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.
Most of the coverage of the plans laid before the delegates of General Conference 2019 has focused on four: the Connectional Conference Plan, the One Church Plan, the Simple Plan, and the (Modified) Traditional Plan. Yet the plan most likely to pass GC2019 is none of these. The mostly likely plan to pass GC2019 is an exit plan - that is, a plan that relaxes the trust clause which states that the denomination, not local churches, owns church buildings - which could be passed without being tied to a larger piece of legislation.
First of all, none of the other plans seem a shoe-in. Even the supporters of the Connectional Conference Plan and the Simple Plan acknowledge that they do not have enough support to pass. Traditionalists in Good News seem to think that the One Church Plan has insufficient votes, though they may be underestimating their opponents. At the same time, traditionalist messaging in support of the Connectional Conference Plan and exit plans and their unwillingness to declare preemptive victory suggests they doubt their own plan has enough votes. Centrist messaging has given fewer tells, so it is unclear what their take on the situation is. Moreover, the Holy Spirit and other surprises may always happen, but at this point, it does not seem a foregone conclusion that one of the four main plans will pass.
Yet, there seems to be building momentum from a variety of places on the theological spectrum for an exit clause to be passed. Traditionalists associated with the WCA have declared their intention to leave the denomination if the Modified Traditionalist Plan is not passed (and maybe even if it is). Good News is actively advocated the adoption of one of three exit clauses. Although Uniting Methodists has called for a referral of exit plans to GC2020, it is still likely that some centrists and progressives would like to let traditionalists leave, since it would strengthen their position in the remaining denomination. It is also possible some progressives might want to leave the denomination. Thus, an exit clause could have support across a range of American United Methodists. Because there are five petitions that present exit clauses alone, each of which will be voted on separately, it is entirely possible that such a petition would pass, but that no major plan would pass in addition.
Considering this possibility leads to three questions:
1. How would delegates from the central conferences view an exit clause?
It is unlikely that an exit clause could pass without some support among central conference delegates. Relaxing the trust clause so that American churches could leave the denomination could seem to central conference delegates like Americans fighting about American money, and thus an issue without clear implications for them.
This is where the terms of the exit clause become important. "Cheap" exit clauses - ones that pay unfunded pension liabilities but which pay nothing in apportionments or even drain denominational reserve funds are likely to be less palatable to central conference delegates. Apportionment dollars fund grants and programs that central conferences depend upon. Central conference delegates might see such "cheap" exit clauses as a betrayal of their trust in American partners and a direct financial hit to their conferences. If central conference delegates do support an exit clause, it is likely to be one that includes some level of apportionment payout for departing churches.
2. Which exit clause will be approved?
There are currently five different exit clause petitions that will come before GC2019 - Brooks (Petition 90051), Tull (Petition 90056), Ottjes (Petition 90058), Boyette (Petition 90059), and Taylor (Petition 90066). That body will have the responsibility of amending and refining as many of those as they want, but they are likely to pass only one. To do more would seem redundant. Good News has indicated support of three of the five (Ottjes, Boyette, and Taylor), though it has suggested amendments to two of them (Ottjes and Taylor). The other two exit plans may also find support from different quarters.
Yet the five different plans come with different terms for exiting, which may be further amended during discussion. Key differences include the following: How broad is the exit - must an exit be tied directly to the debate over gay marriage and ordination? How long will the exit window be open? What size majority within a local church must vote for exit? Will district superintendents, bishops, annual conferences, or others outside the local church have a role in approving exit? By what calculation will exiting churches pay for their unfunded pension liabilities? Will denominational reserve funds be used to underwrite exiting churches' unfunded pension liabilities? Will exiting churches be required to pay back apportionments or even a year or two of future apportionments? A post next week will run down how the five current petitions address these and other areas.
3. What will the denomination look like after churches take the exit clause?
If an exit only plan is indeed all that is passed by GC2019, who will take that exit? While the conventional wisdom would say, "traditionalists," the question still remains how many. Moreover, will others also take the exit? Are there progressives who would like to leave as well? Are there other congregations who would like to shed their denominational ties for reasons that are not directly tied to debates over sexuality? Would any churches in the central conferences use the opportunity to exit the denomination - either because of issues related to sexuality or because of unrelated power struggles among local leaders?
When the dust settles, how many people will be left within The United Methodist Church, where will they be located, and what will their theological and spiritual inclinations be? And how much money will they continue to give toward connectional ministries through the apportionment system? The GCFA board has already recommended a 23% reduction in US apportionments for the 2021-2024 quadrennium. If substantial number of American United Methodists leave the church, this will have further deleterious effects on general agencies and other connectional ministries.
My point here is not that an exit only situation would necessarily be good or bad. I pray that God lead the church and GC2019 in their decision-making. I know that whatever decisions are made, some change will come, and change always has both good and bad aspects to it.
I do, however, think that it would behoove GC delegates and other leaders to begin thinking about what an "exit only" scenario would look like and what it would mean for the church, rather than focusing all their attention on the other plans. The more prayerful time and reflection that goes into an "exit only" plan, the better it will be, if that is indeed what comes to pass.