Understanding The Trust Clause
When any United Methodist asks, “who owns the church building,” the answer is simple, but often misunderstood: The United Methodist Church does.
Legally, congregations hold the title of a local church, but they hold it “in trust” for the entire United Methodist Church. This point of church law, the trust clause, is spelled out in detail in ¶2501 of the 2008 Book of Discipline.
The trust clause dates back to the beginnings of Methodism, and is one of the essential foundations of the Methodist connectional system. Under church law, all church property is held in trust for the denomination, which means that, legally, the denomination has the right to succeed to the title of a local church property. But spiritually, United Methodists also recognize that there is a sacred trust between today’s church members and future generations of United Methodists. The trust clause preserves the doctrine and identity of United Methodism.
Some Christians who are more familiar with congregationalist churches have difficulty understanding the trust clause or see it as some kind of obstacle. In the congregationalist system of church governance, every local church is independent and autonomous. However, United Methodists have a different form of church governance, based on leadership provided by bishops and members elected to a General Conference. This connectional system, based on the story of the early church as told in Acts 2, connects churches together under a shared polity and understanding of Scripture.
The advent of the trust clause in Methodism can be traced to its founder John Wesley, who viewed the “connection” as a crucial concept of Methodist doctrine and polity. Its importance was reaffirmed at the Christmas Conference in 1784, which established Methodism in America; at the constitutional conference in 1808, and at the uniting conference in 1968, which created the current United Methodist Church.
The trust clause has been upheld in civil courts for more than 200 years, which recognize the church’s religious rights. Because some congregations want to leave the denomination and take their property with them, the trust clause exists to ensure that United Methodist principles, especially those of grace social justice and unity amid diversity, are preserved and that forgiveness and reconciliation are practiced in the midst of conflict.
Specifically, ¶2503 in the Book of Discipline requires that all written instruments conveying property held or hereafter acquired for use as a place of worship or other church activities, except in conveyances that require property ownership to revert to the grantor if and when it’s used as a place of worship terminates, shall contain the following trust clause:
In trust, that said premises shall be used, kept, and maintained as a place of divine worship of the United Methodist ministry and members of The United Methodist Church; subject to the Discipline, usage, and ministerial appointments of said Church as from time to time authorized and declared by the General Conference and by the annual conference within whose bounds the said premises are situated. This provision is solely for the benefit of the grantee, and the grantor reserves no right or interest in said premises.
Occasionally, there might not be a trust clause in the written instrument of conveyance. But civil and church law have both concluded that the absence of the trust clause does not change the right or interest of the denomination in succeeding to the title of local church property or the obligation of the local church to hold the property in trust for the denomination. When the required trust clause is not included in the instrument of conveyance, there is an implied trust clause imposed by ¶2503.6 in the Book of Discipline.
As people of faith work in mission and ministry, conflict can arise. Historically, churches have wanted to separate from the denomination over issues of pastoral compensation, squabbles over worship styles, and not wanting to accept pastors of different races or clergywomen in their pulpits. The reasons are varied. But the trust clause ensures churches will be used solely for purposes consonant with the mission of the entire denomination and that today’s churches will be kept in trust for each of us and for the future generation of United Methodists.