAC Cavite has done something further by linking the Christmas Covenant and the Protocol. The Christmas Covenant includes a strong call for unity and an emphasis on the mission of the church. Thus, by linking the Christmas Covenant to the Protocol, the PAC Cavite has offered a way for those in the central conferences to vote for the Protocol while affirming the unity of the church. The Protocol alone might feel like voting for separation within the church, which the central conferences are opposed to. But voting for the Christmas Covenant with the Protocol is a way to affirm as much unity as possible in the church's present situation, while also taking actions to get the church out of some of the more intractable conflicts in which it finds itself.

For these reasons, along with the basic reason that the voices of United Methodists in the central conferences deserve to be heard, when the Christmas Covenant legislation is publicly released (probably in the near future), it deserves to be regarded as a serious and significant plan for the future of the UMC, on par with any other major plan.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Rush Limbaugh, Church Division and the Future of the United States of America

Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.

From its very inception, the Methodist movement has offered a relevant message as it has attempted to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt 5: 13-14). This quest for relevance has led to a close relationship between The United Methodist Church (and its predecessors) and the United States of America. The Methodist Episcopal Church was born a year after the United States won its independence from England, has a parallel governance structure, has an overlapping history with the United States, and has struggled through wars and social issues together. This parallel history, which I recount below, raises questions about the broader significance for American civil life of the current conflicts in The United Methodist Church.

Methodist Origins in the United States
Methodism was brought to America by European immigrants such as Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, and Robert Strawbridge. They opened the first Methodist societies in New York and Baltimore to minister to immigrants. Even after John Wesley began sending British missionaries in 1769, most of them left during the American revolutionary war. Of all the missionaries Wesley sent, only Francis Asbury remained and risked his life during the revolutionary war, thus beginning the intertwining history of American Methodism.

Following independence, Asbury took a very American stance by refusing Wesley’s order to be named a superintendent and submitted himself to a democratic vote by the American preachers at the Christmas Conference in 1784. And so the Methodist Episcopal Church was born just one year after the war of independence. Just as in the U.S. Constitution, United Methodist polity has three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial.

As the nation grew, so did American Methodism. The nation expanded west into the frontier, Circuit Riders accompanied the settlers, and the parallels continued.

Division over Slavery
As the nation and the church both grew, American Methodism reflected the conflicts and struggles of the nation. The Book of Discipline opposed preachers owning slaves, so when Bishop James Andrew of Georgia inherited enslaved Africans, a formal complaint was filed, and he was suspended from his duties. Delegates from the American south met in 1845 to start the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and split the church. This was a foreshadowing of national conflict over slavery. The Civil War began in 1861 and, over the next four years, claimed 618,222 lives – by far the greatest toll of any war in American history. There were Methodists who fought on both sides.

Northern and southern Methodists were also active during the reconstruction period, founded orphanages, schools, hospitals, and many Methodist educational institutions. In fact, it was this missional collaboration that led to dialogue toward unification in 1939. 

The Central Jurisdiction and Integration
This was during the Jim Crow era, and so the 1939 unification of the Methodist Church allowed for the creation of the Central Jurisdiction—a racially segregated jurisdiction for African American churches. Nevertheless, America began a slow and painful journey toward integration and American Methodism was in the middle of the struggle.

The owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, a Methodist, invited Jackie Robinson, who attended a Methodist Church in Pasadena, California, to break the color line in Major League Baseball. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began when a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rosa Parks, was arrested for not giving up her seat to a White man. Methodist and later United Methodist Civil Rights leaders such as James Farmer, Joe Lowery, and James Lawson played significant roles in the movement.

As a denomination living through the Civil Rights movement, it became clear that the Central Jurisdiction was increasingly out of step with American values and Methodist beliefs. The Central Jurisdiction ended in 1967, just in time for the Uniting Conference of 1968, where the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church joined to become The United Methodist Church.

Rush Limbaugh and Big Tent Methodism
The newly merged United Methodist Church reflected what many referred to as “big tent Methodism” – a tradition with members from a variety of social backgrounds and political beliefs. Yet, The United Methodist Church has continued to parallel the struggles of American society on many social issues, as has become increasingly clear in recent years.

At the February 4, 2020 State of the Union Address, President Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Limbaugh, a United Methodist, is a conservative radio talk-show host perhaps most known for his 2012 comments in a national health care debate when another United Methodist, Sandra Fluke, a United Methodist pastor’s daughter, testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee about her struggle to have Georgetown University’s student health insurance cover birth control. Limbaugh criticized Fluke as a “slut” and “prostitute,” claiming that the American taxpayer should not have to pay for her to have sex. Limbaugh later apologized, but this public dispute illustrated the political and social distance between United Methodists on issues such as health care. I personally condemn Limbaugh’s choice of words and his participation in misogynistic and racist conspiracy theories, but I hope that the church can be a place where diverse people can find a spiritual home that allows them to be exposed to those whom hold differing views and thus grow in their love for one another.

More recently, a formal complaint was made by some United Methodists to Bishop David Graves of the Alabama-W. Florida Annual Conference as one of his members, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions carried out the Trump administration’s family separation policy that violated the UMC’s stance to “oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other…” (UM Book of Discipline-2016). Bishop Graves dismissed the charges against Sessions, stating that “a political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy.”

Just as the struggle over slavery divided the Methodist Episcopal Church before the Civil War, I fear that a division within the United Methodist Church could be a precursor to another U.S. Civil War. If our denomination has been broad enough to have divergent perspectives under the same big tent, we can remain together over human sexuality. There are so many other areas of history, doctrine, and polity that unite us that we should not let human sexuality be the divisive issue. The people of the UMC can learn to have civil and respectful conversations about human sexuality as a witness to the U.S. and the world. Splitting will not get rid of the practices that we disagree with; they will continue but under different denominations. We are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. If United Methodists split and two or three distinct denominations emerge, this is not a good foreshadowing for the nation whom we have mirrored at every stage of U.S. history.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: Annual Conferences and Jurisdictions

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.

While the vast majority of UMC assets are held by local churches, annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences have important roles in managing UMC assets held in trust for the denomination (as described last week). In addition, annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences, as incorporated “legal persons,” own assets themselves, which are also held in trust for the denomination.

Perhaps the most interesting question regarding annual conference and jurisdictional assets related to possible futures of the UMC is what would happen to these assets if a US annual conference or jurisdiction were to leave the denomination.

Based on samples of 10 annual conferences in the US, the assets owned by the annual conferences run a range from $15 million up to $100 million in net assets. Most annual conference net assets were in the $15-50 million range. This represents between 3-7% of the total assets within an annual conference’s area. Since districts tend to own little if any property, this means that over 90% of the assets in any given annual conference are still in its local churches.

Jurisdictions also have some assets. Based on publicly available information for four out of the five jurisdictions, they each have between $300,000 and $1,200,000 in assets, almost entirely in financial rather than tangible form. No information on assets was publicly available for the Western Jurisdiction, but it seems likely that their numbers are similar to the other jurisdictions. Again, the trust clause applies to these jurisdictional assets as well.

Currently, the Book of Discipline makes no provisions for a US annual conference or jurisdiction to leave the denomination. There are provisions for central conferences and/or their annual conferences to become autonomous, but these apply only outside the US. Certainly, GC2020 could add a provision for US annual conferences to exit the denomination (as in the Protocol), but for now, there is no provision.

An annual conference or jurisdiction could, nonetheless, declare itself independent of the UMC, and such a scenario is not completely implausible in the current situation of the church. There have been rumblings of such a plan from the Western Jurisdiction or parts thereof, but it is also possible that a traditionalist annual conference could try to exit the UMC, as Tom Lambrecht has submitted legislation to allow that.

By departing with its property, an annual conference or jurisdiction would be breaking its trust to the UMC. The BOD is not clear, however, who would have the job of enforcing the trust clause against a departing annual conference or jurisdiction. This raises the legal question of standing. Not just anyone could try to sue to reclaim that property on behalf of the UMC. Suit could only be brought by a person or entity with standing, a legal term that essential means a valid interest in the case.

To determine standing, courts usually ask whether the party bringing the lawsuit has been harmed by the actions of another, and whether that harm could be redressed by a court ruling in their favor. Thus, to prove standing, a United Methodist entity would have to prove that they were financially or in some other way harmed by the departing annual conference taking their property, and that the situation could be made better by giving the property to someone else.

As it turns out, there are a variety of possible entities that might have standing in such a case. ¶2509.2 of the BOD says, “Any denominational unit authorized to hold title to property and to enforce trusts for the benefit of the denomination may bring suit in its own name to protect denominational interests.” That is a potentially broad category.

The entity with the best case for standing in a lawsuit against a departing annual conference would be that annual conference’s jurisdiction, who could make the case that the loss of the assets of that annual conference interfered with the jurisdiction’s ability to provide United Methodist spiritual care for the people living within its area. The jurisdiction could then seek redress by the property of the departing annual conference being given to a neighboring remaining annual conference, who could then extend its ministry to the area vacated by the departing annual conference.

It is also possible that suit could be brought by a loyalist church within the departing annual conference, who could argue that their ability to receive United Methodist spiritual care had been harmed by the loss of the assets of the departing annual conference. The proposed redress would be the same: give the assets to a neighboring annual conference, who would then extend its ministry to the area of the departing annual conference. Such a suit might be more difficult to bring if the jurisdiction opposed it or had taken no action to reassign the vacated territory, since the jurisdiction has the right to determine the boundaries of annual conferences within its territory, not churches or the secular courts. Nonetheless, such a suit could still be brought.

A neighboring loyalist annual conference could also sue to claim the assets of a departing annual conference, but it might be more difficult to prove how they were harmed by the departing annual conference keeping their assets, since their purview for the care of the UMC’s interest covers only their own territory. Similarly, any annual conference, local church, or individual at a further distance would have more difficult time yet providing standing.

GCFA is another possibility to bring a suit. GCFA has authority “[t]o take all necessary legal steps to safeguard and protect the interests and rights of the denomination; to maintain resources related to the denominational interests of The United Methodist Church, and to make provisions for legal counsel where necessary to protect the interests and rights of the denomination.” Since annual conference property could be construed as relevant to the “interests and rights of the denomination,” GCFA could have standing to bring a suit. The proposed redress, however, would probably involve giving the assets of the departing body to a remaining body, not to GCFA itself, since GCFA only administers the general funds of the church and is not in the business of holding local church property.

An entire jurisdiction might present a more difficult situation for those remaining to try to prove standing to sue for the property of that jurisdiction, but there are still plenty of opportunities for lawsuits here. The BOD reserves the right to determine jurisdictional borders to the General Conference, which cannot itself bring a lawsuit, but it could direct some other church entity to do so. GCFA might also use its authority here to “safeguard and protect the interests and rights of the denomination.”

For both annual conferences and jurisdictions, it is possible that courts would want to avoid becoming entangled in the politics of a church split. In the absence of clear provisions within the Book of Discipline for who is supposed to enforce the trust clause on annual conferences and jurisdictions, a lawsuit related to exercising the trust clause on annual conferences themselves (not on churches) might be dismissed. Or it might be allowed to proceed. There is, however, a very clear potential for lawsuits, perhaps from a variety of parties, even if the outcome of those lawsuits is not clear.

This still leaves questions about the property of churches within a departing annual conference or jurisdiction, a topic I’ll address next week.