Recent rulings shape annual conference season

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As U.S. annual conferences start gathering this week, recent decisions by The United Methodist Church’s top court are influencing their agendas.

The Judicial Council has ruled that for now, individual churches — if they meet certain conditions — can leave the denomination while entire U.S. annual conferences cannot.

The recent church court decisions have left some United Methodists relieved and others frustrated.

But no matter where they stand, many United Methodists agree that annual conferences — regional church bodies that meet each year — will need to deal with the rulings’ ramifications.

Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton, who leads the New York Conference, expressed gratitude for the continued work of the denomination’s top court, which in the past few months has taken up multiple questions from the bishops on an expedited basis.

Bishops preside at annual conferences and often face questions of church law during those sessions. The bishops, in turn, often look to Judicial Council precedent for guidance.

Bickerton said in a press statement that the church court’s decision about U.S. annual conferences “provided clarity and direction as we move forward through these unprecedented days of challenge and change.”

The Judicial Council determined that annual conferences are a key part of The United Methodist Church’s connectional system of governance. Because of that, the church court ruled that only General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking body with authority over connectional matters — can establish the process by which an annual conference can leave the connection. But at this point, General Conference has not approved such a process for U.S. annual conferences.

After two years of adapting to the COVID pandemic, many annual conferences are meeting together in person this year for the first time since 2019.

However, along with these reunions come discussions of disunion.

On May 1, some theological conservatives launched the breakaway Global Methodist Church — no longer waiting for the COVID-postponed General Conference to take up a proposed protocol for separation. After struggling with a lack of visa availability, General Conference organizers postponed the international legislative assembly to 2024.

Another church court decision

Another recent Judicial Council decision could affect annual conference actions this year.
The church ruled that jurisdictional conferences can occur later this year to elect new U.S. bishops. Annual conferences often nominate one of their clergy members to stand as candidates for bishop.
Annual conferences elect delegates to both General Conference and jurisdictional conferences. Half of the delegates are laity and half are clergy. The delegates to the coming jurisdictional conferences were elected in 2018 and 2019.

That leaves annual conferences adjusting to a new challenge: providing a path for potential departures from The United Methodist Church with no formal separation plan in place.

The Rev. Rebekah Miles is among those who are thrilled that the Judicial Council decided annual conferences do not have the authority to exit under current church law.

Miles, who contributed to a brief in the case, is the Susanna Wesley Professor of Practical Theology and Ethics at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.

“This Judicial Council decision made our upcoming annual conferences sessions simpler,” said Miles, an Arkansas Annual Conference member. “With this ruling, the focus has shifted decisively to local church disaffiliation.”

The Rev. C. Chappell Temple — lead pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Sugar Land, Texas — submitted a brief arguing that annual conferences should be able to set their own rules for disaffiliation. While he was disappointed in the outcome, he agreed with Miles that the focus now moves to the local churches.

“It’s clear that disallowing conferences to consider disaffiliation now puts a heavy burden upon congregations to have that discussion and vote,” he said. He said he does not yet know what that means for Christ United Methodist, but the congregation has set up a task force to look at what it should do in response.

Temple had submitted a resolution that would set up a process for his home Texas Annual Conference to vote to leave, and Texas Conference Bishop Scott J. Jones was open to that possibility.

But in light of the Judicial Council’s ruling, the bishop said no such vote can take place.

“Now that the Judicial Council has been clear that we’re not allowed to disaffiliate, a motion to disaffiliate is out of order,” he said during a conference webinar.

Already withdrawn are resolutions calling for votes on the disaffiliation of the Alabama-West Florida, Northwest Texas and South Georgia conferences.  

At the same time, a number of annual conferences already have planned special sessions for the fall that will exclusively deal with the disaffiliations of individual churches.

Wespath Benefits and Investment also was an interested party on the question of annual conference disaffiliation. The agency manages investments for pensions and other retirement-plan assets for United Methodist clergy and lay employees on behalf of annual conferences. U.S. annual conferences are pension plan sponsors and thus legally responsible for paying benefits.

“We understand the Judicial Council’s rationale and appreciate their thoughtful analysis,” said Dale Jones, Wespath’s managing director of church relations. “We understand the decision has likely been welcomed by some in the church and has been disappointing to others. It is our desire to work with and support all annual conferences and conference leadership.”

Still, Temple and others acknowledge that with no protocol in place, an individual church’s disaffiliation can come with a hefty price tag — including costs related to pensions.

The same 2019 special General Conference that strengthened church bans against same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy also passed the church law that is now the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2553. That provision allows congregations to exit with property if they meet certain financial and procedural obligations. The church law expires on Dec. 31, 2023, adding urgency for congregations that hope to use it.

Under Paragraph 2553, a departing church must pay:

  • Two years of apportionments — shares of church giving.
  • Cost for the transfer of title or other legal work.
  • Any outstanding loans or debts.
  • A fair share of its annual conference’s unfunded clergy pension liability — that is, what conferences will owe retirees. An annual conference determines what a local church’s share is.

The Judicial Council also has ruled that a majority of annual conference voters must ratify a church’s disaffiliation before it can be finalized.

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

Earlier this year, the Judicial Council affirmed additional requirements made by two annual conferences. Since then, a handful of conferences have added the requirement that a disaffiliating church must pay some share of its overall assets. The Judicial Council has not received — and thus has not ruled on — any questions about these new asset requirements.

Some theological conservatives are pushing for annual conferences to use another church law, Paragraph 2548.2, to allow churches to move to the Global Methodist Church. That paragraph allows the transfer of church property to another denomination.

Read 2022 reports

United Methodist News will post 2022 annual conference reports as they become available. Reports from the Liberia, Hungary Provisional, Kenya-Ethiopia and Rwanda Provisional conferences are online now.

The Council of Bishops sent multiple questions to the Judicial Council about the meaning and application of the paragraph. The church court has now added those questions to its docket. Church law requires the Judicial Council to accept briefs for at least 30 days before rendering any rulings. Briefs are due June 23, and reply briefs are due June 30.

In the meantime, the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, which meets June 2-4, is among those trying to navigate a way forward while acknowledging that many in the conference are likely to go in different directions. For example, two Western Pennsylvania Conference members filed briefs on the question of annual conference disaffiliation, each offering opposing arguments.

John R. Wilson, conference secretary, argued that conferences should not be allowed to depart.

“I wanted to remind the Judicial Council that the annual conference according to the constitution is the basic body of The United Methodist Church,” he said. “The words ‘basic body’ can have no other meaning than that an annual conference is organic, integral and cannot divide. I believe this Judicial Council decision reaffirmed that position.”

The Rev. Robert Zilhaver, a district superintendent in the conference, was among those who argued for permitting conference disaffiliations. Zilhaver, who has long experience submitting briefs in Judicial Council cases, also helped Wilson file his brief.

While disappointed in the ruling, Zilhaver said the outcome would have no impact on the Western Pennsylvania Conference.

“This annual conference, we are looking at three different pathways to facilitate ministry from different theological perspectives, none of which was to have the WPA Conference separate from The United Methodist Church,” he said.

In this time of transition, many of those involved in planning the Global Methodist Church also expect to remain part of The United Methodist Church.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, the main organizing force behind the new denomination, has made clear it will stick around to help congregations that want to leave The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Jay Therrell, who will become the WCA’s president on June 1, said the group is disappointed the Judicial Council ruled against annual conferences leaving under current church law.

“We will continue in our work of helping theologically conservative churches and clergy to find their way to a church that better aligns, missional and theologically, with their beliefs,” he said. “We look forward to the day when they will be free of conflict and able to focus entirely on the Great Commission of making disciples of Jesus.”

Bickerton, the Council of Bishops president, said those who plan to remain United Methodist also are just as committed to following the teachings of Jesus. He said bishops have pledged to lead the church in the days ahead with a Wesleyan understanding of God’s grace, anchored in Scripture.

“While we understand that some of our siblings will leave The United Methodist Church, our prayer is that we will continue to provide a spirit of welcome for everyone,” he said in a statement.

“Let us work hard each day to have hearts, minds and spirits that extend the love of God even when we disagree.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Sam Hodges, a UM News writer based in Dallas, contributed to this report. Contact them at [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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