The South Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church is suing Southern Methodist University, claiming the Dallas school improperly moved last month to sever ties with the conference and denomination.
The dispute deals with who has ultimate control over SMU and comes as The United Methodist Church faces uncertainty about its future, given internal division over how accepting to be of homosexuality.
The suit, filed Dec. 4 in state civil court in Dallas County, challenges SMU’s recent change of its articles of incorporation to delete mention of the conference.
“By this lawsuit, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference seeks to preserve a 100-year-relationship that it or its predecessors have held with SMU,” said a statement from the jurisdiction’s Mission Council, which authorized the court action.
SMU released its own statement Dec. 5.
“SMU cherishes our history with the (United Methodist) Church, and we are committed to maintaining close connections with the church and its successors.
“In response to the debate regarding the future organizational structure of the church, the SMU board of trustees recently updated its governance documents to make it clear that SMU is solely maintained and controlled by its board of trustees as the ultimate authority for the university.”
The statement concludes:
“With Methodist in our name, the Perkins School of Theology as a resource and assurance of Methodist representation on the board of trustees, the church will continue to have important influence in the governance of SMU.”
A spokeswoman said SMU’s leadership was not commenting beyond the statement.
The conference’s Mission Council did, through its own spokeswoman, offer a little beyond its own statement.
“The South Central Jurisdictional Conference Mission Council regrets a lawsuit was necessary yet felt SMU’s conduct left them with no viable alternative,” said the Rev. Kim Jenne.
The United Methodist Church is, in the U.S., organized into geographical jurisdictions, consisting of annual conferences overseen by bishops. Every four years, delegates to the jurisdictional conferences meet and elect bishops, while also dealing with other church matters.
The South Central Jurisdiction includes annual conferences in eight states. Its Mission Council — consisting of bishops, other clergy and lay people — makes decisions about the operations of the jurisdiction between the quadrennial conference meetings.
The lawsuit stresses SMU’s long legal relationship with The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations, and with the South Central Jurisdictional Conference. It describes the conference as “the founder, owner, controller and manager of SMU.”
Specifically, the suit claims SMU’s 1996 articles of incorporation guarantee the conference the right to approve SMU trustees, the right to veto efforts to sell campus real estate and the right to have no amendment made to the articles of incorporation without approval by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.
The suit includes as an appendix SMU’s Nov. 15 filing with the Texas Secretary of State, amending the Articles of Incorporation to delete the phrase “said educational institution to be forever owned, maintained and controlled by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church.”
Such an act by SMU’s board seeks to “impair” the conference’s rights as guaranteed by the 1996 Articles of Incorporation, including “its beneficial interest in SMU’s assets held in trust by the trustees for SCJC,” the lawsuit says.
Asked to elaborate on the ownership question, Jenne said by email: “It is SCJC’s position that SMU holds the legal title to its property, in trust for SCJC.”
SMU has not filed with the court a formal response to the lawsuit. The school’s statement said, “SMU believes its board’s actions are in compliance with the Texas Business Organizations Code and reflect the way the university is operated.”
The question of how much control the South Central Jurisdictional Conference has over SMU previously arose in 2008, after the school won its bid to be home to the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Some United Methodists opposed the idea of a United Methodist school becoming the site, based on opposition to the decision by President George W. Bush — a United Methodist — to lead the U.S. into war against Iraq.
Opposition focused on a policy institute that critics said would be partisan, and at odds with United Methodist values.
SMU got support from the South Central Jurisdictional Conference Mission Council, and ultimately the conference itself voted down a measure that sought to prevent SMU from leasing land for the institute.
Last February's special called General Conference of The United Methodist Church resulted in approval of the Traditional Plan, by a 438-384 vote. The plan reinforces restrictions against same-sex unions and LGBTQ ordination.
The aftermath has included open resistance to those policies by some U.S. churches and conferences, and at least two plans submitted for the 2020 General Conference that call for The United Methodist Church to divide into two or more denominations, based on perspectives about homosexuality.
In April, trustees of Baldwin Wallace University, in Berea, Ohio, unhappy about the Traditional Plan’s passage, voted to end the school’s affiliation with The United Methodist Church. Leaders of many other United Methodist-affiliated colleges issued statements right after the 2019 General Conference, emphasizing their school’s non-discriminatory policies.
SMU President R. Gerald Turner was among those leaders. He also said: “Even as we value our historical relationship with the church, SMU is distinct from the church. … In founding SMU, members of the Methodist Church and the citizens of Dallas created a university as a separate corporate entity governed by the SMU Board of Trustees.”
The South Central Jurisdictional Conference’s lawsuit emphasizes that the 1996 Articles of Incorporation guarantee that at least half of the voting members of the SMU board must be United Methodist and that three bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction must be on the board.
Bishops Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference, Cynthia Harvey of the Louisiana Conference and Scott Jones of the Texas Conference currently serve on the SMU board. All three referred questions to SMU.
Two other bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction — Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference and Bishop Bob Farr of the Missouri Conference — serve on the Mission Council.
SMU’s Perkins School of Theology is one of 13 United Methodist theological schools. The Rev. William Lawrence, professor emeritus and former dean of Perkins, said he did not think the dispute would affect Perkins’ standing in The United Methodist Church.
The greater threat to Perkins and other United Methodist theological schools is proposed reduced funding from the denomination’s Ministerial Education Fund, he said.
Lawrence added that a possible issue with the lawsuit is whether the Mission Council could authorize the filing of it, or whether the conference itself would have to take that action.
“Jurisdictional conferences only exist when they’re in session,” he said.
Though word of the lawsuit was just beginning to circulate, one United Methodist clergyman expressed disappointment in SMU, his own and his son’s alma mater.
“SMU has long had a place in our hearts and I am saddened indeed by the decision of the trustees to unilaterally wrest it of its spiritual heritage,” said the Rev. Chappell Temple, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Sugar Land, Texas. “The fact that this is now a civil matter is even worse, for all the trustees had to do of the South Central Jurisdiction was to ask.”
The lawsuit is available online, under the parties’ names and under the case number, DC-19-19359.
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Heather Hahn contributed. Contact them at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.