THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH TRUST CLAUSE vs The EXPIRATION OF ¶ 2553
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
“I would not have you be uninformed….”, Romans 1:13,
1st Thess. 4:13.
Even though the apostle Paul, in his letters to the Romans and the Thessalonians, was focusing on different subjects, his words accurately describe the present critical need of members of the United Methodist Church (UMC) to be fully informed and prepared to make serious decisions regarding the current state of the UMC, which will affect our local churches for generations.
I attended the 2022 South Georgia Annual Conference as a delegate from my church anticipating and praying for an open and honest discussion of these concerns. However, I found this lacking in the official sessions of the conference and returned home with a need to better understand these issues and feeling compelled to research and write this article.
Some of what follows is specific to the South Georgia conference, of which my church is a member. Other information is more general in nature. I offer this prayerfully with the hope that each of our churches will have the opportunity to engage in what John Wesley described as “Holy Conferencing”, a time of prayerful discernment in order to face these critical decisions in a godly and timely manner, characterized by speaking the truth in love, with the ultimate goal of serving and pleasing our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
GOVERNANCE OF THE UMC
As we consider the UMC and our local church, it is important to understand that the governing document of the UMC is the Book of Discipline (BOD), which can only be changed by the General Conference, which meets every four years, and is made up of lay and clergy delegates from all United Methodist Churches worldwide. Only the General Conference and the Book of Discipline can speak for the United Methodist Church. Matters of interpretation of the Discipline are decided by the Judicial Council, the highest ecclesiastical court in the United Methodist Church. Secular courts are extremely reluctant to interfere with its decisions.
A critical provision of the BOD is the Trust Clause, which provides that all property of local UMC churches is held in trust for the benefit of the UMC. This trust clause originated in the days of John Wesley, to prevent false teaching from Methodist pulpits. Now, it is often being used to hold the property of the local Methodist churches hostage to the very teaching it was designed to prevent.
The UMC is organized into Jurisdictions, which are made up of Annual Conferences. Each Annual Conference is led by a bishop, who is appointed by the Jurisdictional Conference, and typically serves an annual conference for about eight years. Each annual conference is divided into districts, led by district superintendents appointed by the bishop. My local church is a member of the Coastal District of the South Georgia Annual Conference, which, along with twelve other conferences make up the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
ISSUES FACING THE UMC
Issues of sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and standards for ordination have been discussed, debated, refined, and reaffirmed by thirteen general conferences over the last fifty years. However, the UMC is increasingly experiencing a widespread and open pattern of disobedience by bishops and elders who have sworn to uphold the Discipline. Their disobedience reveal the real issues dividing our church today, a lack of Scriptural authority and governance within the UMC, with many “doing what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Examples of this defiance include UMC agencies and boards which purport to speak for the UMC while expressing support for positions and polity in direct opposition to the BOD. Another example is the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, a practicing self-avowed lesbian, by the Western Jurisdiction.
The Judicial Council held that her election was in violation of the Discipline but stated that it lacked standing to enforce the decision and referred the matter back to the Western Jurisdiction. The BOD does not provide for enforcement powers, and the Council of Bishops chose not to enforce the Judicial Council’s decision. Thus, Bishop Oliveto still holds the episcopal office of bishop five years later.
Within our own Southeastern Jurisdiction, the North Georgia bishop attempted to remove the pastor midterm and seize the property of the largest church in the conference. Mt. Bethel recently settled the lawsuit brought against it by the North Georgia Conference by paying $13.1 million to the conference in exchange for a release of the trust clause’s seizure of their property.
At the 2022 Florida Annual Conference, a group of sixteen ministerial candidates were denied provisional approval for ordination because the Board of Ordained Ministry and the bishop insisted on the inclusion of two noncelibate gay or lesbian candidates. 106 Florida churches have now filed suit against the Florida Annual Conference in an effort to disaffiliate.
The South Carolina bishop is currently refusing to consider any disaffiliations despite the clear language of Paragraph 2553 (which I address in in the next section), apparently contending that since South Carolina is not in violation of the Discipline, no churches have the right to disaffiliate. In Western North Carolina, 31 UMC churches have initiated civil litigation against the bishop to secure fair treatment in the disaffiliation process.
These and many other examples of blatant disregard for the BOD are well documented in the writings of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, and Omnia Methodist, among others. Links to some of these articles appear at the end of this document. There are many others.
ATTEMPTS TO ADDRESS DIVISION WITHIN THE UMC
Multiple unsuccessful attempts have been made to address the division within the United Methodist Church. At the 2016 General Conference, the Council on Bishops established a Commission on the Way Forward. In 2018, this commission issued a report containing three plans to be voted on at a special called session of the General Conference, held in February 2019. Of the plans presented, the Traditional Plan, although not one of the original 2018 plans, surprisingly passed, even after progressives’ attempts to not let it come to a vote.
Also passed was a disaffiliation provision, included in the BOD as Paragraph 2553, entitled. “Disaffiliation of a local church over issues related to human sexuality.” provides for a local church seeking disaffiliation to pay any unpaid apportionments for the twelve months prior to disaffiliation, as well as an additional twelve months of apportionments, and any unfunded pension liability. In exchange for such payment and satisfaction of multiple other requirements, the disaffiliating church will be deeded its property free and clear of any claim of the Annual Conference.
This is of great importance because, as noted earlier, the current BOD and preceding versions dating back to John Wesley contain a trust clause which provides that the property of the local church is held in trust for the benefit of the Annual Conference. In the event of the withdrawal or dissolution of any local church from the UMC, all its property reverts to the Annual Conference and not the local church, unless it affiliates with another Wesleyan denomination.
The enactment of Paragraph 2553 anticipated the holding of a regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020. The UMC General Conference has now been postponed multiple times, despite other denominations successfully holding their international conferences, and will not be held until 2024. Paragraph 2553, the only provision specifically providing for disaffiliation, expires December 31, 2023, before the 2024 General Conference will convene. The expiration of Paragraph 2553 leaves the local churches at the mercy of the trust clause.
The most recent attempt to avert this crisis on a global scale took place following the 2019 General Conference. In the summer of 2019, Bishop John Yambasu invited a group of five leaders from each of three constituencies of the United Methodist Church, progressives, centrists, and traditionalists, to meet and discuss the issues facing the church with the goal of agreeing on a more permanent plan to resolve the issues facing the UMC. With the guidance of a well-known mediator, Kenneth Feinberg, this panel ultimately agreed that a dissolution and separation of the United Methodist Church was inevitable. The outgrowth of its work, “A Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation”, was to be acted upon by the 2020 General Conference, creating a more permanent and gracious process for disaffiliation for churches joining other Methodist denominations. This Protocol was to take effect immediately following the 2020 General Conference, which is now to be held in 2024, after the expiration of Paragraph 2553, the only avenue of separation presently available.
Since the adoption of the Protocol by this committee, its major proponent, Bishop Yambasu and another proponent of the plan have died. Also, five progressive members of the delegation have recently withdrawn their support for the Protocol, leading to a widespread opinion that the Protocol is dead and its adoption in 2024 highly unlikely, making the deadline of Paragraph 2553 even more critical.
2022 SOUTH GEORGIA ANNUAL CONFERENCE
In preparation for the 2022 South Georgia Annual Conference, and with the postponement of the General Conference until 2024, several resolutions were presented to be acted upon by the South Georgia Annual Conference, including a resolution proposed by the South Georgia delegation to the General Conference that the South Georgia Annual Conference as a whole withdraw from The United Methodist Church. A survey conducted prior to the Annual Conference concluded that a majority of the delegates preferred a traditional church and that a majority would vote in favor of a South Georgia Annual Conference withdrawal from the UMC. Prior to the holding of the annual conference, however, the Judicial Council ruled that an annual conference could not withdraw in masse without a change in the BOD, which cannot occur without action of the 2024 General Conference. As a result, that resolution was withdrawn.
In addition, the South Georgia trustees passed a resolution at their February 2022 meeting to allow a local church an extended period to withdraw under Paragraph 2549 of the Discipline, a section dealing with the property of closed churches, in the event the disaffiliating church did not meet the deadline of Paragraph 2553, a resolution which may allow South Georgia churches another year to determine their future.
At the South Georgia Annual Conference, a majority of the delegates to the General Conference recommended disaffiliation. Their report concluded with the chairman of the delegation resigning the chairmanship of the delegation because the church he pastored would be seeking disaffiliation. Our bishop’s reaction following the delegation’s report was to end discussion on the subject and in his closing address, advise us as delegates to simply “chill and do your job”. I pray that the bishop’s stance was born of a sincere and heartfelt desire to preserve the conference intact in hope that in the future, a more gentle and less disruptive path will emerge. I would give the bishop and the conference trustees credit for their efforts to extend the South Georgia Conference options past the 2023 Annual Conference. However, I am very concerned that such attempts at a graceful extension of the deadline may not succeed, even given the bishop’s most recent announcement of additional called sessions in 2023.
There are substantial risks associated with delaying consideration of the disaffiliation vote of each local church. Events beyond the bishop’s, trustees’, and other conference leadership’s control may affect the relative grace and the one-year extension on which we have been encouraged to rely by the South Georgia leadership. The Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, which meets in November 2022, has the authority under the BOD to elect and reassign bishops or even to realign its annual conferences. While assurances have been made by the leadership of the South Georgia Annual Conference that the conference trustees control property matters and will not take punitive action against churches seeking disaffiliation after the 2023 Annual Conference, this could be overruled by the Judicial Council, the efforts of a new bishop, or newly elected conference trustees. Any one of these events could derail the disaffiliation process even prior to the expiration of Paragraph 2553 in December 2023, and certainly before the 2024 General Conference.
Even if these assurances prove accurate and South Georgia is blessed to enjoy a short reprieve from the problems of other conferences, we will ultimately be forced to confront the issues facing the UMC. The reassuring communications from the UMC and the South Georgia Annual Conference that the Articles of Religion and other doctrinal principles of the UMC will not change does not recognize that these doctrinal principles are being neither followed nor enforced at the highest levels of the UMC, which will only lead to further chaos and division within the church, especially as more and more traditional churches disaffiliate from the UMC.
If we miss the 2023 deadline to apply for disaffiliation at the 2023 Annual Conference, which I understand to be April 1st, 2023, (and which I believe we really need to consider as a conservative potential deadline of December, 2022, given the changes which may occur in annual conference leadership and makeup at the end of 2022), and then later determine that disaffiliation is the correct decision, it may prove much more expensive and difficult to disaffiliate as the deadline for application to the 2023 Annual Conference passes.
The choices facing each local congregation are relatively simple:
1. Initiate and follow the Paragraph 2553 process concerning the disaffiliation decision, through prayer, education, and discernment. If the pastor, district superintendent, or others refuse to cooperate with the initiation of the process, you should be aware that a petition of 10% of the congregation is sufficient to require the District Superintendent to convene a church conference. Our church is blessed with a pastor and district superintendent who will fairly and compassionately oversee this process. Other churches may not be so fortunate. If, at the conclusion of this process, a 2/3 majority of the local church votes to disaffiliate, be diligent to comply with the timetable and requirements of Paragraph 2553. A disaffiliating church may either choose to remain independent or consider membership in another Methodist denomination. Whether your church chooses to remain United Methodist or chooses to disaffiliate, you may lose members, but you will have dealt with the matter openly and honestly and will likely have a healthier and more united church as a result as you follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.
2. Delay action now in hopes that God will miraculously maintain the present provisions of the Discipline at the 2024 General Conference and inspire the leadership of the UMC to actually follow and enforce the Discipline and the ordination oath they took to uphold it. While there are many faithful leaders in the UMC, there are far too many who openly ignore the Scripture and the Book of Discipline with no consequences. God certainly has the power to change their hearts, and I pray that He does, but to date I can only see increased anarchy and chaos. With the continuing exit of a number of traditional churches by disaffiliation, dwindling membership of those that remain, and the continued suppression of the number of African delegates, a liberalization of the Discipline and a failure of the Protocol at the 2024 General Conference seems much more likely. At the called session of the South Georgia Annual Conference on August 20th, we will vote on the applications of 62 more South Georgia churches seeking disaffiliation, in addition to the 18 churches which disaffiliated at the regular South Georgia Annual Conference in June. Many more UMC churches in South Georgia have already begun the discernment process.
3. Do nothing or actively promote the progressive UMC church within your congregation to the exclusion of all other positions, including the established provisions of the UMC Book of Discipline. The traditional members of your congregation will likely leave to join the newly formed Global Methodist, other traditional Wesleyan congregations, or even other denominations as they grow tired of the conflict.
Based on my legal representation as an attorney for local churches in recent years, including one before the Georgia Supreme Court, I can tell you confidently that given the present state of the law in Georgia concerning church property, the local church should not expect any help from the secular courts. Existing case law in Georgia is well developed based on recent appellate cases involving other denominations and does not favor the local churches. Litigation in secular courts should always be considered only as a last resort, but even more so as long as Paragraph 2553 offers a manageable alternative.
Because the postponement of the General Conference to 2024 has brought the well-established trust clause into direct conflict with the very limited time to disaffiliate under Paragraph 2553, the time to address the future of your church is now. If your church follows the admonition of the institutional leadership to “just chill and do your job”, but then decides after the 2023 Annual Conference that you need to withdraw from the United Methodist Church, be forewarned that you risk the loss of all your church’s property, the Sanctuary and Educational Buildings, the Parsonage, the bank accounts, and other properties - assets that your congregation has worked for and sacrificed to contribute to the work of the Lord, in some cases, for hundreds of years. As early as December 2022, it may become impossible to meet deadlines for the 2023 Annual Conference.
However, if we as a local congregation, take advantage of the provisions of Paragraph 2553 before it expires, we will own all of our property free of the trust clause of the BOD and the entirely unstable future of the UMC, which has steadily lost membership since its formation in 1968. Disaffiliation would leave us free of the denominational conflict, and free to be about our mission of making disciples of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The time to act on the future of each local church is now!
My family and my wife's family have a long history with the Methodist Church, helping found two Methodist churches in Georgia in the early 1800s. The decisions we personally face are painful, but not difficult as we recognize the authority of Scripture over our lives. It is my prayer that, irrespective of our positions, each of us would actively support a time of prayerful discernment in our churches as we address issues much broader than human sexuality in a godly and timely manner, characterized by speaking the truth in love, with the ultimate goal of serving and pleasing our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Book of Judges concludes with the verse “In those days. There was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Judges 21:25. This verse describes one of the worst periods in the history of Israel and accurately describes the present state of the United Methodist Church in our country.
The door to consider disaffiliation from the UMC is closing. I encourage you not to delay until it’s too late.
Thomas A. Nash, Jr.
August 19, 2022
©2022 Thomas A. Nash, Jr.
On August 22nd, 2022, the UMC Judicial Council issued Decision Number 1449, which states in part, “Therefore the process in ¶ 2548.2 may not be used as a pathway for local churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.” While the South Georgia Trustees cite ¶ 2549 as being an alternative means of exit, it deals with closed churches’ property, and is almost certain to suffer the same fate before the Judicial Council, leaving the only remaining path of disaffiliation being ¶2553, with its 2023 deadline.
Links for further information: