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Promises made, Promises Broken: How the decisions made at the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church affect local churches

In the past four years, United Methodist Bishops, District Superintendents, Clergy, and other church leaders begged local churches to stay in the denomination arguing that the negotiated 2020 “Separation Protocol,” would either pass, or something better would be available for them. Numerous sources on all three sides of the denomination told us as far back as March 2020 that institutionalist would never allow disaffiliations after 2023, and we warned anyone who would listen that this would likely be true. In doing so, we took a lot of hits from all traditionalists, centrist, and progressives, calling us fear mongers and worse.

Fast forward to the May 2024 General Conference and our warning came true. The delegates to the United Methodist Church, General Conference in 2024 voted to adopt dramatic and sweeping changes to the theology and governance of the denomination that are significant in scope and application. The local church leaders have quickly discovered that they have been lied to by their leaders about having a new path forward. As a result, leaders and pastors in traditional, centrist, and progressive Methodist churches have since reached out to our firm to find out what legal options remain for the local church to leave the denomination since the vote.

Moving forward – thinking through the bad news.

Let’s start with the bad news. The General Conference declined to adopt a disaffiliation framework and ended all attempts to provide for amicable resolutions of religious property disputes. This is very much in line with response of the Episcopal Church, who refused any type of amicable departures for local churches. As a result, local churches either litigated their way out of the denomination or walked away. That is why the Episcopal Church is largely empty and why they sought out a relationship with the United Methodist Church for a renewed ecumenical relationship.

Conversely, the Presbyterian Church, USA denomination considered the Episcopal actions, looked at the millions of members in the pews walked away from the Episcopal Church and has taken a different path. It has allowed local Presbyteries (a structure similar to Annual Conferences) to adopt “gracious separation,” plans for local churches allowing them to decide if they wish to stay or leave the denomination.

It is no surprise to me that the General Conference delegates voted to end all amicable pathways out of the United Methodist Church. The Central Conference and most Annual Conferences are largely insolvent with little in terms of income and reoccurring income streams. Therefore, they cannot afford to have more churches leave. They need to local churches – actually, their property to sell – to stay financially solvent.

Annual Conferences are also relying on the “remainders” who will still attend the local church before it closes. The remainders are those who voted to stay with the UMC. They are a mix of attenders who are genuinely more liberal in their theology, while others who may have had mixed feelings about the new theology of the denomination but who didn’t want to appear unwelcoming stay, and those whose theology is not moral or theological, but have no other place to go. It is clear that once the current generation of remainders passes, the pews will be largely empty – just like the Episcopal Church and similar other protestant denominations.

The Legal Implications of UMC General Conference 2024.

From a legal perspective there are three general categories of legal issues to consider:

  • Property disputes:  Prior to the General Conference, several Annual Conferences committed to pathways for local churches to disaffiliate if they objected to the decisions of the General Conference. Since the General Conference, the Annual Conferences have either back away from their commitments allowing for an amicable pathway for local churches to leave or are reconsidering their positions giving local churches the option to leave. This will leave state courts to decide if a local church, or a majority faction of a local church, has the right to own churches, parsonages, and other assets.
  • Employment disputes:  The language of the changed theological position concerning clergy has left open the door for a local church to now be at a significant legal risk if they choose to decline an appointment of a clergy member whose beliefs differ from their own. While laudatory promises of never sending a clergy member to a church who does not want them, expect this promise to be quickly broken. This puts the local church in the unenviable position of either accepting a clergy member whose beliefs are drastically different from their own or rejecting the clergy member and being faced with a lawsuit from the clergy member (or the state itself) over the rejection.
  • Denomination lawsuits: Expect more Annual Conferences to sue local churches, or clergy, who do not fall in line with the prevailing views of the Bishop to force the position on the local church.

Moving forward – there is some Good News.

The good news is that in most states, there is a legal path out of the denomination. This is not in all cases, but in a majority of states, a pathway under state law exists for a local church to leave the UMC and retain its property. Before pursuing the legal route, church leaders must acknowledge that litigation is a very difficult, expensive, and uncertain process. The local church may, for example, have the law and the facts on its side, but may run into a judge who ignores both and reaches an opposition conclusion based on his or her own bias as to religious property disputes. We have run into this issue in the past. Yet, litigation may be the only available option for your local church, and it may be worth your while to try this approach to save your property, rather than simply walking away and leaving everything to the Annual Conference.

If you’re interested in learning more about the legal issues surrounding the UMC General Conference 2024, please contact Daniel Dalton or one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich, PLC to discuss your specific case.

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