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How a local United Methodist Church left the UMC after December 31, 2023 and kept its Property

On January 2, 2024, I blogged about options that local churches have to leave the United Methodist Church after a disaffiliation process used by some Annual Conferences ended on December 31, 2023. Recently, we successfully helped another former United Methodist Church exit the denomination through the application of neutral principles of law in Massachusetts.

This is the story of Chilmark Community Church located on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and its exit from the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

History of Chilmark Community Church, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Founded in the early 1800’s, Chilmark Church began as an unincorporated religious society. In 1829, John Hancock and his wife Mary Hancock conveyed a parcel of land located on the north side of Middle Road in Chilmark, Massachusetts to the then Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Chilmark. Thereafter, on or around March 5, 1910, members voted to raise funds for a new building and move to a new location. Since moving to 9 Menemsha Crossroad, Chilmark Church has held sole title and uninterrupted possession of the Property. For 113 years, the Methodist Trust Clause has never been included in the deed of the current property.

Chilmark Church has utilized its property and maintained it without financial assistance from the New England Conference of the UMC. Chilmark Church has no debt, nor has it ever requested or received any grants or loans from the Conference or the UMC.  Yet the Chilmark Church paid its apportionments on time and in full every year for decades. Over the decades, Chilmark Church has changed its name several times and in 1982, the Trustees changed it to its current name (“Chilmark Community Church”), for purposes of being more inclusive to all people.  In 2019, the General Conference of the UMC passed a resolution for disaffiliation or “exit plan” for local churches to leave the denomination based on reasons of conscience regarding human sexuality.  As early as mid-2019. Chilmark Church sought to pursue this avenue. Priding itself as being an open and progressive church, Chilmark’s congregation had been disturbed by the UMC’s actions.

The Conference Blocked Chilmark’s Amicable Request for Disaffiliation

Between 2019 and January 2023, several unique factual circumstances occurred that left Chilmark Church lacking in pastoral leadership, which largely contributed to the Church’s gradual initiation of the discernment process. Further, during this time as well, the COVID-19 pandemic occurred and in March 2020 a lockdown ensued.  Chilmark Church closed its doors and halted all in-person sessions and meetings for 2 years until April 2022. Once reopened and with no pastor, Chilmark Church was led by the laity while it awaited another appointment.  However, in July 2022, the district superintendent left, and a new one replaced him. By September 2022, former pastor Rev. Dr. Charlotte Wright (UCC clergy), was asked by the congregation to return (via contract not through appointment) to serve at Chilmark Church.

On January 8, 2023, Chilmark Church held a congregational meeting where to gauge members’ position on disaffiliation. There was a unanimous vote to begin the discernment process for exiting the UMC. Nevertheless, a day after the congregation voted to initiate disaffiliation, Rev. Dr. Wright contacted District Superintendent to notify her of the church’s unanimous decision. The District Superintendent responded stating the Church missed a deadline on August 1, 2022, allegedly designated to start the disaffiliation process for the 2023-year end.  However, neither the District Superintendent, the Conference, nor anyone else notified Chilmark Church of this August deadline, which was also never publicly posted. Rather, Chilmark Church relied on the official December 2023 deadline for disaffiliation, the date UMC publicly made available and provided in written materials to churches.

Thus, after a convoluted process of negotiating with the Conference, Chilmark Church was instructed by the District Superintendent to submit a resolution to the Annual Conference meeting.  If voted through, the resolution allowed Chilmark Church to continue the discernment process to meet the December 2023 deadline. However, in June 2023, the Annual Conference voted against Chilmark Church’s resolution because it would require a change of policy and a Special Session for ratification in the fall.  Consequently, the Conference ended any means within its denomination for Chilmark Church to exit through disaffiliation. Left with no other options, Chilmark Church filed suit against the Conference in Massachusetts Land Court to ensure it holds exclusive ownership over its property.

The Lawsuit and Resolution

On August 8, 2023, Chilmark Community Church, Inc., filed suit in the Land Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, seeking to quiet title to its property. On or about September 6, 2023, the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church filed its Answer, Affirmative Defenses, Counterclaims, and Answers to Interrogatories.  As for its Counterclaim, the Defendant asserts a claim for quiet title as well over the Property and injunctive relief.  

For the Conference to prevail in this matter, it would have to validate an implied trust clause premised solely on religious doctrine.  Validating such a claim would require a court to ignore the explicit lack of evidence establishing Chilmark Church’s intent to create this trust, which would be in direct contravention of Massachusetts statutory trust law. Massachusetts’s civil judiciary explicitly adopted the neutral principles of law approach, established by the United States Supreme Court in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 565 (1979), as the method to resolve religious property disputes. Antioch Temple Inc. v. Parekh, 383 Mass. 854, 866 (1981), (quoting Jones, at 604).  By doing so, the courts apply secular provisions of state law, rather than defer entirely to a denomination’s doctrine and internal tribunals.  Under this approach, Massachusetts courts can ascertain issues of title, consent, and mutual intent of parties, while remaining within constitutional limitations under the First Amendment.

The state of Massachusetts follows Jones Court’s neutral principles of law analysis to address and adjudicate religious property disputes.  The Massachusetts Supreme Court expressly adopted such method holding, “we have jurisdiction over church property disputes if and to the extent, and only to the extent, that they are capable of resolution under ‘neutral principles of law’, i.e., well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges.” Maffei v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, 449 Mass. 235, 243; 867 N.E. 2d 300 (2007), quoting Jones, at 603.

As in Jones, under this method, “if a dispute can be resolved without inquiry into matters of religious doctrine or polity, a court may examine such sources as ‘(a) statutory provisions governing the holding of property by religious corporations; (b) the constitutions and by-laws of the religious organization involved, especially in so far as they pertain to the ownership and control of church property; and (c) the deeds to the property in question…” Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston v. Rogers, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 519, 523 (2015).  Additionally, by adopting the neutral-principles approach, a State “need not defer to the resolution of an authoritative tribunal of a hierarchical church.”  Antioch Temple Inc. v. Parekh, 383 Mass. 854, 866 (1981), (quoting Jones, at 604). 

Irrespective of whether the UMC is a hierarchical system, the law incorporated by Massachusetts courts holds neutral principles of law applies “even when a hierarchical church does maintain a tribunal for the resolution of intrachurch controversies.” Antioch Temple, 383 Mass., at 866. As such, for the Land Court to resolve this controversy, it must examine property-related sources under secular principles of state property and trust law. Such sources would include (a) statutory provisions regarding the holding of property by religious corporations; (b) the constitutions and by-laws of the religious organizations involved; (c) and deeds to the property at issue. Antioch Temple, at 867. 

The Conference relied solely on the provisions under its Book of Discipline as the basis for its interest to the Property. Specifically, the Conference invoked the UMC’s asserted trust clause found under paragraph 2501 of the Discipline. Moreover, the Conference alleges Chilmark Church violated the Discipline by adopting its own bylaws, filing articles or organization, and providing a succession of title to the Property. Again, by claiming it is hierarchical, the Conference attempts to diminish Chilmark Church’s legal rights to incorporate and establish its own governance. In short, the Conference’s argument would require the Court to defer entirely to the Discipline. 

The Church relied on state law arguing that the degree of deference sought by the Conference would unnecessarily incorporate religious doctrine and polity into a matter than can be resolved through neutral principles of trust and property law. As provided under Jones, employing a “compulsory deference” approach would always require civil courts “to examine polity and administration of a church to determine which unit of government has ultimate control over church property.” 443 U.S., at 605.  By doing so, civil courts would consequently always violate the First Amendment.  “The neutral-principles approach, in contrast, obviates entirely the need for an analysis or examination of ecclesiastical polity or doctrine in settling church property disputes.” Id., at 605.  Thus, where examination of religious documents may be required, through neutral principles of law, “a civil court must take special care to scrutinize the document in purely secular terms,” not canon law. Id., at 604; see also, Maffei, 449 Mass., at 244 (finding courts cannot “examine the actual status or disposition of church property under canon law…”).  Examination of the Discipline in pure secular terms only reveal the Conference’s interest in the Property has never been established in a “legally cognizable form.” Id.

During the course of the lawsuit, the Parties agreed to engage in mediation to resolve this matter and ultimately, the parties reached an amicable resolution whereby the Church retained its property. Additional information can be found in the Vineyard Gazette.


More often than not, state courts affirm the legal principle that Churches are corporations subject to state corporate law. Further, under state trust law, the Methodist Trust Clause is simply unenforceable. The caveat to this conclusion is that each state reviews the law separately from the other, and each local church, and each local church property is unique unto itself.

Given the uncertainty of the United Methodist Church at the General Conference 2024, we expect more churches that have been waiting to see what is next for them, will find more of the same after the General Conference and look for a way out of the denomination. This story is an example of one such successful exit from the denomination.

If you would like to discuss your matter with us, please contact Dan Dalton at Dalton & Tomich PLC to help guide your church to a new beginning outside of the United Methodist Church denomination.

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