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Disaffiliation – Is it Over?

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by Rev. Sandy Olewine, General Conference Delegate, South District Superintendent

At the 2019 Special-Called Session of the General Conference, a new paragraph was added to the 2016 Book of Discipline (BOD) that allowed congregations a limited right to disaffiliate after fulfilling legislated obligations, including provisions that could be established by each Annual Conference’s Board of Trustees. The legislation, ¶2553, allowed congregations to leave the denomination only for: disagreements over issues of (a) the practice of homosexuality, (b) the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexual persons, and (c) same-sex marriage. Unique to that legislation was an ending date for that applicability of that paragraph, which was December 31, 2023.

Across the United States, in the years between spring 2019 – the end of 2023, approximately 25% of local churches chose to leave the denomination under that paragraph. Here in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, three congregations completed the disaffiliation process before the legislation ended last year.

A question that many people are asking is whether that means disaffiliation is now over. The answer – it depends on what legislation is passed at the upcoming Postponed 2020 General Conference that will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina from April 23 – May 3, 2024.

There were numerous petitions that were submitted by the September 2019 deadline for the 2020 General Conference that would have created a variety of other means for churches to leave the denomination. With the pandemic-related postponement of the Conference, some of those pieces of legislation are no longer relevant, which is true for other legislation as well. By our current rules, the General Conference must act on all pieces of legislation before the body, even if it is to only vote non-concurrence on those that are no longer relevant.

Once the date of the postponed 2020 General Conference was finally established in 2023, new legislation was allowed to be submitted through early September last year. The Advanced Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA) supplement that contains that new legislation was released in early 2024. There are nine new legislative pieces that will come before the Conferences Committee of the General Conference that are in some way related to disaffiliation.

Two of those are updates of what was called Grace through Separation that was an effort by multiple parties in The UMC to work out a way for the denomination to separate in 2020. Due to a number of factors, much of this legislation is no longer relevant and would need serious amending to be applicable to where the denomination is today.

There are five new pieces of legislation that in some way seek to extend ¶2553. Some merely seek to change the effective end date of that paragraph to either 2026, 2027, or 2028. Two of the petitions not only extend the deadline of the paragraph but also add extensive additional directions to Annual Conferences on how disaffiliation would be handled, in particular removing all costs for any property that a congregations might wish to take when they leave.

There is also one petition that establishes a way for Annual conferences to disaffiliate from The UMC. This would only be a piece of legislation relevant to the Conferences in the US as Central Conferences already have ways to do this. Also, in case some churches that left the denomination through disaffiliation might one day seek to return, there is one petition that sets significant guidelines on how Annual Conferences would need to process such requests. Lastly, there is a petition that seeks to remove ¶2553 from all future Book of Disciplines since it was a time-limited piece of legislation.

I have the privilege of serving on the committee that, as of now, all of these pieces of legislation are assigned to. There will be vigorous conversation on these petitions. During our deliberations, one of the concerns guiding my discernment will be whether it is time to turn the page on disaffiliation so that we can turn toward a new thing that God is doing calling forth a renewed and reshaped United Methodism around the world. I look forward to hearing other committee members grounding questions as we do this important work for the future of our church. All of us will be grateful for your prayers for wisdom, compassion, and vision.