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The United Methodist Church General Conference 2019 (Day 4) –Exit Plans and the Traditional Plan Passes

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on February 26, 2019 Category: Church Property Disputes/Denominational Splits, Firm News

Observations from the Day

Today, the Methodist Church did the one thing it typically does not do: it made a hard decision with respect to the future of the denomination.  The General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan and approved Exit Plans.

This was a painful day.

The effect of the decisions are not-clear as earlier in the day the Judicial Council found several parts of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional.  As of this writing, it is not clear what parts are valid or not. However, the portion of the plans to allow local churches to leave is constitutional.

Here is what we are at:

  • No Theology.The United Methodist Church is united in name, only.
  • No Integrity.The lack of integrity is palpable.
  • No End. The issue will be raised again next year at the General Conference in Minnesota. Now is the time to leave the denomination and retain property.

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Pensions 

The first order of business today addressed pension issues. An amendment was offered wherein it added language that all outstanding obligations were to be paid to the annual conference prior to allowing a local church to leave and have pastors secure their pensions. After debate, the motion passed.

Thereafter, a break occurred wherein it was realized that the amended language would give priority to the annual conference debts over pension payments.

Once the break ended, a Motion for Reconsideration occurred where the pension priority was discussed, the prior motion reconsidered and new language was added to provide that pension liabilities would be addressed at the outset over annual conference debts.

This experience demonstrated why there are conflicts within the Book of Discipline.

The Judicial Conference Decisions

Thereafter, the Judicial Council issued a surprise decision finding that parts of the proposed Traditional Plan were unconstitutional and required legislative fixes.

Discussion of the Traditional Plan

Next up was the discussion about the Traditional Plan. It quickly turned to a motion to replace it with the One Church Plan that was rejected the day prior.

As noted before, the Methodist House if truly divided and the discussion of the Plans was brutal. Opponents of the Traditional Plan promoted the narrative that “love” means agreeing with their position and anyone that opposed them were “evil, unbiblical and bigots,” and “immoral, selfish and self-righteous.” At the same time, opponents pleaded for unity with the “bigots,” arguing that we were better together despite the deep of disagreement over theology. Even more troubling is when proponents of the Traditional Plan relied on scriptural integrity, they were mocked and shouted down. The opponents of the Traditional Plan claimed passing it was akin to racial discrimination, slavery, a violation of women’s rights, and in one argument, infringing the rights of native Americans.

Debate occurred for nearly two hours.  The request to replace the Traditional Plan with the One Church plan  was rejected by 56.53% of the vote.

Next, in an attempt to resolve constitutional issues raised by the Judicial Council, an amendment by substitution through replacing language in the proposal to require all clergy to certify, and all Bishops to certify, that they would upholding the Book of Discipline and qualifications for ordinance. In response, a progressive delegate announced that he would amend every plan to make sure that no vote be taken and that he would make sure no votes would be taken as there was a hard stop at 6:30 pm for the General Conference – a monster truck rally was coming into the building.

The debate continued with a recognition that the Church is hopelessly fragmented with opposition suggesting that the One Church Plan was the only plan that could keep the Church together.  As the plan was rejected, the move was made to keep the Traditional Plan from being voted on. Using Roberts Rules of Order, multiple amendments and motions were made to delay a vote on the plan. Decisions of the Chair were appealed – all of which was designed to use time to preclude the Conference from voting on a Plan.

The debate, which started at 11:30 am, suddenly ended at 5:30 pm with the presiding Bishop calling for a vote on the Traditional Plan.  The vote commenced, the plan passed and pandemonium followed.

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The Exit Plan

Next up is the first disaffiliation from the denomination plan was discussed. Proponents noted that this plan works for those who cannot live within the denomination and essentially provides for an exit of local churches who wish to leave the denomination. The idea is that the annual conference should not use property as a weapon to force people to remain within a covenant they can no longer support. The vote was called at 6:25 pm and the General Conference passed the exit plan.   The approved plan provides as follows:

Disaffiliation – Taylor – NEW Par. 2553 (90066-TC-¶2500-G)

Amend, effective as of the close of the 2019 General Conference, Chapter Six, Church Property, by adding a new Section VIII. Disaffiliation of Local Churches Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality, then by adding a new ¶ 2553 as follows:

¶ 2553. Disaffiliation of a Local Church over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.

1. Basis–Because of the current deep conflict within The United Methodist Church around issues of human sexuality, a local church shall have a limited right, under the provisions of this paragraph, to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow.

2. Time Limits–The choice by a local church to disaffiliate with The United Methodist Church under this paragraph shall be made in sufficient time for the process for exiting the denomination to be complete prior to December 31, 2023. The provisions of ¶ 2553 expire on December 31, 2023 and shall not be used after that date.

3. Initial Inquiry to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church–If the church council of a local church determines that the church wishes to consider disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church under this paragraph, that church council shall submit a request to the district superintendent to begin this process. The district superintendent shall appoint a task force under ¶ 213 for the purpose of making findings and a recommendation to the district superintendent on whether the church will have a viable future within or outside The United Methodist Church. The provisions of ¶ 213.2 and ¶ 213.3 shall not apply. If the local church, as it exists at the time of the assessment, is found to have a viable future, the district superintendent shall call a church conference under ¶ 248 for the sole purpose of deciding whether to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church under this paragraph, based upon the reasons in ¶ 2553.1. If the local church is found to not have a viable future, the district superintendent shall recommend closure under ¶ 2549, or take other appropriate action, and all property of the local church shall remain with The United Methodist Church according to the provisions of ¶ 2549.

4. Decision Making Process–The church conference shall be conducted in accordance with ¶ 248 and shall be held within one hundred twenty (120) days after the district superintendent calls for the church conference. In addition to the provisions of ¶ 246.8, special attention shall be made to give broad notice to the full professing membership of the local church regarding the time and place of a church conference called for this purpose and to use all means necessary, including electronic communication where possible, to communicate. The decision to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.

5. Process following decision to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church–If the church conference votes to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, the terms and conditions for that disaffiliation shall be established by the resident bishop of the applicable annual conference, with the advice of the cabinet, the annual conference treasurer, the annual conference benefits officer, the director of connectional ministries, and the annual conference chancellor. The terms and conditions, including the effective date of disaffiliation, shall be memorialized in a binding Disaffiliation Agreement between the annual conference and the trustees of the local church, acting on behalf of the members. That agreement must be consistent with the following provisions:

a) Standard Terms of the Disaffiliation Agreement. The General Council on Finance and Administration shall develop a standard form for Disaffiliation Agreements under this paragraph to protect The United Methodist Church as set forth in ¶ 807.9. The agreement shall include a recognition of the validity and applicability of ¶ 2501, notwithstanding the release of property therefrom. Annual conferences may develop additional standard terms that are not inconsistent with the standard form of this paragraph.

b) Apportionments. The local church shall pay any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months prior to disaffiliation, as well as an additional 12 months of apportionments.

c) Grants. All grants received by the local church from the annual conference or its ancillary organizations within five (5) years from the date of disaffiliation shall be repaid.

d) Property. A disaffiliating local church shall have the right to retain its real and personal, tangible and intangible property. All transfers of property shall be made prior to disaffiliation. All costs for transfer of title or other legal work shall be borne by the disaffiliating local church.

e) Pension Liabilities. The local church shall contribute withdrawal liability in an amount equal to its pro rata share of any aggregate unfunded pension obligations to the annual conference. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits shall determine the aggregate funding obligations of the annual conference using market factors similar to a commercial annuity provider, from which the annual conference will determine the local church’s share.

f) Other Liabilities. The local church shall satisfy all other debts, loans, and liabilities, or assign and transfer them to its new entity, prior to disaffiliation.

g) Payment Terms. The agreement shall specify the terms and conditions of the payment to the annual conference for any sums related to ¶ 2553.5. b, c, and e. The term of payment shall not exceed ten (10) years.

h) Disaffiliating Churches Continuing as Plan Sponsors of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits Plans. The United Methodist Church believes that a local church disaffiliating under ¶ 2553 shall continue to share common religious bonds and convictions with The United Methodist Church based on shared Wesleyan theology and tradition and Methodist roots, unless the local church expressly resolves to the contrary. As such, a local church disaffiliating under ¶ 2553 shall continue to be eligible to sponsor voluntary employee benefit plans through the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits under ¶ 1504.2, subject to the applicable terms and conditions of the plans.

i) Once the disaffiliating local church has reimbursed the applicable annual conference for all funds due under the agreement, and provided that there are no other outstanding liabilities or claims against The United Methodist Church as a result of the disaffiliation, in consideration of the provisions of this paragraph, the applicable annual conference shall release any claims that it may have under ¶ 2501 and other paragraphs of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church commonly referred to as the trust clause, or under the agreement.

Concluding thoughts

A couple of observations are starting to come together based on the vote of priority of legislation that is to be discussed today and tomorrow.

  • First, there may be two viable exit plans for the local church. I say “may” as it is uncertain what the Judicial Council will do with the Traditional Plan.
  • Second, it is unclear how much of the Traditional Plan is approved. The Judicial Council’s decisions make the extent of the Traditional Plan unclear.
  • Third,  this is not the end of the discussion. The delegates noted that regardless of what happens on Tuesday, the next General Conference of the United Methodist Church is in 2020.  That means all of these issues can be discussed, and reversed, next year.

The margin of voting is around sixty (60) votes.  It was announced this morning that thirty (30) voters from Asia were not present at the General Conference as they could not resolve passport issues that would have allowed them to enter the United States. Most of the voters were considered to be Traditional Plan voters, but one does not know if that is true or not.

My suggestion is that if the local church is thinking about leaving the Methodist denomination, now is the time to do it. The issues at this conference will be raised again next year. The delegates will change and given the very slight margin of votes, it is not outside the realm of possibilities that the next General Conference will reverse today’s decision.

If you, or your church, has any questions about its relationship with the United Methodist Church and how to retain its property, please contact a professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC.

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