Fast-growing church leaves with property

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Faced with no good alternatives, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference recently negotiated a way for its fastest-growing church to leave the denomination but keep the church property.

Theologically conservative Wesley United Methodist Church of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, is now simply Wesley Church, having in June paid the conference $100,000 for the church buildings and land, along with an additional $58,000 in other conference obligations.

The conference could have claimed the property under the trust clause of the Book of Discipline, the church law book. The clause states that local church properties are held “in trust” for the denomination, even if the church’s name is on the deed.  

Bishop Peggy Johnson, who leads the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware conferences, said she tried and failed to get Wesley United Methodist Church to reconsider leaving.

After that, she said, negotiating made sense because of the specifics of the situation, including a nearly $4 million mortgage on the property.

“It seemed to me a terrible thing to assume that debt as an annual conference,” she said.

Johnson also said the negotiated settlement does not set a precedent should other churches want to leave.

“We hope there isn’t such a situation,” said Johnson. “If there is, we take it case by case.”

The decision for conference trustees to negotiate a settlement was approved by the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference at its May 14-16 annual gathering. The approval came after debate and in a resolution that also established new conditions for any future such negotiations.

The Rev. James McIntire, pastor of Hope United Methodist Church in Havertown, Pennsylvania, was among those who favored the negotiations.

“We don’t need a building with a $4 million mortgage,” he said.

Voting to go

Wesley Church has grown from about 35 to more than 600 in worship under the Rev. Blake Deibler. He came in 1993 as a part-time licensed local pastor and full-time schoolteacher, and later went full-time as pastor.

As the church grew, it acquired more land and in 2012 built a new building, which resulted in the large mortgage.

Deibler told United Methodist News Service in a phone interview that the church stresses biblical inerrancy and has had concerns for years about what’s taught in United Methodist seminaries.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference in recent years had the highly publicized case of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who officiated at the marriage of his son to another man in violation of church law.

But Deibler said the handling of that case — Schaefer remains an ordained elder, but in the California-Pacific Conference — was only one of a number of factors that led to the break.

“Basically, members of our church came to our staff and said, ‘What are we going to do when the (United) Methodist Church doesn’t follow the Bible or the Book of Discipline in certain areas?’” Deibler said.

The church took a straw vote to leave in January, and later took a more formal vote, with 441 members in favor and five against.

Robert Shoemaker, legal counsel for the conference, said church leaders “started out asking for dialog” about leaving. “We had two choices ─ to litigate, or to talk to them.”

Shoemaker said negotiations went forward with both sides accepting that the Book of Discipline and trust clause “governed,” but also with the reality that the conference did not want to end up with a heavily mortgaged building in a rural area.

“How could we ever sell it?” Shoemaker said, adding that planting a new church in the building was unrealistic.

The $100,000 figure was negotiated through a series of meetings, mostly cordial “but sometimes emotions ran high,” Shoemaker said.

Deibler recalled “little to no animosity” and confirmed that the mortgage was a big factor. “That’s one of the reasons they were very gracious with us,” he said.

Wesley Church has affiliated with the Evangelical Association of Reformed and Congregational Christian Churches.

‘Not at odds’

Johnson said she deeply regretted the church’s decision to leave.

“Anytime the body of Christ has a unity issue it is sad, but I do believe they will continue to do wonderful work in the name of Jesus Christ, just as we are,” she said. “We’re not at odds.”

It’s not uncommon for churches to consider leaving, said W. Warren Plowden, who has provided legal counsel to the South Georgia Conference for more than 30 years. “Churches try to run away all the time,” he explained. “They get mad or upset about something, and they are going to pull out of a conference.”

The trust clause usually keeps the church in the fold, Plowden said, but occasionally conferences negotiate a settlement for a church to depart with property, usually when the church is small and rural, and the property is not a likely candidate for a new church start.

The Wesley Church case is unusual because of the size of the church and the financial terms, he noted.

Other conservative churches have complained together about what they see as bishops’ failure to enforce the Book of Discipline against pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings.

Whether the Wesley Church case is any kind of harbinger of other departures is unclear, said retired Bishop William B. Oden. “The question is: Is this just the first tear in the fabric,’” he said.

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the unofficial conservative caucus Good News, praised Johnson for the outcome of the Wesley Church case.

“I appreciate the fact that she respects the sincerity of their beliefs and commitment to their principles and she found a way to let them be true to themselves,” he said.

The Rev. David Watson, a professor and dean at United Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Bill Arnold, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, have proposed a four-year suspension of the trust clause for churches at odds with the denomination’s Social Principle on sexuality. Under the proposal, such churches would be allowed to leave “with full ownership of their properties.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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