Monday, March 23, 2020

A Primer on UMC Assets: Challenges in Dividing Assets

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.

This post further explores the topic of dividing general church assets in the event of a division within The United Methodist Church. As indicated in my previous post, there are a variety of ways to define general church assets, and these different definitions are not just actuarial but reflect differing political and policy objectives. Moreover, there is an important distinction between General Conference designating future revenue to go to groups departing the denomination and General Conference asking the agencies to part with money that they already own as legal entities and have a fiduciary obligation to protect.

Within these big-picture questions about what “division of assets” actually means are a variety of equally significant procedural questions: Who negotiates the division of assets? What constitutes a fair share? And what claim do the central conferences have on general church assets?

In answering these questions, I will draw examples from the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, the New Expressions Worldwide (NEW) Plan, the Next Generation UMC Plan, a proposal by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), and legislation from the Liberia Annual Conference. While those promoting the Next Generation UMC Plan and the WCA legislation have pledged to support the Protocol instead, those plans are still useful for illustrating some of the issues involved.

Let’s begin with the question of who negotiates. In the case of the Protocol, that question has already been answered – a team of 16 people, including bishops from around the world and representatives from most major advocacy groups in the US. Much of the debate over the Protocol has been about who was and was not part of that group of 16 people. I have read commentaries from people from a variety of theo-political and social settings arguing that the group negotiating the Protocol left out representatives of important groups – liberationists, Africans, US racial and ethnic minorities, young people, laypeople, etc. Those involved in the Protocol process have responded, in part, by pointing out that it is difficult to have successful negotiations with a group size much over a dozen.

This debate over the Protocol highlights a fundamental challenge to answering the question of who negotiates – how do you have a group that is sufficiently representative while also being small enough to yield successful negotiations?

A related challenge is shown in the NEW Plan, which calls for “equitable distribution of common assets,” overseen by a Transitional Council composed of 21 people. These 21 people include the President of the Council of Bishops and five representatives from each of four successor denominations – traditionalist, centrist, progressive, and liberationist. Yet these denominations are not likely to be the same size. It is quite possible that, under this plan, 200,000 Americans could have more representation than 3.5 million Congolese, if the former were a small liberationist denomination and the latter were part of a larger centrist or traditionalist denomination, along with others.

Thus, the challenge of determining who negotiates is compounded: How do you balance having a group of negotiators that is broadly representative of all parties with the desire to make sure all parties are proportionally represented?

The issue of membership leads to the question of what constitutes a fair share of assets. The Next Generation UMC plan calls for “Grants for New Denominational Expressions of Methodism” that would be based on the number of churches, the membership, and the amount paid in apportionments for groups departing the UMC. The WCA plan provides for the division of assets based solely on membership of the successor denominations. Both past contributions and membership could be seen as “fair” criteria, but they are likely to give different results.

Moreover, one challenge for any system of division based on membership is that it gives participants an incentive to report as high membership numbers as possible. Membership figures are notoriously tricky, even in the absence of such financial motivations. US pastors already have reason to report high membership to reflect well on themselves on dashboards. There are noted differences in understanding formal membership, both internationally and within the United States. Tying large amounts of money to membership increases the chance that numbers may not reflect on-the-ground reality and therefore may be less “fair.”

Interestingly, those involved with the Protocol have said that the $25 million for departing Traditionalists and $2 million for others did not reflect some magical “fair share” calculation but rather just a number they could all agree upon.

Finally, if the UMC splits into multiple bodies, some of which do not include US Americans, what legal and ethical claims do non-Americans have on the common assets of the UMC? Regardless of where assets originally came from, are current United Methodists from outside the US entitled to some financial support if they decide to seek autonomy?

Certainly, US Americans have paid in the overwhelming majority to the apportionment system and given the most in additional gifts to the boards and agencies. Thus, most of the assets being divided were originally American assets. Yet, the trust clause does not say that the assets of the UMC are held in trust for its American members. It says that they are held in trust for the denomination as a whole, which also includes non-Americans, who are equal members of the denomination.

The Liberian Annual Conference’s legislation clearly indicates that United Methodists outside the US are entitled to some share of the denomination’s resources if there is a split. It calls for the $120 million in unrestricted general church assets (from agencies and apportionment funds) to be split evenly among the jurisdictions and central conferences. Each of these regional entities would receive about $10 million under this proposal.

Under the WCA asset division plan, the only assets that central conferences are eligible to receive if they become autonomous and unconnected to the American church are those assets associated with Africa University. Otherwise, any central conferences becoming autonomous would receive no general church assets. Yet, if the central conferences remain connected to a US successor denomination, they make a significant impact on how much assets that successor denomination receives – as much as $150 million.

Under this plan, while United Methodists in the central conferences are largely shut out of receiving assets themselves, they are very powerful players in the contest for assets among US Americans. Certainly, being such a valuable prize would give United Methodists in the central conferences some leverage in negotiating a shared future with a branch of American Methodism. Yet this arrangement could be seen as treating them as second-class members of the denomination. They are valuable, but they cannot receive that value directly themselves by becoming autonomous, and if they remain tied to the US, their value will be realized by the US-based structures of whatever denomination they stay with.

These three questions – Who negotiates the division of assets? What constitutes a fair share? And what claim do the central conferences have on general church assets? – are all tricky questions without clear answers. Where one comes down on these three questions depends on personal judgment as well as personal interest.

This does not mean that, should there be a denominational split, United Methodists should not try to figure out how to divide denominational assets. It does mean that General Conference delegates and others should not be blasé about the difficulties involved in negotiating a plan to do so.

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