Megachurch takes unusual disaffiliation route

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Key points:

  • St. Andrew United Methodist Church, the second largest congregation in the North Texas Conference, has decided to leave The United Methodist Church.
  • The decision was made by the church’s executive committee, not through a congregational vote. 
  • North Texas Conference Bishop Michael McKee said churches wanting to disaffiliate are expected to follow Book of Discipline Paragraph 2553, which has a number of requirements, including a two-thirds congregational vote to leave.
  • St. Andrew’s leadership said its property is not subject to The United Methodist Church’s trust clause.
  • The church leadership says the church will have a better future outside The United Methodist Church but will not be joining the Global Methodist Church.  

A Dallas-area megachurch has announced it is leaving The United Methodist Church, but without taking a congregational vote or in other ways following the denomination’s approved path for churches that want to disaffiliate. 

St. Andrew United Methodist Church of Plano, Texas — the second largest church in the North Texas Conference, with about 6,500 members — went public with its plans late last month.

“Everyone involved has a deep love for the denomination that birthed us; but the fractures and flaws of the institution are too deep to ignore,” said the Rev. Arthur Jones, senior pastor, and Kathy King, the church’s executive committee chair, in a statement.

Many United Methodist churches in Texas and across the U.S. have in recent months disaffiliated or explored doing so under Book of Discipline Paragraph 2553. Though The United Methodist Church has a trust clause — meaning local church properties are held in trust for the denomination — Paragraph 2553 offers a pathway for local churches to depart with their properties. But the provision has detailed requirements, including a two-thirds vote for disaffiliation by church members.

St. Andrew reported that its executive committee made the decision to leave after extensive study and votes by other key church committees. Leadership described the congregation to UM News as “overwhelmingly supportive.” 

The church’s move caught many in the North Texas Conference by surprise, including Bishop Michael McKee.

“I was not aware of what St. Andrew was considering; they only contacted me to inform me of their decision,” he said in a written response to questions from UM News.

McKee said the North Texas Conference expects clergy and churches to uphold the Book of Discipline, including following Paragraph 2553 for disaffiliation.

“The process by which St. Andrew made this decision is unique in the history of our Wesleyan tradition, which requires congregational votes on major decisions,” McKee told UM News. “I mourn the fact (that) the members of St. Andrew were denied both voice and vote on the most consequential decision their church has ever made.”

Others in the North Texas Conference also spoke out.

“I find it alarming that they made this decision without a congregational vote,” said the Rev. Don Underwood, pastor emeritus of Christ United Methodist Church, another large congregation in Plano. “The protection for church members that is provided by open meetings, dissenting voices and congregational votes is a cherished Methodist tradition, and it is required by the Discipline.”

St. Andrew’s leaders stressed that the church’s trustees, staff parish committee and finance committee worked together in advising the executive committee.

“Given the complexity of the research and challenges, it was decided that in the best interest of the congregation, the executive committee would ultimately make the decision of our future denominational affiliation,” King and Jones said in their statement.

St. Andrew does not consider itself out of the denomination yet, its leadership telling UM News that the “technical disaffiliation date” is still to be determined. But the church has announced its name is changing to “St. Andrew Methodist Church.” It also has amended its articles of incorporation and bylaws to remove references to the Book of Discipline and specifically the denomination’s trust clause.

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“These amendments project our claim to the ownership of our church real estate, regardless of affiliation,” said Greg Greene, chair of the trustees, in a statement to the church.

While McKee expressed deep concern about St. Andrew’s approach to disaffiliation, he did not respond to UM News’ request to know whether the North Texas Conference will go to court to challenge St. Andrew’s actions. 

McKee and St. Andrew’s leadership separately confirmed to UM News that they are in communication.

The church’s leadership told UM News that they are willing to meet with the North Texas Conference “to exit our relationship with the integrity our church has always exhibited including discussions relative to apportionments and unfunded pension liability.”

Paragraph 2553 requires departing churches to pay two years of apportionments — shares of church giving — and pay its share of the conference’s unfunded pension liabilities. The provision also has a number of other requirements that require close cooperation with the annual conference — something that hasn’t happened in St. Andrew’s case. 

The United Methodist Church has faced internal division for decades, with LGBTQ inclusion a flashpoint. 

Traditionalists have expressed frustration that the denomination’s bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy have often not been enforced by bishops and other conference leaders. Centrist and progressive leaders have decried the restrictive policies toward LGBTQ people, and defiance of those policies has been widespread in some areas. 

Recognizing the divide, the 2019 General Conference approved Paragraph 2553, which carries the title “Disaffiliation of a Local Church Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.” The provision expires at the end of 2023.

In January 2020, a diverse group of church leaders proposed a formal split of the denomination. But General Conference, the denomination’s law-making assembly, has been postponed until 2024 due to the pandemic. 

Annual conferences have approved the disaffiliations of roughly 700 churches since 2019, according to a UM News review of U.S. annual conference actions. The General Council on Finance and Administration also is reporting church disaffiliations. But the finance agency’s tally of 505 lags behind UM News’ data because it must wait for annual conferences to submit their official reports. 

Others are poised to leave, but the total going or about to go still represents a small percentage of the more than 30,000 U.S. congregations.

St. Andrew’s leadership said the divide over homosexuality did not factor in their move to disaffiliate.

“Our evaluations and ultimate decision had nothing to do with sexual orientation or related matters and less than 1% of our conversations even mentioned this,” Greene said in his statement.

Instead, church leaders stressed that the church’s best future will be outside The United Methodist Church.

“The UMC has offered many services during the decades of our affiliation,” King and Jones said in their statement. “However, as one of the largest churches in the system, we realized how independent we are, already providing many of our own services. The fact is we can protect our finances, our property and our pastors by going in a new direction.”

St. Andrew’s leadership noted that the Rev. Robert Hasley, the church’s founding pastor and senior pastor for 36 years, initiated discussions about the church’s future a few years back.

Shortly before his death on July 21, Hasley recorded a statement favoring disaffiliation for St. Andrew, the leadership said.

St. Andrew’s leadership also said the church will not be joining the Global Methodist Church, a new, traditionalist denomination, or any other existing denomination. But the church doesn’t want to stay independent long. 

“We will be looking to create affiliations with those who also desire greater accountability with more efficient systems and structures than we have had with the UMC,” Jones and King said in their statement.

St. Andrew’s leadership confirmed to UM News that two recent cases influenced their disaffiliation decision. 

One involved the former Blue Ridge United Methodist Church, now Christ United Church. That church in Blue Ridge, Texas, sought to disaffiliate under Paragraph 2553, but leaders felt the North Texas Conference was not cooperating. When the church — after a unanimous congregational vote — decided to change its name and organizing documents and leave on its own, the North Texas Conference filed suit, arguing the trust clause prevented such a departure. 

The conference met with unfavorable rulings from Judge John R. Roach Jr., of Texas’ 296th Judicial Court. This summer, the conference and the church reached a confidential settlement, ending the case. Roger Little, chair of Christ United’s trustees and its lay leader, described the conclusion as amicable.

“Closing the case was part of us moving forward,” he said. “We wish the bishop and The United Methodist Church well. Our focus needs to be in the community and helping those in need and doing what the good Lord wants us to do.”

In response to a UM News query, St. Andrew’s leadership said they “looked closely at the methodology used by Blue Ridge/Christ United Church as well as the decision by a Collin County District judge recognizing a nonprofit corporation’s legal rights to amend its governing documents and property documents.”

St. Andrew’s is also in Collin County. 

St. Andrew’s leadership added that “the trust clause doesn’t apply in relation to our property. St. Andrew members are the ones that have built the campus, and the property will remain with those who have built and maintained the church.”

St. Andrew’s leadership also said they looked to Southern Methodist University’s decision to amend its fundamental documents to remove references to the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church having authority over the school. The South Central Jurisdiction went to court to block that move. A district court judge ruled for SMU, and the case is on appeal.

McKee told UM News that the Blue Ridge/Christ United Church case does not create a precedent for North Texas Conference churches that want to exit without using Paragraph 2553. He also said the SMU/South Central Jurisdiction case has no bearing on the St. Andrew situation or any other disaffiliation efforts.

If the North Texas Conference chooses to go to court to block St. Andrew’s disaffiliation and property rights assertions, it will be doing so in Texas, where a breakaway group ultimately prevailed in a fight for control of Episcopal Church properties in Fort Worth. 

Lloyd J. Lunceford, a lawyer who has represented many local churches seeking to exit denominations, said the Texas Supreme Court clarified in 2014 that “neutral principles of law” will apply when state courts decide church property disputes. Texas is not among the minority of states that automatically give deference to denominations.

The particulars of a case, including the history of a church’s articles of incorporations and deeds, will be what Texas courts look at, according to Lunceford.

“The bottom line is in Texas, outcomes are going to vary,” he said. “It’s going to depend on the facts. Sometimes the denomination will win, and sometimes the local church will win.”

The Rev. William Lawrence, retired dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and a former president of the denomination’s Judicial Council, said if the North Texas Conference does not challenge St. Andrew’s disaffiliation move, other churches are likely to try to depart in the same way.

“I believe that this declaration of independence by St. Andrew United Methodist Church is something that the bishop of the Dallas area and the people of the North Texas Conference must oppose in accordance with our United Methodist Discipline and in the civil courts all the way to the [U.S.] Supreme Court, if necessary,” he said.

St. Andrew’s leadership hopes for a peaceful parting. 

“We will continue to love all churches, those part of the UMC and those that are leaving for other paths,” they said in a press release. 

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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