Delegates to General Conference from the Great Plains are getting plenty of emails sharing opinions about the best path for the United Methodist Church. Those opinions are very diverse. I had a brief dialogue with one person whose email can be summarized as "please vote for the traditional plan, but if you can't do that at least give us the gracious exit." If only it were so simple.
Before sharing why I don't think it is so simple you should know that I told that person I would support that church's decision to leave the denomination if that's what they felt they needed to do. The starting point for any conversation about leaving a denomination should be the same as the starting point for an individual leaving a local church - nobody should be held hostage. That doesn't do anyone any good. It is completely conceivable and appropriate for churches (and individuals) to have the ability to leave. The question is how that is best done. What principles should be applied to a plan for a "gracious exit?" I suggest there are at least two.
1) A gracious exit may look different for one church than it does for another church. The church I serve is 35 years old. We are on the verge of paying off debt that was accumulated over those years. We are fairly well off financially and we have a good piece of land. We have always paid our apportionments and we have also received a number of grants and good leadership from the conference. My email dialogue partner didn't feel the same. Their church was over 100 years old. It is small and rural and the conference investment in more recent times has been minimal. It seems to me that if a 100+ year old small church with a part-time pastor wants to leave the denomination the financial cost should be minimal. The local church has undoubtedly given greatly to the connectional church. Perhaps an apt metaphor is the way we might care for an elderly parent - they have given of themselves already and we owe them a debt, not the other way around. Frankly, though, the church I serve is in a different position. We are more like the caregiver. Financially, we are now giving far more to the Conference than the Conference is giving to us. But we're only 35. We still owe our very existence to the greater United Methodist Church. I can't put a number on it, but I will say unequivocally that if we choose to leave the denomination we should be required to pay something in return for all the denomination has done for us. A real "gracious exit" must allow for conferences to treat local churches as individual churches instead of treating every church the same.
2) A gracious exit must happen at a time when both the local church and the conference can treat each other with grace. True story. I was talking with a husband who was considering divorce. Without question the marriage had been in trouble for a number of years. In this moment it was particularly fragile. They were about to become empty-nesters and an unexpected and unwelcome job change was coming that would require at least one spouse to relocate. My pastoral word to him: "I know that I don't make my best decisions when I'm in a time of really high anxiety. Maybe this isn't the right time for a life-altering decision. What would happen if you stick together for another year while you work through some of these changes?" The year hasn't elapsed yet - I don't know what the outcome will be. But I do know that if this couple divorces it will be less messy if they are able to do it at a time with less stress than they were experiencing in that moment. A real gracious exit must not be forced. It must allow space for the right action at the right time.
Is such a gracious exit possible? Yes. In fact we already have this kind of gracious exit. Our Book of Discipline already allows churches to leave the denomination. It allows conferences to treat these churches individually and it doesn't impose a time limit. If we can treat one another with grace then we can allow churches that need to leave our connection to exercise that option without any changes to the Book of Discipline.
What about the Traditional Plan's Exit?The "gracious exit in the Traditional Plan (TP) violates both of the prerequisites above.
1) The TP's exit treats all churches the same. We have learned that one-size-fits-all just doesn't work anymore. It doesn't work for church growth, it doesn't work for pastoral leadership, it doesn't work for local church or annual conference organization. It won't work for an exit plan either.
2) The TP forces churches and annual conferences to make an exit decision at exactly the wrong time. The decision on leaving the denomination must be made in roughly 12 months. For annual conferences, it would almost certainly require a special conference session. We would actually make our best decisions if the clock were reversed - if we had to stick together for another 12 months before being able to leave the denomination. Many states have a mandatory waiting period for a divorce. Should we not have the same kind of standard for splitting the Body of Christ?
A More Gracious PlanA more gracious exit plan might look like this:
First, have a process that is followed by every conference that allows for the possibility of different outcomes. For example, every church that is considering leaving should have a church conference rather than having only officers of the church make a decision. That's a process that every church can follow. A common process can ensure that all members who wish to remain United Methodist have a place to go.
Second, every conference (through district superintendents and boards of trustees) should work in partnership with the local church to determine equitable terms for closure. My guess is that in most cases payment from the local congregation to the conference will be minimal (outside of what has become a unanimous agreement that churches should contribute to future pension obligations).
Third, churches are not bound by time constraints. If a church determines two years from now that it needs to leave then that option is open. If a church decides one year from now that they need to leave that option is also open.
How Would We Implement a Gracious PlanIf this seems like a reasonable plan then I have good news. This is pretty much what the current Book of Discipline does. We know that this process works because there are churches today that are leaving the denomination instead of waiting until after General Conference. They are doing that now because the process actually works now.
In fact, ironically, the Traditional Plan incorporates an exit path allegedly for progressive churches to leave that progressive churches have said they don't want. I don't believe I've heard from any pastor or lay member of a progressive congregation that they need an exit plan other than what we currently have. The only call I've heard for an exit plan is from traditionalists.
We should be fair. We need to be fair. We need to allow those who need to leave to do so. We don't need a new way of doing what we have already proven we can do right now. I appreciate that the One Church Plan focuses on how to help us stay together rather than forging new and unnecessary ways for us to separate.