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Conferences diverge in handling church exits (UM News)

July 15, 2022

How much does it cost for a congregation to leave The United Methodist Church with property?

In the words of the real estate adage, the answer often comes down to “location, location, location.”

With General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — postponed to 2024, plans for a formal denomination-wide separation over theological differences are up in the air. That leaves disaffiliation decisions up to each of the 53 U.S. annual conferences — regional bodies consisting of multiple congregations.

“Critical decisions related to the forward movement of the church were pushed down from the General Conference to the annual conference level,” Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton said. 

“That immediately widened the circle of input to cabinets, boards of trustees and committees on building and location. The challenge for alignment is directly related to the widened circle of input, divergent contexts and varied circumstances.”

The conferences are all relying on the same church law — the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2553 — that offers a pathway for churches to leave with property if they meet certain financial and procedural obligations. A rule of thumb is that the bigger the church, the higher its withdrawal costs.

However, the measure also allows for variation among conferences — especially on matters of expense. 

A departing church could be on the hook for thousands to more than a million dollars depending on its size and its conference’s policies. 

For now, conferences are trying to balance two competing demands: To provide gracious exists for congregations that want to leave and to serve as responsible stewards of United Methodist resources so that pensions can be paid and disciple-making can continue. 

The Council of Bishops overwhelmingly has affirmed Paragraph 2553 as the way to strike the right balance.

“We believe that this paragraph provides a fair and equitable way for annual conferences to uniformly deal with disaffiliations,” Bickerton told UM News. “This paragraph provides a fair way for local churches to acknowledge their responsibility to meet previously made commitments to the connection.” 

Leaving the denomination always has required more than a simple congregational vote. Since the 18thcentury, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained a trust clause, which states that all church property is held in trust for the entire denomination. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, established the forerunner of the current trust clause.

The California-Pacific Conference follows the parameters of Paragraph 2553 with specific formulas around asset valuation.

“Those formulas are not about making it impossible or unaffordable for congregations to disaffiliate,” said the Rev. Karen Tannheimer, chair of the conference’s board of trustees and disaffiliation task force.  

She added that the conference’s policy “is about ensuring congregations and pastors engage in a balanced process that includes options and choices that reflect the true desires of the body.”

In a video on the conference’s disaffiliation policy, Tannheimer and California-Pacific Conference Bishop Grant Hagiya noted that clergy and lay members have a long history of working together despite disagreements. “Our region is not a utopia, but it is a place with people who love God and follow Jesus,” Hagiya said. 

Lonnie Chafin, Northern Illinois Conference treasurer and a veteran General Conference delegate, said he knows of no conference playing hardball.

“We have no wish to capture compulsory Methodists,” he said. “If a church — and not just a clergy person or the leaders, but a church — wants to leave, we will do all we can to ease their transition.”

He added that he also hopes to see conferences do what they can to promote United Methodist mission and ministry. 

“Everyone is exhausted by all this disaffiliation talk,” he said. “And we should spend our every minute emphasizing the value of the UMC to the world.”