How does a Court decide who owns the property of a local church departing from The United Methodist Church? Part 2

In the last blog, I reviewed Supreme Court precedent on religious property disputes. As noted in that blog, the decision of a Court will rest upon the governance of a denomination. In this  blog, I will address the governance of The United Methodist Church.

Methodist governance

There are numerous forms of church government.  At one end of the spectrum there are autonomous local congregations under a “congregational” form of government (e.g., Baptists).  At the other end of the spectrum is a strictly hierarchical, vertical line of authority — from priest to bishop to cardinal to pontiff (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church).  In between, there are numerous gradations or intermediate forms.  The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has adopted a two-fold classification, congregational or hierarchical, and has placed Methodist churches in the latter.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s two-fold classification of church governments, some familiarity with the distinctive elements of  Methodist church government will be helpful to the court.  The UMC and its predecessor denominations are neither wholly congregational nor strictly hierarchical.  With respect to internal, ecclesiastical matters, Methodist divide authority between widening ecclesiastical governing bodies of the charge conference (the local church) the annual conference (the state wide jurisdiction; area) and general conference (the voting delegates from annual conferences around the world).

A very brief history of Methodist polity 

By way of background, the Methodist movement grew out of the effort of in the 1700’s by John Wesley, an Anglican Priest, to instill holiness within the Church of England by providing for “society’s,” which we now call “small groups” to meet regularly to study scripture and hold each other accountable.Neither Wesley nor any of his followers who were the eventual leaders of the Church desired Methodism to be a denomination or a Church.

The United Methodist Church is not a legal entity and considers itself a “connectional” denomination. Similar to the Presbyterian Church, which has been held to be a connectional church, the Methodist denomination bears certain relationships to the presbytery that are in many ways similar to the Methodist relationship with its annual conferences. This means it is neither a purely hierarchical church, like the Roman Catholic Church, or purely a congregational church like the Southern Baptist Church.  The “connectional” nature of the Church means that it is partially both. As Bishop Tuell noted in his seminal book concerning the organization of the United Methodist Church, the Methodist Constitution, “. . . makes it clear that the church is not a building, it is not a certain organizational structure, it is not a denomination; the church is people, consciously and purposefully joined together.”

The United Methodist Church itself was formed in 1968 when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church joined at a united conference in Dallas, Texas. Prior to this time, the Church faced multiple schisms throughout its history where in 1828, the Methodist Protestant Church left the denomination, and in 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South left over issues related to slavery and over the powers of the General Conference and the episcopacy. In 1939, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South joined the together and formed The Methodist Church.After every schism, the departing local churches kept their property.

The Constitution of the Methodist Church provides that the powers of the General Conference are broad: “The General Conference shall have the full legislative powers over all matters distinctively connectional, and in the exercise of this power, shall have authority as follows,” outlining sixteen areas in which it may act. In sum, the General Conference, as set forth in the Constitution, is the most powerful and important body within the United Methodist Church.  

The United Methodist Church is not a legal entity. Rather, it is comprised of “Conferences.” The following are the Conferences of the denomination.

The “General Conference,” is the supreme legislative body of United Methodism. Simply put, it is a meeting that occurs every four years to consider matters related to inclusion or removal from the Book of Discipline. The General Conference is not a standing organization, has no headquarters, no staff, no leadership structure, no leader, and its members – comprised of half clergy and the other half, lay members – are voted in by the local Annual Conferences.

The “Annual Conference,” is the “basic body” of the Church. Historically, the annual conference was simply a body of preachers under orders of the Bishop. Its structure was designed to connect local churches with Methodist pastors. That is why to this day, local pastors are employed by the annual conference and the denomination considers itself a “connectional” group of churches. The Annual Conference is made of up two classes of member: clergy (which are elders and deacons) and laity. Clergy membership is conferred by the clergy members in full connection with the annual conference and is for life. Lay membership is based on the principle of representation of each local church or, more correctly, pastoral charge which may consist of more than one local church but be served by one pastor. The most important duty of the annual conference is to elect delegates to the General Conference. The Annual Conferences are separate legal entities who have a headquarters, an office led by a Bishop, have office staff and are incorporated under state law so that they can sue, be sued, hold property and employee individuals.

The Charge Conference “is the annual meeting of the local church. The Book of Discipline provides that the local church must have a business meeting once a year with the purpose of electing leaders, approving budgets, ratifying the decisions of the committees within the Church, determine the parsonage allowance for pastoral staff, reviewing the membership role and dropping members who have not attended in the prior two years, and provide a yearly review of what the local Church has done and what it plans to do the following year.

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church is the instrument that contains the laws, the plan, the polity ad the process by which the United Methodist govern themselves. The Book is examined and amended every four years by the General Conference. The Book of Discipline also outlines the roles of Bishops. Bishops, who are not members of the General Conference, have no voting authority and do not make the rules for the Church. Rather, their main function is to provide Spiritual and Temporal Support to local churches and pastoral staff and to enforce the rules set forth by the General Conference in the Book of Discipline. There is a Council of Bishops and a President of the Council of Bishops, yet these individuals have no authority over local churches that are outside of the Annual Conference. There is no leader of the United Methodist Church, no person that plays the role as the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church or Patriarch as in the Orthodox Catholic Church. They are at best “spiritual leaders,” with limited power and defined duties.

In the next blog, we will look at the trust clause within the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

Should you have specific 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.

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