Court rules on exiting clergy and churches

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Key points:

  • The United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council weighed in on whether withdrawing clergy must surrender their credentials.
  • The denomination’s top court continued to address questions about how much conferences should scrutinize a church’s reasons for disaffiliating under Paragraph 2553.
  • The rulings come as a growing number of U.S. churches meet the requirements to leave the denomination with property.
  • The Judicial Council also released rulings stemming from last fall’s jurisdictional conferences, including one examining a resolution on LGBTQ inclusion adopted by all five jurisdictions.

Clergy who leave The United Methodist Church do not surrender their clergy credentials unless they are facing some other disciplinary action, the denomination’s top court ruled.

“Clergy who withdraw from their annual conference membership by written request or by simply leaving their appointment have not surrendered their credentials unless action is taken against them,” the Judicial Council said in Decision 1482.

The decision was among five rulings the church court released April 25 that deal with church disaffiliations.

For more than 200 years, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained that church property is held in trust for the entire denomination.

However, under Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline, U.S. congregations have a limited right to exit the denomination with property if they meet certain financial and procedural obligations. The church law — passed by the 2019 General Conference after decades of intensifying debate over same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy — expires at the end of this year.

Among the provision’s requirements is that the disaffiliation receives at least a two-thirds vote by the congregation and majority approval by the congregation’s annual conference — a regional body with voting members from multiple churches. The church law makes no mention of clergy, who can decide for themselves whether they want to stay or go.

So far, 2,469 congregations have cleared the necessary hurdles under Paragraph 2553 to withdraw. That represents the departure of about 8% of The United Methodist Church’s U.S. congregations since the church law took effect in 2019.

Paragraph 2553 allows annual conferences to add requirements for disaffiliation that are not inconsistent with the provision, and the Judicial Council has previously upheld various conference additions.

However, the Judicial Council said the Wisconsin Conference went too far when it added as part of disaffiliation that a church’s pastor must notify the district superintendent in writing of the pastor’s intention to remain in The United Methodist Church, retire or surrender credentials in order to continue to lead the local church after disaffiliation.

Rulings address LGBTQ resolution, Congo special session

The Judicial Council released rulings April 25 stemming from last fall’s jurisdictional conferences, including one dealing with a resolution on LGBTQ inclusion adopted by all five jurisdictions.
The United Methodist Church’s top court also issued a memorandum related to a special session held by the Congo Central Conference in 2018.
Jurisdictions in the U.S. and central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines are the intermediate organizational bodies in the denomination that are responsible for electing bishops and handling other matters in their geographic region.

“An annual conference cannot condition disaffiliation of a local church on any such statement by clergy, especially one which incorrectly states that withdrawal or surrender of conference membership is a surrender of credentials,” the Judicial Council said.

At heart, Decision 1482 deals with the distinction between a clergyperson’s conference membership and the Rev. title in front of their name.

United Methodist clergy are not members of congregations but of their conferences. Paragraph 360 of the Book of Discipline allows clergy in good standing to withdraw from their conference membership and transfer to another denomination.

Clergy typically lose their credentials only under complaint of violating church law or if they are a provisional clergy member who has withdrawn from or been discontinued in the ordination process.

In a footnote, the church court noted that district superintendents have a duty to find out the preferences of their clergy during appointment season. However, the footnote added, “this is a far cry” from the Wisconsin Conference requirement.

In a concurring opinion, Judicial Council member Beth Capen emphasized that even if clergy still have their credentials, they cannot be part of two denominations at once. She cited Judicial Council Decision 696 from 1993, which says “a person cannot belong to another denomination and remain a member of The United Methodist Church.”

In other rulings released April 25, the Judicial Council dealt with how much conferences should scrutinize a church’s reasons for disaffiliating under Paragraph 2553.

The church law says U.S. congregations may exit with property for “reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality if they also meet the provision’s other stipulations.

In Decision 1476, the church court spelled out that conferences are free to determine whether or not churches seeking disaffiliation must demonstrate their reasons of conscience. The ruling affirmed decisions by Alabama-West Florida Conference Bishop David W. Graves and District Superintendent Jean Tippit regarding the disaffiliation of First United Methodist Church in Pace, Florida.

Alabama-West Florida Conference is among the conferences that do not question churches’ reasons of conscience for withdrawing.

“When an annual conference resolved by policy not to inquire, scrutinize, or require show of conscientious reasons for disaffiliation, a local church may disaffiliate, provided the church conference and voting process were conducted in an open and fair manner and all requirements of the annual conference and The Discipline have been met,” the church court said.

The Judicial Council added that the church court itself “will not question the reasons of conscience behind a church’s decision to disaffiliate and will uphold a board of trustees or annual conference decision not to question a church’s decision to disaffiliate.”

In Decision 1480, the Judicial Council dealt with a question from a special session of the North Carolina Conference, which does have a policy of requiring churches to note their reasons of conscience.

The Judicial Council affirmed a decision by Bishop Leonard E. Fairley. The bishop said all the churches before the special session were disaffiliating “for the very reasons” stated in Paragraph 2553, but that the paragraph and other Discipline provisions do not specify “what, if any, information must be supplied to an annual conference considering the disaffiliation of a local church.”

The Judicial Council agreed. “Paragraph 2553.1 does not require or mandate that the reasons of conscience for a local church’s disaffiliation be stated or given to the delegates of the annual conference,” Decision 1480 said.

The church court said that in discharging their duties under Paragraph 2553, bishops and other conference leaders “must strike a careful balance between maintaining confidentiality and transparency and protecting the rights of annual conference members to be informed on and to participate fully in all legislative decisions, including the ratification of local church disaffiliations.”

In Memorandum 1475, the Judicial Council said it did not have jurisdiction to weigh in after Graves ruled out of order a question about churches’ reasons for disaffiliation.  

“It is the long-standing policy of the Judicial Council that it lacks the authority to review and rule on parliamentary matters,” the church court said. The Judicial Council defines parliamentary matters as pertaining “to the order, organization, agenda, and decision-making procedures” of church meetings.

In Decision 1473, the Judicial Council took up an appeal by Bishop Patrick Streiff related to the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference’s vote to immediately move from The United Methodist Church to the breakaway Global Methodist Church.

Previously, the church court had said in Memorandum 1448 that it lacked jurisdiction to rule on Streiff’s decision of law. But in a concurrence, church court members said that in his role as sole active bishop of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe, Streiff would have standing to appeal the provisional conference’s actions.

“The members of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference acted without authority when they voted to unilaterally separate from The United Methodist Church in 2022,” the church court said in Decision 1473.

While acknowledging the ruling may not alter the reality of the departure, the church court said, “that annual conferences have no ‘unilateral right to disaffiliate without, apart from, or prior to enabling legislation passed by the General Conference.’”

For now, while churches in Bulgaria have left The United Methodist Church, church members in Romania continue to be part of the denomination and remain committed to serving refugees escaping the invasion of Ukraine.

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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