Church court addresses disaffiliation questions

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The United Methodist Church’s top court released nine rulings March 1 related to a church law that governs how congregations can leave the denomination with property.

The eight decisions and memorandum from the United Methodist Judicial Council all stem from questions raised about the Book of Discipline’s new Paragraph 2553 — approved by the 2019 Special General Conference in St. Louis.

The church law essentially offers a limited way for congregations to gain release from The United Methodist Church’s centuries-old trust clause, which states that church property is held in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination.

In upholding the church law, the Judicial Council spelled out that any disaffiliation must include:

  • Approval for disaffiliation by at least a two-thirds majority of a church’s professing members present at the vote.
  • Establishment of terms and conditions between the exiting local church and its annual conference’s board of trustees.
  • Ratification of a church’s disaffiliation by a simple majority at an annual conference session.

Paragraph 2553 also says annual conferences — the denomination’s regional bodies — “may develop additional standard terms that are not inconsistent with the standard form of this paragraph.”

In these new rulings, the church court addresses more detailed questions about, among other things, the eligibility of some churches to use the law and the role of conference trustees in setting the terms for disaffiliation.

However, the church court has deferred ruling on whether clergy who disaffiliate are deemed to have surrendered their credentials and is instead asking for briefs on the matter. Briefs are due March 31 and reply briefs on April 10.

Already, 2,036 congregations have used Paragraph 2553 to exit the denomination. That’s less than 7% of U.S. congregations withdrawing since the measure took effect four years ago.

More decisions

The Judicial Council also released three other rulings March 1 that are unrelated to church disaffiliations.
In all three, the church court affirmed decisions of law by Bishop John R. Schol, who leads the Greater New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania conferences.
Decision 1461 deals with the use of funds from the sale of closed churches and other church properties in the Greater New Jersey Conference. Judicial Council member Beth Capen added a separate opinion emphasizing that an annual conference “may not reallocate funds from the sale of church property except for those purposes and under those conditions” set forth in the denomination’s Book of Discipline and in compliance with local, state and federal laws.
Decision 1462 affirms Schol’s ruling that he does not have the authority to rule on the U.S. tax code.
Decision 1463 agrees with Schol’s determination that a request he received in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference was not a question of law. 
The Rev. Dennis Blackwell, a Judicial Council member and pastor in the Greater New Jersey Conference, recused himself from deliberating in decisions involving Schol. 

However, annual conferences expect to take up more disaffiliation requests before the end of the year when the provision expires.

The Judicial Council has issued multiple rulings regarding Paragraph 2553 since its passage. Nevertheless, the provision continues to elicit questions about its application during annual conference sessions.

The Discipline — The United Methodist Church’s policy book — mandates that bishops respond to any properly posed questions of law raised during the conference sessions at which they preside and that those decisions of law in turn go before the Judicial Council for review.

The nine Judicial Council rulings review bishops’ decisions of law during the 2022 U.S. annual conference season.

One repeated question before bishops — and thus the church court — has been about how conferences determine the eligibility of churches to disaffiliate.

Paragraph 2553 allows U.S. congregations to exit with property for “reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality if they also meet the provision’s other financial and procedural requirements.

Because the church law was passed at the same General Conference that strengthened church bans against same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy, that has left the question of whether a congregation that supports those restrictions and its conference’s enforcement of them can take advantage of the provision.

In its rulings released March 1, the church court indicated that it was leaving that question largely up to individual conferences.

In Decision 1453, the church court affirmed Bishop David Graves’ decision of law supporting the Alabama-West Florida Conference’s disaffiliation process.

Graves said the conference’s policy is “not to explore the reasoning of a local church in deciding to disaffiliate for reasons of conscience.” He cited an earlier Judicial Council decision that allowed another conference to use a similar policy. In affirming Graves’ decision of law, the church court also affirmed his reasoning.

In Decision 1459, the church court also affirmed the part of Bishop Hee-Soo Jung’s decision of law that supported the Wisconsin Conference’s church disaffiliation process.

Unlike the Alabama-West Florida Conference, the Wisconsin Conference requires a disaffiliating church to “explain how the current Discipline or actions or inactions of the annual conference have affected the mission and unity of the congregation.”

Jung said the requirement “provides a framework consistent with Paragraph 2553 to explore the congregation’s relationship to The UMC and whether that relationship gives rise to an application of Paragraph 2553.” The Judicial Council agreed with Jung’s reasons as well.

However, the church court deferred ruling on another part of Jung’s decision dealing with disaffiliating clergy’s credentials until briefs can be submitted.

In Decision 1457 and Decision 1458, the Judicial Council affirmed two bishops’ decisions that upheld the role of the conference board of trustees in setting the terms and conditions for disaffiliation.

West Ohio Conference Bishop Gregory V. Palmer and Susquehanna Conference Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball each faced questions about whether the trustees’ role in Paragraph 2553 is in conflict with another part of the Discipline — Paragraph 2512.2, which says “trustees are amenable to the annual conference.” Both bishops asserted that no such conflict exists.

Steiner Ball explained that once the board of trustees reaches an agreement with an exiting congregation, the board must bring that disaffiliation request to the annual conference floor for an up or down vote.

“In this way, the Board of Trustees fulfills its responsibility to be amenable to the annual conference,” she wrote.

The Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko, Judicial Council secretary and pastor in the West Ohio Conference, recused herself from deliberating on any decisions involving Palmer.

In Decision 1455 and Decision 1456, the Judicial Council affirmed that both Palmer and Indiana Conference Bishop Julius C. Trimble were correct to rule out of order an attempt to use another part of the Discipline — Paragraph 2548.2 — for disaffiliation.

The church court said both bishops’ actions were consistent with the Judicial Council’s Decision 1449, which the church court released after the bishops’ rulings. The church court’s decision clarified that the property-transfer process in Paragraph 2548.2 “may not be used as a pathway for local churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.”

In Decision 1460, the Judicial Council affirmed two decisions of law by Bishop John R. Schol supporting the legality of “A Call to Discernment and Renewal,” the disaffiliation process adopted by the Greater New Jersey Conference. The conference’s terms and conditions include 17 items of due diligence, 13 required payments and seven other actions that a disaffiliating congregation must satisfy by the disaffiliation date.

The Rev. Dennis Blackwell, a Judicial Council member and pastor in the Greater New Jersey Conference, recused himself from deliberating on Schol’s decisions.

In a separate opinion included in multiple decisions, Judicial Council members Beth Capen and Kiboko urged their fellow court members to include more information upfront when affirming a bishop’s decision of law. “The specific issues that the Judicial Council is affirming in its review of a Bishop’s ruling on a question of law ought to be set forth in the Digest,” the two wrote.

Capen also wrote separately that an additional concern is that “episcopal rulings contain many nuanced statements that can be interpreted in a variety of ways” and thereby risk resulting in misapplication without a Judicial Council ruling identifying the key points.

In Decision 1454, the Judicial Council ruled that former Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones erred in making a substantive decision to an improperly presented question of law. According to the decision, the reason the question was improper was because it dealt with questions of the constitutionality and application of Paragraph 2553 that were beyond the scope of what a bishop should answer.

In a dissenting opinion, Capen said the church court should have affirmed the bishop’s ruling. “Only questions which are procedural or substantive matters relating solely to actions in a judicial or administrative process are not proper questions to be addressed in a substantive ruling by a bishop,” she wrote.

Judicial Council member Deanell Reece Tacha recused herself from the case because she is Jones’ sister-in-law.

In Memorandum 1452, the Judicial Council said it lacked jurisdiction to review Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi’s decision to strike down a petition in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference that she said negated the trustees’ authority under Paragraph 2553.

In the memorandum, the Judicial Council said the bishop did not receive a duly submitted question of law, and thus the submission was not properly before the church court.

The Judicial Council now has released rulings on 16 items from its 26-item docket. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the church court has been meeting online and publishing decisions as they are ready. The Judicial Council plans to resume holding in-person meetings this spring.

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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