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.
Over the past three months, I have examined the assets of The United Methodist Church in a series of posts. I have tried to explain what those assets are, who owns them, what restrictions apply to these assets, and what might happen to them under a variety of scenarios for the future of the denomination.
Having done all this investigation, I would like to offer some concluding thoughts about United Methodist assets and how those intersect with the nature of the church.
1. UMC assets are part of a complex system that is strongly tied together and difficult to undo.
This complex system has its roots both in Western law and in Wesleyan tradition. Under Western law, property can only be owned by legal entities. Organizations can be legal entities, but as stipulated in the Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church itself is not a legal entity. Thus, UMC assets are actually owned by thousands upon thousands of separate legal entities – local churches, annual conferences, jurisdictions, central conferences, church-related institutions, and general boards and agencies. This creates a complex system of property ownership in the UMC.
That complexity is further compounded when one considers the various forms of assets – money, property, intellectual property, etc. – and the various legal restrictions that the Western legal system places or allows individuals and groups to place on the use of these different forms of assets. These restrictions include endowments and donor-designated gifts.
Finally, all this complexity is tied together by the trust clause, which binds all these assets to the UMC. The trust clause, in combination with legal restrictions on how various assets can be disposed of, makes it very difficult to simply untangle the present system of UMC assets. This difficulty is in part exactly what Wesley wanted when he instituted the trust clause and in part a function of how institutions and financial systems developed over the course of the 20th century.
2. The chances for lawsuits abound in any attempt to undo the system of UMC assets.
Because the present system of UMC assets is difficult to undo, any attempts to undo it run the risk of being challenged in court. This danger reflects in part the role of Western law in holding together the system. But it also reflects two other factors:
First, different actors in the UMC have different incentives and goals when it comes to undoing the current financial system. Thus, there is no consensus about how to undo the system, leading different actors into conflict with one another.
Second, especially in the United States, the courts are where many financial conflicts are carried out. When US Americans cannot agree on something involving money, they sue each other. Thus, conflict among US American United Methodists about money is likely to lead to lawsuits.
Of course, while it may not be possible for all United Methodists to come to a consensus on issues regarding assets, well-crafted General Conference legislation that clarifies the financial rights and responsibilities of all parties and that is passed by a substantial majority of delegates can reduce the chances of lawsuits.
3. A variety of parties in the UMC can make legitimate ethical arguments about their claim to UMC assets. These ethical arguments usually overlap with self-interest.
Whether it is local congregations wanting to keep their building no matter what, annual conferences wanting to keep church buildings, United Methodists wanting to leave the denomination, or United Methodists wanting to stay in the denomination, most parties in debates about ownership and control of United Methodist assets are able to articulate ethical arguments that draw upon central moral rhetoric around fairness, equality, etc.
Yet these ethical arguments rarely reach the same conclusion, and the conclusions that different parties draw from their arguments tend to be ones that benefit themselves financially. Thus, ethical reasoning and financial self-interest usually go hand-in-hand in the positions that United Methodists take in these financial debates.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the arguments people make are solely about self-interest. People do use significant and long-standing moral and ethical concepts in their decision-making. It is impossible to reduce the arguments that people make about UMC assets to either pure ethics or pure self-interest.
Instead, we are left with what I hope this series as a whole has shown: the church is a mix of the human and the divine. We pursue heavenly ends, but we use and must use earthly ends to pursue them. Our experience of the church reflects both our deeply held religious convictions and spiritual experiences but also the contentious politics, the drudgery of everyday tasks, the difficulty of gray decisions, and the scrounging for resources that is part of being human.
Part of me wishes that it was otherwise: That the church was a perfect place that reflected only the best of people and was free of infighting and the need to pay the electric bill. Yet part of me recognizes that if the church is to be a place where we work out our sanctification, it must be a place not only of holiness but humanity. Unless we can face the fullness of humanity in our churches and still love our fellow humans as God does, how can we do so in the world? Yet, it is to this very task that God calls us. Let us trust God’s wisdom in arranging it so.