Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Day the Protocol Died

 The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation has been on life support since the first time General Conference was delayed. I have no doubt that if we had held General Conference at the originally scheduled time in 2020 it would have passed. Any compromise leaving all people wanting more. It's natural that the longer it takes for a compromise to be approved, the more nits people will pick and the harder it becomes for it to pass.

Over the last few months I've had more conversations with people who aren't sure the Protocol makes sense anymore. Among the reasons:

  • It calls for a $25 million payout, which may not make sense given today's economic realities including the UMCs commitment of $30 million to the Boy Scouts of America victim compensation fund (my language may not be precise with this as I'm not familiar with the details).
  • Churches and clergy have already begun the denominational sorting process that the Protocol was designed to help.
  • The original group was not adequately representative, particularly of central conferences

In every case, I personally have still maintained that the Protocol is the least bad option we have. I no longer think that's the case, and I'm nearly certain that it now has no chance of passing.

On May 7, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) held their annual Global Legislative Assembly. The WCA is one of many groups commonly associated together as the Reform and Renewal Coalition with the UMC. They also are the group that originally formed and (I think) legally formed the Global Methodist Church (GMC). There is no GMC without the WCA and there is much overlap in leadership for both organizations. One approved proposal revised their mission statement. I'm unable to locate the precise language at the moment, but multiple reports including the WCA themselves say, "It will support efforts to see that the UM Church maintains faithful adherence and accountability to the standards of doctrine and discipline embodied in its current Book of Discipline." 

With that statement, the Protocol is dead.

Words in times like this come with codes. It should be obvious to everyone that maintaining "faithful adherence and accountability" means simply that the WCA disagree with and will not abide by the abeyance on charging LGBT+ pastors and/or clergy who perform same-sex weddings. Over the last 2-plus years of the Protocol's existence, many observers have lost track of what it actually provides for. As written, the legislation simply provides an easy exit and financial resources for traditionalist United Methodists. The legislation does absolutely nothing for progressives and centrists. But there are two very significant benefits for us - just not in the legislation itself.

First, with US traditionalists leaving the denomination, an effort to allow for regionalization becomes much more plausible. The original Protocol plan includes a move to regionalization after passage of the Protocol legislation.

Second, and most significantly, the Protocol asks for bishops and conferences to follow the abeyance. This is not strictly enforceable because of the Book of Discipline has not changed. It is, though, clearly part of the much discussed "spirit of the Protocol." 

Here's the Important Part

Traditionalist leadership has never embraced the full "spirit of the Protocol." Individuals within leadership have promised to continue voting at General Conference against things like regionalization even after the Protocol passes. You will not find a single traditionalist leader at the national or global level say this is not going to happen, even if it is not an official organizational strategy. Some individuals have also publicly said that the abeyance should not be followed but, again, that has not been an organizational statement.

What changed on May 7th is that the WCA has now officially endorsed a position that is counter to the Protocol. Please remember that the Protocol compromise only ever gave progressives and centrists two concessions. They are just concessions of such importance that we would willingly give up much to acquire them. The concession that traditionalists would not stand in the way of regionalization has long been in doubt. The concession of following the abeyance has now been officially and completely abandoned. 

I am confident that between now and 2024 the large majority of our bishops who supported the Protocol will continue to stand behind the abeyance. I am equally confident that the WCA, which also pledged to remain in the UMC at least until 2024 will do their best to push back. I can no longer in good conscious support legislation in 2024 that is no longer a compromise, but a sellout to a group that is clearly not negotiating in good faith.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Buyer Beware: Updated Edition

 You may have read my extensive posts on the GMC's Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline (BDD). One of the first comments I shared was that the document is a moving target. The BDD had been updated several times before and could be updated again.

Sure enough, two weeks before officially launching the new denomination, changes were made. So I offer this update to  the original series, going in paragraph order.


Subject to Change - Let me say it again - two weeks before asking you to sign on the line, the rules have changed. Because the BDD gives unlimited authority to the Transitional Leadership Council (TLC) to adapt the BDD as needed, the rules could very well change again without you having any say in it prior to the Convening Conference. Given that you can be kicked out of the denomination if you don't follow the rules, that's a pretty big deal.

Para.349: Smaller Apportionments - One significant change has been made that potentially helps local churches. The previous version capped apportionments after 5 years at 11.5% of local church income (1.5% for general church and 10% for annual conferences). The new version cuts the annual conference portion in half. The good news for local churches is this does likely guarantee that after 5 years a local church's apportionments will be lower than they are today (unless, of course, the rules change again). The downside is that conferences now have only half the money to function on. I'm not sure that's feasible and I would expect pressure from conferences to increase that limit as the five year deadline approaches.

Para 407: Looser Education - Wording has changed from mandating candidates for ministry attend an approved "school for ministry education" to "strongly recommend." This effectively has no meaning since the TLC still has to approve courses for Methodist theology, history, and polity and since Boards of Ordained Ministry can still react however they would like to a candidate's education (see para 409 and 410). For years, conservative candidates have complained that an Asbury degree is viewed as less valuable or makes the candidate suspect. If that's true today, the opposite would certainly be true in the new GMC.

Para 706: Expanding Bureaucracy - This new paragraph creates a Chief Operating Officer (yes, a corporate term) for the denomination and staff, hired and fired at the will of the TLC. In addition to investing even more power in the TLC, this adds to the cost of operation, again making the financial plan questionable. This is particularly interesting, given the reluctance at previous UMC General Conferences to have a president of the Council of Bishops who would not serve an episcopal area, largely citing economic concerns.

Para 902: Pension Wild West - The previous BDD had what I call a "Trust Clause Lite". Churches wanting to disaffiliate from the GMC would have a lien on their property until their unfunded pension is paid - just like the UMC is currently asking. The new version eliminates that. To be clear, I wasn't critical of the GMC for having this clause. It just needed to be pointed out since the Trust Clause is of great concern to some people. By removing it, there is no longer a guarantee that departing churches will cover pensions. Imagine a hypothetical situation where the GMC does not have enough churches to function as a denomination in the long-term. Pastors in that denomination will have nothing backing their pension claims. 


And that's it. Issues like the significantly increased power of bishops, including unilaterally dismissing pastors, and the diminished role of laity, are all still there. As I've said throughout the series, each person will need to make up their own mind. Should you choose the GMC, just go in with your eyes open.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Harder Things

 I always read Rob Renfroe. You should, too. Then you should read someone else so that you have a counterbalanced view. So read this first, then come back here.


Rob is right. There are deeper things that divide the UM Church. To Rob's point:

  • I remember hearing a speech on the floor of General Conference in 2008 when a delegate said out loud, "Why are we talking about homosexuality when they are going to hell anyway?"
  • I remember the Conference Lay Leader in 2016 who unashamedly told me that 90% of churches in his conference would not take a woman as a pastor.
  • I remember our own Annual Conference a year earlier when, debating a resolution related to allowing guns in churches, a laywoman said we must allow guns because they will be needed for Armageddon.
  • I remember checking out the calendar of events for a church with a pastor who had just surrendered his credentials and seeing a guest speaker on the evils of evolution.

These are hard things to believe if you have been in 90% of our local churches, but they are true.

I do not doubt that Rob has personal examples of people includes bishops and seminary presidents who are much more theologically liberal than I am. I also do not doubt that there are a roughly equal number of stories of misogynists and fundamentalists. There is an equal chance for either extreme to control their respective denomination. 

Rob goes on to share that General Conference was cancelled because of politics. It's possible. It's also possible that the members from Africa who he says argued for it to go forward were swayed by false reports that 90% of Africans would be able to attend (see the shifting story here). He also notes that the Commission has formed a task force examine a hybrid General Conference in 2024 as evidence that it was possible to do so in 2021 or 2022...ignoring that the same group also had a task force examining precisely that question.

Then he, once again, maligns "progressives" as people who want to force their will upon everyone else. "The progressives have told us who they are," he says, while making generalized claims with absolutely no shred of evidence. So let me remind you both of who progressives are and who traditionalist leaders are:
  • Progressives endorsed the "One Church Plan" that explicitly allowed and encouraged theological diversity. It was derailed because traditionalists were clear that they could not live with diversity.
  • Progressives at a national and global level have consistently operated within ethical bounds. Traditionalist leaders have, among other things, vowed to continue fighting in a denomination that they no longer believe in example #1 will be Renfroe himself if he does not surrender his credentials on May 1 instead of staying one day longer in a denomination that he implores you to leave).
  • Progressive leaders, at least those staying in the UMC, have never had conversations about how to destroy or damage traditionalists or the GMC. Good News has had that exact conversation, as I've shared before.  
Renfroe uses the secular political language of "woke liberals" even as his allies have threatened secular lawsuits and dehumanizing vast swaths of our denomination with the one word "progressives."

To the average traditionalist sitting in the pews: It's time to believe hard things. You've been misled. You are better than your leaders. You don't need to follow them to a place you don't want to go. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

The Ecclesiastical Challenge

One of the frequent challenges to my critiques of the Global Methodist Church (GMC) is that everything about the GMC is still tentative - it could all be changed as early as the Convening Conference, which is likely to happen in 2023 or possibly 2024. It's frustrating - because we have to be able to make comparisons to something - and it's also fair - it is true that significant changes can be made.

The argument works the other way, too. Barring another pandemic, the United Methodist Church (UMC) meets every four years to enact changes. In fact, one of the rare statements that we all can agree with is that the structure of the church needs to change. The way that the two denominations address the need for change may become one of the defining differences between the UMC and GMC.


Command and Control

The Methodist movement in the United States began at the same time the nation was born. Historically, it makes sense that the church grew as the nation grew, experienced conflict when the nation experienced conflict (including today), and is governed in a similar way to how the nation is governed. Our legislative (General, Jurisdictional, and Annual Conferences), executive (bishops), and judicial (Judicial Council) branches have checks and balances just as the nation does. Our system of governance is in crisis - we just point fingers at different sides for who is most responsible for the crisis. That sentence is true both  for our secular and our church governance. We are, perhaps, entering a significant new era in both. 

First, some history. When the United States of America first formed, the emphasis was on the States, not America. Prior to the Civil War, the majority of literature spoke of the country in the plural. In other words, a person might write something like, "The United States of America are negotiating with England." After the Civil War, our national identity developed more. Today, even with all our differences, most of us in the U.S. understand ourselves as Americans first and citizens of our state second. 

Compare this to our structure. "The annual conference is the basic body in the Church..." Paragraph 33 of the Book of Discipline (BOD) has been engrained in my head for years. This is one reason that annual conferences may be able to leave the denomination without General Conference approval. As I understand it, legally there is no United Methodist Church that can, for example, sue or be sued. There is a network of annual conferences that have agreed to follow a set of rules and guidelines contained in the BOD.

But our structure has gradually become more Command and Control. Every new paragraph written for the BOD tightens the screws just a little more on the flexibility of our annual conferences and local churches. Over the decades, the BOD has become more and more comprehensive allowing for less flexibility on nearly every aspect of the church, with the notable exception of committee structures within the local church. It is, well, institutional.

The Road Diverges

Traditionalists often say that the root of our current crisis is in the authority of Scripture. I would argue there is another authority that is being challenged - the authority of our Command and Control structure. As we've seen before, we mirror the nation. Trust in authorities and institutions has been declining for decades. This is why I get annoyed with the complaint, "If they [progressives] just followed the Discipline this wouldn't be happening." I don't know any pastor who follows every letter of the Discipline. In fact, I guarantee that if you read that book from cover to cover every person in the UMC will find at least a couple places where they are not in compliance. So what's the solution to this reality? There are two.

One solution is enforcement. We hear it frequently, again from traditionalist leaders. The Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference was an ultimatum of enforcement. Enforcement is doubling down on the Command and Control approach. I encourage you to read my Buyer Beware series, particularly the posts on Bishops and Power. Verbally, we've been told that the GMC will reduce the power of bishops and centralized leadership and empower the local church. That's not the reality. In reality, a bishop can unilaterally remove a pastor or prevent a potential pastor from being ordained. In reality, a church that does not pay its full apportionments can be kicked out of the denomination with no recourse. The issue is that if the identified problem is misbehavior, you have to correct the misbehavior. The correction method that the GMC has chosen is enforcement and you can't enforce it if you don't have controls in place. Even if you disagree, I hope you can hear in this way those of us who are more progressive identify the traditionalist approach as one that focuses on law over grace.

An alternative is decentralizing power. Another key phrase we keep hearing: "In the UMC of the future, pastors will be forced to perform same-sex marriages!" First, I don't know anybody who wants to force a pastor to marry them, regardless of their sexual orientation. Second, there is literally nothing in the legislation that has been prepared that would force anyone to marry anybody. Nor, third, am I aware of any conversations among progressive or centrist leaders about forcing this. What we have consistently asked for is choice. But I understand where the question comes from. From a command and control standpoint, it makes complete sense. Command and control doesn't allow for choice. Everything is "shall" or "shall not." The actual plan is a decentralizing of power. 

This is a key difference in the direction of the two denominations. We are at a fork in the road of power and authority. The change in the GMC is now defined. They will be moving towards more control. The change in the UMC is not yet defined, but we will need to change. It is true that what we are doing right now is not sustainable. For this moment in which we are living, I hope we move towards more localized control, exerting denominational muscle only when it is truly necessary for the essentials of the faith.




Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Promises, Protocol, and Peace

Promises 

"Bishops and annual conferences have a choice. They can respond to this difficult time with a heart of peace (which they have repeatedly extolled) and allow for an amicable separation of congregations that desire to transfer by following as much as possible the principles of the Protocol. Or they can take a punitive approach and demand heavy payments from churches seeking to transfer. A vindictive spirit does not serve the church or its witness for Jesus Christ well. We had hoped to demonstrate to the world that it is possible to resolve deeply felt differences in a gracious and amicable way. Though continued delay calls the eventual passage of the Protocol into doubt, we call upon bishops and annual conferences to adopt a gracious attitude that can pave the way for future reconciliation, rather than seeking to extract heavy penalties or coerce churches into remaining United Methodist."

- Tom Lambrecht, Vice President of Good News, March 4, 2022 

It's great writing, isn't it? Using the language of our bishops against them, Lambrecht calls for a "heart of peace" from progressives and centrists towards traditionalists. Although later the article promises lawsuits in secular courts (against a Biblical command), those lawsuits will not be the fault not of the plaintiffs, but the bishops and institution that is not "of peace". Rhetorically brilliant. Also a half-truth.

Promise #1

Lambrecht had a different approach in 2004. That is the year he co-authored an internal Good News report laying out alternatives for the future of the United Methodist Church. Titled Options for the Future, the document laid out four options (one with 2 sub-options) to resolve our differences. One option was what become the Traditional Plan - a "forced departure" [emphasis in original] of those who disagree with the traditionalist view. The report posed the question, "Would the victory be worth the cost?" The 2019 General Conference proved the answer is no. The second option was essentially what become the Connectional Conference Plan in 2019. "However, it would put evangelicals in the position of belonging to a group that would allow beliefs and behaviors that are antithetical to the Gospel." A third option, making the UMC a "High Expectation Covenant Community" was not fully developed. Finally, the fourth option was where we are today - "Structural Separation." Here's the A and B options - and they are significant. 

Option A: Amicable Separation, which Lambrecht and his coauthors note would require the hard work of General Conference. This is the Protocol that now is tabled until 2024 and likely will never pass.

Option B: Voluntary Departure, which is leaving the denomination to start a new denomination. This is the Global Methodist Church (GMC). This is where we are, beginning May 1. And this is why it matters that Lambrecht stated as a significant disadvantage to this approach, "It also leaves the United Methodist denomination somewhat intact, with the accumulation of resources to potentially continue for decades on a progressively revisionist track [emphasis mine]."

Using the framework of the book The Anatomy of Peace from which the phrase "heart of peace" comes, it is important to understand that in 2004 Lambrecht promised to bring a "heart of war" if the day that we have now reached ever occurred. How else is one to understand "leaving the denomination somewhat intact" as a disadvantage?


Promise #2

Fast Forward to 2019. Moments before the monster trucks rolled into St. Louis, the last item of business that General Conference dealt with was a petition governing disaffiliation. Rev. Beth Ann  Cook presented it for traditionalists as, "the way I would want to be treated" if she were the one leaving the church. I covered this promise in depth last week. The petition, as amended by the traditionalist majority, passed what is now Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline. As Lambrecht said back in 2004, a voluntary departure is expensive. So now traditionalist leadership doesn't want to follow it because they think they found a cheaper way via Paragraph 2548. So, to be clear, in 2019 when they thought progressives were leaving they promised that 2553 was fair, equitable, and the way people should be treated. Now it's none of those.


Promise #3

This is relevant, of course, only because General Conference is not meeting in 2022 and the Protocol has not passed. But what if we had met? If General Conference met this year, most likely the Protocol legislation would have been the first item on the agenda. Assuming it passed, the path would be clear for the GMC to officially form and for traditionalists who felt called to leave to do so. Surely then the rest of the conference would proceed in an orderly fashion, right? The separation would have happened. We would all move forward. Well, no. Even though they said they would be leaving the denomination, multiple traditionalist leaders and General Conference delegates promised both publicly and privately, to stay and continue voting - in a denomination they had pledged to leave. Those calling on us to have a heart of peace promised to continue voting on budgets, Judicial Council members, opposing regionalization, and presumably even on Bishops at jurisdictional conferences even though none of those would ever affect them again.


Promise #4

Even then, one would hope that following General Conference 2022, or now that it isn't happening sometime shortly after the GMC officially forms on May 1, the separation will be mostly complete. But there's still one more promise to share with you. As part of the announcement of the GMC launch, Rev. Keith Boyette said, "For theologically conservative local churches deciding to remain in the UM Church for a time, we are confident Africa Initiative, Good News, the Confessing Movement, UMAction, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association will continue to vociferously advocate for the ultimate passage of the Protocol.” Please note that there is nothing any of those organizations can do to help "theologically conservative local congregations" by virtue of being part of the United Methodist Church. They can give lots of advice and advocacy regardless of their denominational affiliation. There is no need or benefit to doing anything deliberate within the denomination. And yet they promise to stick around, at least until May 2024.


Protocol

Can we not just proceed with the "spirit of the protocol?" Wouldn't that be the 2022 version of the "amicable separation proposed in 2004? Maybe. Traditionalist leaders like John Lomperis have promised to fight against the abeyance on charges for being LGBT+ or performing weddings for same-sex couples, which is the only immediate benefit of the Protocol for progressives. As already mentioned, they have promised to fight against regionalization, which was not part of the Protocol legislation but was very much part of the initial Protocol agreement and in keeepoing with the "spirit." A resolution has been submitted to the Texas Conference asking to adopt, "the spirit of the Protocol in the handling of any congregational requests for disaffiliation" including a request from a whole annual conference. The resolution does not ask for the spirit of the Protocol to be applied in any other way. Had the Protocol been approved, Annual Conferences could leave the denomination with a 57% vote. Assuming the Judicial Council rules that Annual Conferences can leave, I don't expect traditionalist leaders to call for "the spirit of the Protocol" and move that a vote to disaffiliate be honored only if it reaches that threshold. A vote of 50% +1 will, I'm sure, be sufficient. Nor are they likely to suggest that local churches, following the Protocol, consider a 2/3 vote to disaffiliate if their conference chooses to stay. 

When traditionalist leadership says we should follow "the spirit of the Protocol" they seem to mean progressives and centrists should follow it. Traditionalists should follow it when convenient.


Peace

I really do want a heart of peace. When the first delay of General Conference was announced I argued privately for bishops and conferences to use of 2548 instead of 2553. As recently as last week I promised to support the use of the absolute minimum standards in 2553 instead of also requiring congregations to pay a portion of their property's assessed value or other fees. This has to end. We can do it the hard way or the really, really hard way. There is no easy way. It will be less difficult if we really can do it with a heart of peace. I know of no progressive or centrist leader who wants this quagmire to continue. I doubt any traditionalist does either.

We also must acknowledge that it is difficult to have a heart of peace when by every appearance the WCA and friends really have been out to get us since 2004. It is hard to have a heart of peace when you are told that your beliefs are antithetical to the Gospel (quoted above in the 2004 document) and that you are a false teacher (as recently as last month and repeatedly since 2018). It's hard to have a heart of peace with promises made like the four stated above. It's hard to have a heart of peace when there is no reason to trust those asking it of you. 


It doesn't have to be this hard. 

Go in peace. 

Please.

Go.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Mixed-up Memories of GC19

 I commend Rev. Chris Ritter for sharing news on the UMC fracture. He shares from "both sides of the aisle," which makes his compendium a great resource. 


The news of General Conference being postponed yet again and the launch of the Global Methodist Church (GMC) on May 1st has raised the stakes tremendously in the months ahead. It is critically important for us to get the objective facts right so that our diverging opinions can truly be well-informed.

In that context, it is important to be clear about what did and did not happen in 2019 as it relates to the fight over disaffiliation. I was there, but it was also three years ago. So, in light of a post today by Rev. Ritter, I rewatched a portion of the final session of General Conference 2019. You can find it here


Ritter asserts that Par. 2553, in 2019 referred to as the Taylor Disaffiliation Plan, is not and neve was an adequate method for traditionalists to leave the denomination. He's wrong, for multiple reasons. Please consider reading Ritter's original article so you can check my facts.


1. "Taylor became the preferred vehicle for disaffiliation and would be the legislation perfected during the final session. By that point in the conference, however, progressives were actively working to grind all proceedings to a halt"

The Truth: Taylor was, indeed, the preferred disaffiliation plan. It's also true that there was some measure of chaos on the floor (and a lot in the stands). It is also true that progressives and centrists had been trying to minimize the harm that General Conference could do by not allowing amendments to the Traditional Plan that would make portions of it previously ruled unconstitutional now constitutional. As Ritter says, this disaffiliation petition was not part of that plan. In fact, the Traditional Plan had already passed. This disaffiliation petition was the final legislative action of the session. It would not have been possible for progressives to stop this petition even if we had wanted to. 

2. "Beth Ann Cook was trying to work us through needed amendments to the Taylor Plan when time ran out."

The Truth: The Taylor Plan was authored by Leah Taylor, a centrist. However, Rev. Beth Ann Cook, speaking for many others, authored a "minority report" to the petition. This is a technical piece for General Conference. Essentially, a minority report happens when a significant number of delegates disagree with a petition that has been approved by a committee. The content of the minority report can remove, add, or alter almost the entire original petition. In other words, the minority report, in the eyes of the authors, perfects the original petition. Ritter says Rev. Cook was trying to work us through amendments. As the presenter of the minority report, Rev. Cook would not have believed that there were any more amendments needed if the minority report were approved, which it was.

3. " A final vote was taken to approve Taylor by the narrowest of margins as progressives rushed the stage to grab the microphones. "

The Truth: Bishop Cynthia Harvey did a remarkable job of maintaining composure and guiding the conference to an orderly finish. Nobody was rushing the stage and speeches and questions at microphones were, while emotional, largely in order with speeches alternating between "for" and "against." 

4. "Disaffiliation was always conceived as a way to treat churches that wanted to seek an independent status."

The Truth: This actually sorta is true. That traditionalist plan was to pass a plan that progressives and centrists couldn't possibly live with (the Traditional Plan) so that we would feel compelled to leave. It didn't occur to them that they would be the ones leaving or that there would be an organized denomination for them to leave to together. 

5. "It was not part of the Traditional Plan or authored by a traditionalist."

The Truth: Again, sorta true. It was not part of the traditional plan or, originally, authored by a traditionalist. But the minority report (which took the place of the original petition and is what ultimately was enacted) WAS authored by a traditionalist and the petition was then seen as complementary to the Traditional Plan.

6. " Leaving with property and at a minimal cost is the foundation of gracious exit. The Taylor Disaffiliation Plan, now known as Paragraph 2553, does not accomplish that."

The Truth: At the 11:21 mark in the closing session, traditionalist Rev. Cook introduced the minority report saying, "The intended process is literally the way I would want to be treated if I was the one who was hurting." In giving the last speech of the 2019 General Conference, I said, "it's your exit, not ours. We will not be moved." And we haven't moved. Traditionalists, this is your plan. Your minority report was passed as written. You had every opportunity to make it say precisely what you wanted it to say. You are welcome to use it in exactly the same way that you invited progressives to use it.


Summing Up

Ritter begins his article complaining that traditionalists have been called hypocrites for not willingly using 2553. The truth is, they are. I don't know what else to call it. I will concede that because 2553 gives minimum standards for exit and not maximum standards, some conferences are putting additional barriers in place. That's unfortunate. It would, in my opinion, be far better if all conferences used a uniform standard and if that uniform standard was the minimum requirements of Par. 2553. That would be more in the spirit of Rev. Cook's report and the Protocol. That is not what is happening in the vast majority of conferences. Most conferences are trying to make it as easy as possible to leave.

It is legitimate for traditionalists who want to leave the denomination to wait until we have a final ruling from Judicial Council on whether a whole Annual Conference can leave at once. We expect that ruling to come before any U.S. Annual Conferences meet. It is not legitimate to complain about a process for individual churches to leave that you amended, endorsed, and passed.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Buyer Beware: The GMC Book of Doctrines and Discipline, Pt. 8: Financial Implications

 In this final post about the Global Methodist Church's (GMC) Book of Doctrines and Discipline (BDD), I'll look at some of the financial implications for churches that join. The reality is very different from what was originally promised, and should be considered by any church contemplating joining. As I've tried to say throughout the series, these are all cautions. From a theological and/or polity standpoint, you might find the risk well worth it. If that's you, I hope you simply move forward more informed.


Financial Implications

1. "Trust Clause Lite": One of the reasons many churches are excited about the GMC is the promise of no trust clause - you really, truly own your own property. I think there are some legitimate reasons for a trust clause, but I also understand why this would be a strong motivator. The trust clause really only makes a difference if you want to leave a denomination, so from a practical standpoint it won't matter for the large majority of both GMC and UMC churches. If you do decide to leave the GMC, the absence of a trust clause will make departure much simpler - but not 100% simpler. Remember that the practical (not theological) reason for the trust clause today is financial. It's not possible to stop a church (defined as a worshipping community) from leaving. It is possible to make it costly, potentially leaving their building and all assets behind. 2553 in the UMC's Book of Discipline and 2548 both make it much easier (the latter easier than the former, which is why many GMC proponents are advocating for it). Under 2553, the cost to leave is a church's pension liability, two years of apportionments, and other requirements as determined by the Annual Conference (most Annual Conferences have no or very few additional requirements). 2548 has none of these requirements, but a change to 1054.23 mandates that churches disaffiliating in this way must also pay the unfunded pension. However, in the new BDD, 354.6 and 903.3 provide for what I call a "Trust Clause Lite". It is not a trust clause, but it functions in the same way. The denomination will hold a lien on every church's property, which will only be released when a church that chooses to depart has paid its unfunded pension in full. To be clear, this is an entirely necessary clause; I'm neither surprised nor disappointed that it is included. It's important to understand that, financially, this is identical to what the UMC currently has in 2548. 

2. Financial Support Outside the U.S.: Recent General Conferences have asked those outside the U.S. to begin a process of providing financial support for our work together. The UMC will likely continue this. The GMC will not. At least for bishops, 505.2 says U.S. churches will pay for bishops in other countries.

3. Apportionment Reality Part 1: The remaining four points tell the fuller story on apportionments. With great fanfare, the GMC has shared that churches will have a dramatic reduction of apportionments. This is not necessarily true. First, in 349.4a, "General Church connectional funding" is limited to 1.5% of a local church's income. It is important to compare apples to apples. This is NOT the same thing as your current apportionments. This is accurately compared to the portion of your current apportionments that go to the General Church. In my conference (Great Plains), this is currently 3.3% of local church income. This will still be a significant reduction for some churches - it's less than half the current rate. I encourage you to look at actual budget implications. In our conference, for example, what this really means is a savings of $1,800 for every $100,000 of income. It's not nothing - this is real money - but it's not nearly as significant as you might think at first. 

4. Apportionment Reality Part 2: As we've seen in some previous posts, there's also no guarantee this will actually stay the same even on day 1. 349.5 gives the Transtional Leadership Council (TLC) authority to change this number with a 2/3 vote. Even before the first meeting of the new general conference your apportionments could go up. This is reaffirmed in 614.3

5. Apportionment Reality Part 3: The remainder of your apportionments are set by your Annual Conference. This is a little complicated. Feel free to check my math and assumptions. I'm confident but not positive that this is all correct.

  • If you are part of an annual conference that chooses to leave (whether this is actually possible or not is debatable and will be decided by the Judicial Council this spring), 349.4c says your apportionments don't change for up to five years. Even then, they may not go down. Hypothetical: A Conference currently has total apportionments of 13.3% of local church income. 3.3% of income is for general church apportionments (see above) and the remaining 10% is for annual conference apportionments. Immediately when joining the GMC, your general church apportionments are reduced to 1.5%, but your remaining apportionments stay the same in perpetuity because they meet the threshold set by 349.4c. 
  • If you are not in a conference that leaves for the GMC in masse, 349.4b says your annual conference apportionments will be 5%, so your total will be 6.5%. Note: This is the absolute lowest that you will pay in apportionments. It is most likely less than any apportionments now. It is also higher than the promised 5% that many churches are counting on.
  • The previous point also means that two churches in the same conference could pay very different apportionments. Hypothetical: The Texas Conference leaves for the GMC and the Central Texas conference does not. a Central Texas local church choose to go GMC. Their apportionments will be 6.5%. They are assigned by the GMC to the existing Texas Conference in the inevitable shuffling of conference boundaries. The Texas Conference keeps their apportionments, which are higher, the same but the church moving in from Central Texas is guaranteed to pay a lower rate.
  • Even with all this, the total cost to churches can still be deceiving. Currently, some annual conferences apportion part of pensions. This amount is not to be included in apportionments and will be, for some conferences, an additional payment. 
  • One more hitch to the new system: Annual Conferences pay for their own bishops. This does not change the total amount of apportionments; it shifts the burden from general to annual conference. This means the 1.5% payable to the general church will stretch further while the portion you actually have control over and will most likely benefit you will not stretch as far. If my math is correct and using the Great Plains as an example, this means the apples to apples comparison of General Church apportionments is closer to a decrease from 2.8% to 1.5%. Simultaneously, expenses related to the annual conference's work would increase 5% without any corresponding benefit to the churches of the conference.
6. Your Money or Your (Church) Life: I've tried to be as objective as possible (knowing that I can't be 100% objective). On this one I just can't. There is a long history of traditionalist churches not paying their apportionments as an objection to denominational decisions. Another group of churches don't pay all their apportionments simply because they feel they can't afford to. Most churches pay some of their apportionments regularly but the bulk at the end of the year. Every one of these churches can be kicked out of the denomination. That's right. If you pay less than 100% of your apportionments (349.9), and even if you pay them in less than even monthly payments (349.6 sets monthly payments and 354 says you must follow all of 349) you can be "involuntarily disaffiliate[d]." This seems like blatant hypocrisy and power politics - withhold your apportionments today so that you can save money which we will then demand you pay us as part of the GMC.

This last point is a really good place to stop. If you've read this whole series you have hopefully seen moments of real objectivity and no doubt moments of opinion that you may well disagree with. I started with a few points that I actually really like about the BDD - some things that the UMC could learn from. As I close, I won't feign any kind of objectivity. The new book is called "Doctrines and Discipline." It is a law book. Grace is minimized, even eliminating the fullness of it in the baptismal vows. Diversity of opinion is frowned on, with churches and pastors that diverge even on social issues forcibly removed. I understand that many moving to the GMC believe our "big tent" church is too big of a tent. I disagree, but I understand. What I don't understand is how this "pup tent" church feels true to our theological history. I am theologically progressive on inclusivity of people who are LGBT+. I am centrist on almost every other theological issue. You won't find my arguing with the historical creeds or anything in our actual doctrinal statements. I've openly advocated for remembering the Wesleyan Quadrilateral really does put Scripture first, with three lenses that help us understand it instead of as four equal legs. If I were to go back in my own theological time to an era when I questioned but still affirmed our position on LGBT+ inclusion I believe I would still run from this new denomination. It is true that the current UMC is flawed and must be fixed. This new denomination, in my opinion, solves virtually none of our current problems and creates additional issues. I'd much rather work on the flawed system than ingrain a new denomination with this number of flaws from the start.