This is the seventh blog in a series of discussions of informing local Methodist Churches how other churches have been able to leave The United Methodist Church denomination and retain their property.
In the first blog of this series, I outlined the Supreme Court guidelines as to how religious property disputes are to be evaluated under state law. The second blog reviewed the governance of the United Methodist Church and how the “Connectional” nature of the denomination leads it to be more “Congregational” than “Hierarchal.” In the third blog of this series, I described the history and parameters of the Trust Clause as set forth in United Methodist Book of Discipline and also noted that all property law is subject to state law and pursuant to the Discipline, State Law prevails over the requirements of the Discipline. And in the fourth blog, I briefly review concepts of state law as they relate to the enforceability of the Trust Clause, focusing on Texas as a trial court in Dallas County recently found the Trust Clause to be unenforcible in a case involving Southern Methodist University.
In the fifth blog, I dug a bit deeper into the weeds and examine Texas Statutory law and how it led a Court in Dallas County to the conclusion that the Methodist Trust Clause is unenforcible. And in the sixth blog, I addressed the issue of how local Methodist Churches located in states who have state laws and case law heavily favoring a denomination should think through a religious property dispute. In this blog, I will address what steps a local church should take when they are ready to make the move out of the denomination.
Step one. Look to the Future
The very first step to take is the leadership team of the local church should think through collectively what the Church they want to be a part of should look like five to ten years in the future. The discussion should be robust and deep – the Church should have a solid understanding of what their theology will be, who the pastor will be, what the governance of the Church should be, whether they should be part of a “connection” or if they should be purely independent and whether they are truly tied to their property. Once the leadership team has a consensus of their future plan, move to the next step.
Step two. Confirm the Pastor is on board
In the early 2000’s, the denomination hired a consultant to determine why there were so many attenders, members and donors leaving the denomination. One of the top three reasons that was provided is that there is a wide gulf between the theology of the members and those of the clergy. The report affirmed that most clergy were dramatically more liberal/progressive in their theology than the members. And the theological divide lead to a large gap between the beliefs of clergy and that of the membership.
In light of this, the leadership team needs to take the time to speak with their pastor and find out from him or her where they see the future of the local church will be five to ten years from now. If their view is different from the leadership, make sure that future plans are made without the knowledge of the pastor – and especially the District staff, Bishop and Conference staff. There are legions of examples where local churches have been closed, penalized, members and leaders removed and assets taken from local churches when clergy and conference staff report the displeasure of a congregation to the Conference.
Step 3. Work with experienced professionals who have your interest in mind.
Finally, after you have made the decision to depart from the denomination, work with professionals who are experienced in this area of the law and have your interest in mind. I have worked in almost every conference in the United States. We are brought in by leaders, or attorneys within a congregation, who need the guidance and experience to walk through these difficult matters. And we have seen the unfortunate results of Churches who try to work through this process on their own ( where they either overpay or lose their property) or work with individuals or affinity groups whose interest is more aligned with increasing membership and donor bases and not aligned with the interest of the local church. In these situations, we see the local Church paying enormous amounts for legal fees without securing the results that they need or wish to have.
We can help. We work with local counsel across the United States and lead local Methodist Churches out of the denomination. If you wish to have a call, or a zoom meeting with your leadership team, to discuss your local church – or if you have general questions regarding your state law on religious property disputes, please reach out to Daniel Dalton at Dalton & Tomich PLC to discuss your case.
You can read more about this topic in Daniel Dalton’s book, Religious Property Disputes, House of God, Laws of Man available at theAmerican Bar Association Book store or Amazon.