Trust Clause: A Primer

What is the United Methodist Trust Clause?

The United Methodist Trust Clause is a part of church law whereby every church building is held “in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination.” 
Learn More – Book of Discipline (2016), para. 2501: “All properties of United Methodist local churches and other United Methodist agencies and institutions are held, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination, and ownership and usage of church property is subject to the Discipline. This trust requirement is an essential element of the historic polity of The United Methodist Church or its predecessor denominations or communions and has been a part of the Discipline since 1797.”

What does this mean?

Basically, that the local church owns the property, but the property can only be used for certain purposes of benefit to the entire denomination.
Learn More – Book of Discipline (2016), para. 2503: “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.”

Is owning property “in trust” common, or is this unique to United Methodism?

It’s very common. The idea of holding property in trust for someone else is an important mechanism for insuring that property is only used for certain specified purposes, like when a parent or guardian establish trusts for the benefit of their children. Money or other property is placed in a trust, and they (or a third party) have legal ownership of the trust property but can only use that property for the benefit of the children. Use of the trust property for the legal owner’s benefit is a violation of the trust and remedies can be enforced by a court of law. Learn More  

What is the history of our trust clause?

The trust clause, as we know it today, first appeared in our Book of Discipline in 1797 after being approved by the 1796 General Conference (meeting in Baltimore). John Wesley – the founder of Methodism – helped start the trust clause when he crafted deeds for three Methodist preaching houses in England. Learn more.
Learn More – In 1796, here in the United States, Bishops Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke adapted a “model deed” which was adopted by the General Conference. See, especially pages 12-15.

What is the purpose of the trust clause?

The answer to this question goes to the heart of what it means to be United Methodist. Many of the core principles that motivated the development of the trust clause are still important today: connectionalism, itinerancy, and mission. 

Connectionalism - Every United Methodist congregation is interconnected throughout the denomination via a unique, interlocking chain of conferences. The United Methodist Church practices representative democracy in its governance. Conferences elect delegates who are authorized to act and vote. Learn more about our structure.

Itinerancy - John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was an “itinerant” preacher, traveling from town to town in England, setting up Methodist societies. In the days of Francis Asbury, the first of two Methodist bishops in the United States, a pastor – most often a circuit rider – might be appointed to half of a state or more. His appointment might be for only three months, after which he moved to another circuit. This traveling from place to place to begin Methodist societies in principle led to the itinerant system The United Methodist Church uses today. “Itinerancy” refers specifically to the commitment by pastors to go and serve wherever their bishops send them. “Appointment” is the action taken by bishops. Learn more about itinerancy.

Mission – Book of Discipline (2016), para. 120: “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” Learn more.

Has the trust clause ever been challenged in court?

Yes, and except for a few unusual cases, the trust clause and similar ones from other denominations have been upheld by the court for more than a hundred years. The trust clause has never been overturned in the state of Maryland or West Virginia, and it is codified in Maryland state law. Learn More 

What impact does the trust clause have on the day-to-day operations of my church?

In reality, not much. However, because your church holds its property in trust for the denomination, it does have a legal obligation to maintain and protect that property so it can continue to be used as a United Methodist church in the future.

Does the trust clause place any restrictions on our church property?

Yes. In addition to the general responsibilities to maintain and protect the property, the Book of Discipline sets forth detailed procedures a church must follow before taking on major actions affecting its property, such as any sale, lease, mortgage, or extensive renovation. The district superintendent must consent to any of these actions, and this reflects the denomination’s shared interest (through the trust clause) in the future of the church property.

Is the trust clause fair? I’ve heard people in my church say that it isn’t right for the denomination to have such control over our property – after, we pay the bills!

The most important point here is that no United Methodist church stands alone. Each church is part of a larger connection of shared purpose and mission that has been in existence, in the United States, officially since 1784. This connection is at the core of what it means to be United Methodist.

Financial support of the church is, of course, essential to the mission and ministry of the congregation. Without it, where would the church be? But it isn’t just your contributions that build and sustain the church; countless others, across the generations, have made it possible for you to worship, witness, serve, pray, sing, and give in your setting. And, financial support is just one side of a covenant as United Methodists. The United Methodist Church also made a covenant to supply and supervise clergy, provide financial and other aid to the church if needed, develop Sunday school materials and hymnals, and many other things.