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The United Methodist Church at a Crossroad

Since its creation in 1968, the United Methodist Church has struggled to define itself. The adaption of cultural norms and the failure to define its basic theology has resulted in a dramatic decline in membership in the denomination. In the United States, for example, membership has fallen nearly 50% since its founding.

Nearly a decade ago, the denomination retained the consulting firm of Towers and Watson to study the reason for the declining membership and to provide suggestions on how to slow down or stop the losses and reverse the trend. Despite the clear and unambiguous warnings of decline, and the winning strategies of  how to grow the denomination that were presented, the response of leadership was to pivot toward closing properties and selling assets.

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The result?

The acceleration of a rapid decline in the Methodist denomination over the past decade in the United States.

By the time General Conference delegates met in Portland, Oregon in May 2016, there was a sense that the Methodist denomination had reached a crisis point. During the second week of the conference, delegates were asked by the Council of Bishops to be empowered to create a process that could come up with some sort of plan to maintain the unity of the church, despite its deep division. This request passed and resulted, later that year, in the creation of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, consisting of prominent representatives of all the various perspectives, to try to come up with a solution.

In April 2017, the Council of Bishops formally called for a special session of General Conference, to meet in February 2019, specifically to act on recommendations growing out of that process. The Commission on a Way Forward delivered to the Bishops its final report. Some of the Bishops first tried to limit the delegates to the upcoming conference to vote up or down the One Church Plan that they supported. This decision was rejected by the Judicial Council, who, ruled that all proposals related to the “Call of the Conference,” shall be considered by the delegates to the specially called February 2019 conference.

While there are many proposals to be considered, the three main scenarios that are before the 2019 General Conference are the following:

  • The Traditionalist Model.This plan would retain current rules and strengthen measures to hold Bishops, Clergy, Conferences and Congregations accountable to the Book of Discipline. Individuals, clergy, and congregations (perhaps whole annual conferences) could be allowed to leave the denomination with their property if they are unwilling to abide by church teaching and church law.
  • The One Church Plan. This plan would remove traditional language and disciplinary rules about marriage and ordination while also incorporating protections for clergy whose conscience would not permit them to perform same-sex weddings.
  • The Connectional Plan. This plan would restructure the denomination to create two (or more) “branches” within United Methodism, along theological lines. These would function separately regarding conferences, episcopal elections, appointments and ordination, but still relate to each other under a common umbrella of bodies like the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the publishing house, or the pension board.

As an attorney for hundreds of local Methodist churches that are reconsidering their relationship with the denomination, I have been spending endless hours thinking about where the Methodist denomination is going and what it will look like after February 2019.

My prediction?  Nothing will pass at the conference.

The Traditional Plan is essentially a continuation of current policy which many Bishops simply ignore. In my view, there will be little if any enforcement of the Book of Discipline and many clergy, congregations and perhaps conferences will walk away from the denomination.  I also believe that it is not likely that the One Church Plan will be approved at the conference. The One Church Plan lacks support as many have lost confidence in the proponents of the Plan: the Bishops. Likewise, the Connectional Plan will fail as it requires a number of changes to the Methodist Constitution, and therefore would need a two-thirds majority vote by the delegates at the 2019 special conference and by all annual conferences afterward, to approve the change.  This is a very high bar and it is unrealistic that the change would occur.

The only proposal that could pass – one which delegates across the religious spectrum – agree on is the is the suspension of the “Trust Clause” in the Book of Discipline which would allow local churches to leave the denomination and keep their property without litigation.

Regardless of what happened next month at the conference in St. Louis, one thing is certain: we will see the collapse of what was a vibrant United Methodist Church denomination. As the  Towers and Watson report concludes, the denomination cannot sustain itself and the current issues dividing it will only accelerate the demise of the denomination. And just like the Episcopal, Presbyterian USA, Evangelical Lutheran and many other denominations who have debated the same issues raging within the Methodist denomination, the United Methodist Church will shrink and collapse under the weight of its self. This will occur rapidly, immensely and  immediately.

There is a light at the end of this tunnel.  I believe that eventually a new movement will arise – not because of secularism or outside factors, but because of the catastrophic failings of the leadership of the United Methodist Church. And that’s when the rebirth and renewal truly will begin, because of the people formally known as Methodists will be allergic to the dishonesty, intolerant of duplicity, and unaccepting of the clerical/episcopal privilege that has brought us to this current moment. The renewal will unify factions. It will supersede labels. It will bridge older pastors who’ve lived through the current hypocrisy and young seminarians who detest what they’re seeing.

We look forward to helping local Churches evaluate their options with respect to the future relationship with the Methodist denomination.  The critical issue is property ownership.  Now is the time to evaluate your congregations ownership interest in its property in light of the Methodist “Trust Clause.”

There are few issues in Church law more perplexing than understanding the ownership of Church property. This is even more true with respect to a local congregation that is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

Please contact Dan Dalton at Dalton & Tomich, PLC to discuss this issue in greater detail.  You can download a guide to understanding the Trust Clause here, and, download a checklist of documents you need to gather to start the process here.

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