The United Methodist Church operates under the Trust Clause, a provision in the Book of Discipline that dates back to 1796 and states that a local church holds its property, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination. According to the General Council on Finance and Administration, “the principal reason for this Trust Clause is to ensure that United Methodist local church property will continue to be used for United Methodist Church purposes.”
In recent years, some churches have expressed a desire to leave the denomination over the United Methodist stance on human sexuality. At the special session of General Conference in 2019, legislation was passed that relates to the Trust Clause. It is found in paragraph 2553 of the 2016 Book of Discipline and titled “Disaffiliation of a Local Church Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.”
The process for disaffiliation is laid out in the subparagraphs of ¶2553, including the rights of a local church “to retain its real and personal, tangible and intangible property,” once a prescribed process is completed.
The process for disaffiliation and release of the Trust Clause involves several financial payments including:
- The local church would pay 50 percent of the assessed value of that property, in recognition of the historic partnership between the local church and the denomination.
- The local church would also pay an additional 12 months of mission shares beyond the disaffiliation date.
- The local church will additionally pay the church’s Fair Share of the unfunded pension liability as a portion of the total Annual Conference liability allotted to every local church.
There are additional payments that may not apply to every congregation.
- If there are any un-paid mission shares during the twelve months prior to disaffiliation, they must be brought up to date.
- If there are any outstanding loans made by the Conference to the local church – these must be paid off.
- The congregation must satisfy any outside debts or obligations, or arrange to have them transferred to the new entity which will be established when the congregation sets itself up as an independent organization. For example, if the local church has a mortgage form a bank on its property, it must arrange with the bank to transfer that mortgage to the new (non-United Methodist) independent local church.
- And if the local church has any endowments, gifts or funds that were restricted to the benefit of the United Methodist Denomination (or its predecessor denominations) the congregation will have to arrange to have those funds returned to the donor or the donors’ heirs.
In addition to these payments, there are some additional terms which require action, but not necessarily payment.
- Any congregation who leaves the denomination will no longer be able to use the name “United Methodist” or the cross-and-flame logo, and will surrender its non-profit status under the IRS group ruling granted to the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist church.
- The congregation needs to create a new entity, and transfer all obligations, assets and organizational documents to the new entity.
- All costs related to the transfer of the property must be paid by the local congregation.
- Any local church that has a reverter clause in its deed must file for release of the reverter or return the referenced property.
- The congregation will be responsible for obtaining pastoral leadership and assume all responsibilities for its Pastor’s salary and benefits after the date of disaffiliation.
Churches seeking to petition for disaffiliation must:
- Broadly publicize a Church Conference meeting to as many of the members of the church as possible, and in a timely fashion (at least 10 days, but not more than 125 days). The motion to disaffiliate must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting
- Complete a written disaffiliation agreement. The terms and conditions for disaffiliation are to be established between the individual local church and the Annual Conference Board of Trustees (with the advice of the Cabinet and other specified conference officers). These are required to include the Standard Conditions which have been established by the General Council on Finance and Administration. In addition, the agreement may include other terms established by the Conference Trustees and must include the effective date of disaffiliation. The agreed upon terms and conditions must then be “memorialized in a binding Disaffiliation Agreement between the annual conference and the trustees of the local church.”
- Have the disaffiliation ratified by a majority of members at a session of the Annual Conference.
The new paragraph 2553 bases the ability of a local church to leave the denomination on a few limiting factors.
One is that the disaffiliation must be “For Reasons of Conscience” … specifically, “Regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference OR the related actions or inactions of its annual conference….”
There is also a time limit on this ability. The provisions of ¶2553 expire on December 31, 2023, and the process must start early enough to complete all steps by this date.
Paragraph 2553 does not apply in the case of a congregation that wishes to disaffiliate for any reason or reasons not related to human sexuality. In these cases, the long-standing provisions of paragraph 2549 would apply as they always have.
Any church beginning a discernment process about disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church, should contact their district superintendent, who will provide them with pertinent information specific to their church.