Legal forum offers guidance for time of schism


Key points:

  • Bishops, annual conference legal advisers and other church leaders met to share insights on dealing with ongoing church disaffiliations.
  • So far, most exiting churches have withdrawn under church law, but some cases have landed in civil courts. 
  • The church leaders also discussed how to work toward a future with hope — not rancor. 

U.S. civil courts continue to uphold The United Methodist Church’s longtime principle that local congregations don’t have sole ownership of their buildings but hold them in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination. 

“Due to the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, courts are hesitant to put themselves in disputes over church property when the trust clause is present,” said Florida Conference Bishop Tom Berlin.  

But, he warned, “we shouldn’t be thinking that the trust clause is impervious.”

Berlin was speaking at a legal forum April 29 that brought together United Methodist conference leaders to discuss best practices in handling church disaffiliations, as the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. undergoes a splintering after decades of internal strife over LGBTQ inclusion.

Those at the meeting included bishops, assistants to bishops, treasurers and chancellors — attorneys who serve conferences, the denomination’s regional bodies, as legal advisers. 

With disaffiliations, they were tackling a situation that involves both church and civil law. The leaders also talked about how they can work toward a future where The United Methodist Church that they love can focus on its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. 

“The future of The United Methodist Church is in large measure about finding our groove again,” said Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton in the day’s opening remarks. “And the groove that we’re currently in is not the path forward.”

As much as they want to focus on Christian discipleship, Bickerton and other leaders at the forum acknowledged that the denomination is experiencing a significant rupture.

The vast majority of exiting congregations are using the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, in their withdrawals. The Discipline’s Paragraph 2553 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, added in 2019, allows U.S. congregations to leave with property if they meet certain procedural and financial obligations

So far, a UM News review has found that 2,496 congregations — about 8% of U.S. churches — have cleared the hurdles to withdraw. 

But some cases have landed in U.S. civil courts.

Berlin, part of the class of 17 new bishops elected in November, took the helm of the Florida Conference in January, after the conference was already immersed in a lawsuit initially filed by 106 churches seeking to invalidate the trust clause. Eventually more than 40 congregations withdrew from the suit to follow the denomination’s disaffiliation procedures. 

In April, a judge dismissed the lawsuit but indicated that he did so reluctantly — because previous higher court rulings in Florida had tied his hands

In March, another judge in North Carolina dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by 36 churches

However, the National Center for Life and Liberty — a non-Methodist nonprofit that represents the churches involved in both cases — has plans to appeal the court rulings.

In the meantime, Berlin said the question he has been asking himself is: “How does the Florida Conference add such value to the life of a congregation that they just don’t want to challenge the trust clause?”

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A number of leaders at the forum observed how the denomination’s current tensions are exacerbated by political divides in the U.S.

The involvement of the Florida-based National Center for Life and Liberty is a case in point. The center’s founder, David Gibbs III, came to national prominence representing Terri Schiavo’s parents in a case that reached the White House. The center has since taken on a variety of conservative causes in the U.S., including opposition to COVID mitigation efforts that the center saw as impeding worship.

The center has been working on legal strategy with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the theologically conservative advocacy group that organized the breakaway Global Methodist Churchand is recruiting for the new denomination.

George “Buzzy” Anding, Louisiana Conference chancellor and outgoing president of the United Methodist Church Conference Chancellors Association, gave an overview of the United Methodist cases that involve the center. 

Anding said each church involved paid $1,000 initially to the center, which secures local counsel to represent churches in states where Gibbs is not a member of the bar. 

In addition to its plans to appeal the dismissals in Florida and North Carolina, the center also is involved in:

Conferences also are dealing with lawsuits that do not involve the National Center for Life and Liberty.

  • The North Georgia Conference is facing two other lawsuits, each filed by a church to disaffiliate. 
  • The Indiana Conference is engaged in a lawsuit filed by the three churches that did not want to use the Paragraph 2553 process. 
  • The Alabama-West Florida Conference also faces a lawsuit from a church seeking a release from the trust clause without following Paragraph 2553. 
  • The Susquehanna Conference in central Pennsylvania is engaged in a lawsuit with a church’s board that likewise sought to reincorporate the church without following Paragraph 2553. 
  • The Arkansas Conference is engaged in lawsuits with churches that did not receive the required annual conference approval for disaffiliation under Paragraph 2553.

The chancellors have formed a joint defense group to help conferences involved in these lawsuits. 

Moving forward, some conferences are looking at how to handle disaffiliations after Paragraph 2553 expires at the end of this year. Some are looking to apply the same process to the Discipline’s Paragraph 2549, which deals with closing churches. Long before Paragraph 2553 entered the Discipline, United Methodists would occasionally use Paragraph 2549 to allow congregations to leave with property. 

The South Carolina Conference is already using Paragraph 2549 to handle disaffiliations in its context

But regardless of what they are seeing with disaffiliations now or in the future, leaders at the forum frequently brought up their hopes for easing tensions in congregations and in the denomination at large.

Bryan Mills, general counsel for the finance agency General Council on Finance and Administration, lamented that so much of what he sees in the church is also what he sees in the world, where people will say if they don’t agree 100%, they can’t be friends.

It is a strange circumstance for a denomination whose founder John Wesley is credited with helping to popularize the phrase “agree to disagree,” in writing to his friend George Whitefield with whom he disagreed a lot.

“As this denomination goes forward,” Mills said, “we need to internalize that we’re not all going to see everything the same way, we’re not going to all value the same things at the same level … and we have to work through that.”

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, who began leading the Texas Conference in January, said she thinks it’s time to reclaim what it means to be United Methodist.

“We need to reclaim our own narrative and stop allowing other people to write the narrative for us,” she said. 

Citing a 2021 statement by the Council of Bishops, she said that narrative is one of a denomination that is “rooted in Scripture, centered in Christ, serving in love and united in the essentials.” 

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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