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)
Stephan von Twardowski (stephan.twardowski (at) │ 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.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: Who Owns Them?

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.

There has been a lot of discussion about the “assets” of The United Methodist Church related to the possibility of a division within the church. What will happen to those assets has become a topic of debate, with varying proposals part of the different plans.

Yet before United Methodists make plans to divide their assets, it is important to come to a clearer understanding of just what those assets are and how they may (or may not) be disposed of in the future. Thus, this is the first post in an on-going series about UMC assets.

First, it’s important to explain two critical legal frameworks that impact all United Methodist assets: the concept of legal personhood and the trust clause.

Under most countries’ property laws, assets can only be owned by “legal persons,” a lawyerly term meaning both actual humans and government-recognized entities such as corporations. The United Methodist Church is not a human, with the exception of individuals who own property in trust for unincorporated local churches (more on that in a future post), and it does not have legal claim over the assets owned by any of the humans associated with it. Thus, when we’re talking about United Methodist assets, we’re mostly talking about the assets of government-recognized non-human legal entities, which in the US usually take the form of 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations.

But there is a very important point to be made about assets and legal entities within the UMC. The United Methodist Church as a whole is not a legal entity itself, as ¶141 of the Book of Discipline makes clear:

“These terms [“The United Methodist Church,” “the general Church,” “the entire Church,” and “the Church”] refer to the overall denomination and connectional relation and identity of its many local churches, the various conferences and their respective councils, boards and agencies, and other Church units, which collectively constitute the religious system known as United Methodism. Under the Constitution and disciplinary procedures set forth in this Book of Discipline, “the United Methodist Church” as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office, or location. Conferences, councils, boards, agencies, local churches, and other units bearing the name “United Methodist” are, for the most part, legal entities capable of suing, and being sued, and possessed of legal capacities.” (emphasis added)

Thus, The United Methodist Church as a whole does not directly own any assets, since the church as a whole is not a legal entity capable of owning assets.

Thus, when people are talking about the fate of UMC assets, what they’re really talking about is the assets owned by local churches (and associated entities), annual conferences (and associated entities), jurisdictional and central conferences (and associated entities), and boards, agencies, and other general church legal entities. There is not some pool of money out there separate from the assets of these specific groups.

While the UMC as a whole does not own assets, all of the assets of each of these groups are held in trust for the UMC as a whole. This is the famous “trust clause” of the UMC, which reads, in part:

“All properties of United Methodist local churches and other United Methodist agencies and institutions are held, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination, and ownership and usage of church property is subject to the Discipline. … In consonance with the legal definition and self-understanding of The United Methodist Church (see ¶ 141), and with particular reference to its lack of capacity to hold title to property, The United Methodist Church is organized as a connectional structure, and titles to all real and personal, tangible and intangible property held at jurisdictional, annual, or district conference levels, or by a local church or charge, or by an agency or institution of the Church, shall be held in trust for The United Methodist Church and subject to the provisions of its Discipline. Titles are not held by The United Methodist Church (see ¶ 807.1) or by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, but instead by the incorporated conferences, agencies, or organizations of the denomination, or in the case of unincorporated bodies of the denomination, by boards of trustees established for the purpose of holding and administering real and personal, tangible and intangible property.” (Book of Discipline ¶ 2501; emphasis added)

In other words, the UMC as a whole doesn’t own anything, but ownership by specific UMC-related legal persons is subject to the provisions of The Book of Discipline. This applies to most famously to local churches, but also to districts, annual conferences, jurisdictions, and boards and agencies.

There are different amounts of property at each of these levels, though. US local churches, districts, and annual conferences collectively owned $63.5 billion of property in 2018, an average of $1.2 billion per annual conference, over 90% of which is at the local church level. All five jurisdictions together held less than $4 million in property, though corporate entities related to the jurisdictions held additional assets. The apportioned funds, Africa University, and the apportionment-supported general boards and agencies collectively had $621 million in net assets in 2018, or about half the property in an average annual conference. The vast majority of UMC assets, then, are in the form of local church property.

The trust clause may or may not apply to other UMC-related entities like colleges and hospitals. ¶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,” yet it continues, “It is recognized that there are numerous educational, health-care, and charitable organizations that traditionally have been affiliated with The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations, which are neither owned nor controlled by any unit of the denomination.” It depends upon the specifics of each entity’s articles of incorporation, as a future post will elaborate.

While The United Methodist Church is not a legal entity capable of owning assets, General Conference can make rules that impact the assets owned by units of The United Methodist Church that are legal entities. General Conference can do so by inserting such rules into the Book of Discipline, which functions as a legal document for local church, conference, and agency government.

One well-known example of General Conference exercising such power is the restriction on agencies investing in companies that engage in businesses contrary to the Social Principles. ¶717 reads, in part: “United Methodist institutions shall endeavor to avoid investments in companies engaged in core business activities that are not aligned with the Social Principles through their direct or indirect involvement with the production of anti‐personnel weapons and armaments (both nuclear and conventional weapons), alcoholic beverages or tobacco; or that are involved in privately operated correctional facilities, gambling, pornography or other forms of exploitative adult entertainment.” There are a variety of other examples of such rules.

Thus, it is possible that General Conference 2020 (or any other General Conference) could, by normal legislation, insert provisions into the Discipline that would allow or even require legal entities that are part of the system of The United Methodist Church to transfer assets to other legal entities not part of the UMC, such as successor denominations or departing congregations, thereby effecting a division of assets. It is also possible that doing so might conflict with the fiduciary responsibility of such legal entities to use their assets for the purposes stipulated in their charters. Part of the question hinges on whether this process would involve the transfer of the trust (more likely allowable, since the legal entity would continue as is) or the transfer of parts of the entity's assets (less likely allowable, since it could violate the charter).

Of course, agencies, annual conferences, and congregations routinely make grants to support the ministry of non-United Methodist legal entities (partner denominations, non-UMC nonprofits, etc.), and such units of the church could certainly make grants to support the ministry of departing portions of the denomination, if they so chose and if those grants fit within the designated missional purposes of those agencies and annual conferences. However, such grants would be at the discretion of the (still-UMC-affiliated) agency, annual conference, or congregation. It would not be required unless stipulated by General Conference by amendment to the Book of Discipline.

Barring action by General Conference, UMC assets will continue to be held in trust for the UMC as a whole, regardless of who may or may not be part of the denomination at any future point. As ¶2501.2 says, “Property can be released from the trust, transferred free of trust or subordinated to the interests of creditors and other third parties only to the extent authority is given by the Discipline.”

Editor's note: The third-to-last paragraph of this article has been updated from its original version in response to reader feedback.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Benjamin L. Hartley: Becoming One, Becoming Holy: A Response to “Sent in Love”

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley. Dr. Hartley is Associate Professor of Christian Mission at the College of Christian Studies at George Fox University. He also blogs at 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.

“There has never been a time in greater need of a compelling articulation of the message of holiness.” So begins the 2006 “Holiness Manifesto,” crafted by the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium (now called the Wesleyan Holiness Connection), an ecumenical body comprised of eighteen Wesleyan denominations in the United States, including the United Methodist Church.

At the request of the Council of Bishops, I have been honored to attend a number of annual “steering committee” gatherings with this group. I believe there is much to be learned from our Wesleyan sisters and brothers and much we United Methodists have to contribute – especially at this difficult time in our history as United Methodists.

“Sent in Love,” the recently revised United Methodist ecclesiology statement put forth by the Committee on Faith and Order, is, in part, also a kind of “holiness manifesto,” set forth at a time when there is again a great “need of a compelling articulation of the message of holiness.”

“Sent in Love” (henceforth, SIL) strikes an ecumenical tone at the very beginning, much like the previous draft, “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” did although it does not follow other ecumenical theological statements as explicitly as “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”

As a result, I think SIL portrays our Wesleyan distinctiveness better than its predecessor, and I hope that will aid in its reception by United Methodist congregations. SIL rightly stresses at the very beginning that ecumenical engagement is no extraneous add-on in our ecclesiological reflection, but is instead integral to who we are as United Methodists. “We have perspectives to contribute to a wider common Christian understanding of the church. We also learn about ourselves from other Christians and churches (SIL, paragraph 6).”

Our robust ecumenism stems not only from our denomination being a merger of Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches in 1968 but also from our global or oikoumene growth since 1968.  In these months before General Conference 2020, it is critical to remind ourselves in our prayers and in our work that we do not stand alone as individuals or as a denomination, but are part of a world Christian movement in which the Holy Spirit is working to make us all more perfect in love.

I believe SIL will be most useful for what it has to say about holiness. Holiness is an integrating and animating idea and practice too often relegated to the “ash heap” of Methodist history rather than history’s “garden” from which United Methodists may still yield abundant fruit.

In the eighteen years since I was commissioned as a deacon I have been a member of three different Annual Conferences in three different jurisdictions (Northeast, North Central, and Western). In all of the places where I have served I have been struck by the lack of attention given to holiness as an integrating and animating idea in United Methodist theological practice. I have seen this lack of attention at Annual Conference gatherings, in Boards of Ordained Ministry, and in local church preaching. I am also convinced that this is not only a problem for North American United Methodism.

I believe SIL portrays an expansive vision of what holiness is and can be in the life of United Methodist people. “Holiness is deeply personal and yet has inseparable public and social dimensions.  It is as intimate as each person’s inner experience of the pardoning and sanctifying grace of God, and as all-encompassing as God’s will for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation (SIL, pargraph 90).”

At a time when political movements inside and beyond the church seek to polarize people in various “camps,” I believe a reinvigoration of “holiness” language and accompanying practices in United Methodism has the potential to break down “dividing walls of hostility.”

That said, I am fully aware that debates about holiness have been a source of conflict in our history.  Areas of conflict will doubtless persist as they have in the church from the days of the apostles onward, but I believe that framing our disagreements in light of a common call to holiness can call forth within all of us a posture of reconciling love as we seek to model our lives after Jesus Christ, the Holy One. 

The theme of holiness resonates deeply with all four “marks” of the church discussed in SIL and does so implicitly and explicitly. I especially like the way these four marks are discussed (in Part Three) in an inverted order such that our missional impulse (apostolicity) is mentioned first and followed by catholic, holy, and one rather than the more conventional ordering.

In the ecumenical movement of the past several decades sometimes Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, “that they may be one,” has been stressed to the neglect of his prayer “that the world may believe.” By inverting the traditional ordering SIL sends a different message, one that I pray unifies us around our common missional priorities instead of the issues that divide us. We are apostolic, catholic, holy, and one.   

Inspired by the ecumenical work of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection and as part of my own celebration of the Methodist missionary society centennial in 1819, I decided to organize a group of five Wesleyan pastors in my hometown to gather our congregations in weekly meetings during Lent to celebrate our common Wesleyan mission. I look forward to sharing excerpts from SIL concerning the theme of holiness during at least one of these meetings. I encourage readers to do the same in your own formal and informal efforts at living out Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one… that the world may believe. It is our holy calling.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Robert K. Greenleaf, Intersectionality, and the UMC in 2020

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.

Before my current work with Global Ministries, I served as Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College in Ripon, WI. In the Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership part of my job, I was tasked with promoting practices associated with the philosophy of servant leadership as set forth by Robert K. Greenleaf.

Greenleaf was an idiosyncratic thinker, and there are portions of his writings that clearly reflect his mid-twentieth century US context. Yet, there are portions of his thinking that have enduring value, and servant leadership is one of the main paradigms within the contemporary field of servant leadership.

The term "servant" leadership has been critiqued by women and people of color as potentially reinforcing traditional serving and servile roles for those parts of the population. While those concerns are legitimate, I believe servant leadership can function as a significant critique of white men and others who have traditionally held power (and others who currently hold it). The paradigm of servant leadership does this through its insistence that leaders consider first the impact of their actions on others, not how they can benefit themselves through their positions.

In this way, the model of servant leadership follows the example of Jesus' relationship to power, especially as set forward in Philippians 2:4-8:

4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Greenleaf, in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, laid out this test of servant leadership: “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"

These two questions - How will others benefit from your leadership? What is the impact of your leadership on the least privileged or most oppressed? - are questions we should ask all our leaders.

Yet there is a complication in the second question, one that is highlighted in the concept of intersectionality. There are multiple forms or dimensions of privilege. Wealth, education, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, nationality, tribe, religion, formal position, and a host of other factors can confer advantages to individuals and groups. Thus, the process of determining who is the "least privileged in society" is not a straight-forward one.

This is particularly true when one takes a global denomination such as The United Methodist Church as one's society. There are multiple groups within such a large and heterogeneous body that enjoy privileges denied to others, and conversely, there are many groups that are discriminated against or oppressed relative to others.

Much of the current discourse within United Methodism has focused on the oppression of LGBTQ persons, who are denied marriage and ordination relative to straight, cis-gendered persons. This is certainly a legitimate application of Greenleaf's test: How can our actions as a denomination benefit, or at least not further deprive, LGBTQ persons?

Yet, there are other oppressed groups in the church as well. A pregnant woman in Mozambique who must walk 15 miles to a hospital is also disadvantaged relative to Westerners who have (in general) much more abundant access to healthcare. An undocumented immigrant in the United States is marginalized relative to US citizens and does not have the same legal protections that they do. Indigenous peoples, whether in the Philippines, United States, Norway, or elsewhere, face social and sometimes legal stigmas not encountered by majority society. The applications of Greenleaf's second test are multiple because of the intersectional nature of privilege and oppression.

There are several unhelpful ways to respond to this complexity of power and privilege. One is to try to assert that the oppression of other groups does not matter relative to the oppression of one's own. Another is to assert that, since it is impossible to benefit all oppressed groups, the system should be left as it is, with its current set of privileges preserved.

The most helpful path of leadership in the face of these various moral claims, and probably the most difficult, is for leaders to listen to as many groups as possible and consider the impacts of their actions on as many groups as possible, in the process resisting simple or quick answers.

This is my wish for the UMC in 2020, especially as we head toward General Conference 2020: that those who are exerting leadership and making decisions as delegates, as denominational officials, and as caucus leaders behind the scenes might embrace Greenleaf's test in all its complexity.

I pray that they may consider not just how the plans and proposal they promote will benefit themselves and their constituencies, but that they may consider the impacts on the "least privileged" in whatever form they might present themselves: the transgender person in Norway, the malarial mother in the Congo, the immigrant congregation in the US, the war refugee in Germany, the potentially suicidal lesbian teen in the US, the future generations of the church everywhere who are not yet included in its decision-making.

Each of these groups has a moral claim on the leadership that our delegates, bishops, and others will exert throughout the coming year. There are no easy answers for how to handle these at times competing moral claims. But the answers we do arrive at will be better if we accept this moral challenge and recognize the complexity that lies therein.