Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
January 26th, 2015 by Joel Watts

No Schism — But (con-federated) forward

federated congregation or fight church

Photo credit: Fight Church Facebook page

This is an older post (published 26 Jan 2015) but I wanted to dust it off. I have updated it somewhat to reflect the latest events as well as the reality of the what I believe is likely to happen in a split. Rather than lose all hope that we cannot find a way to work together in the areas we do agree — namely, social missions in a global context — I want to exercise myself a bit and propose something to that end. Originally, this focused on the congregation. Now, I want to focus a bit on the denomination. 

The experience of our present situation is one of distress. There are calls for schism, actions forcing it, and entire jurisdictions practicing a nullification edict allowed neither in Scripture nor the Book of Discipline. Now, we have an avowed homosexual elected as bishop. Further, there is now the open rebellion by conservative congregations to withhold apportionments until the Council of Bishops promise to uphold a petition quite unrepresentative of the entire The United Methodist Church, and not in the least because it is not supported by the General Conference. There have been plans and proposals for changes to the Book of Discipline to allow for everything from schism to lifting the Trust Clause to changing the Book of Discipline so that one group may minister towards justice while another ministers towards righteousness, as both groups define it. The effect this has on our ministry, both global and local, is appalling.

Since this was originally written, General Conference met and ordered the Bishops to lead. They have presented a way forward, but we are awaiting a commission to be formed to start formulating this plan. This may or may not be the plan I would propose, but it is what I’m thinking about. 

The reality is, our connexional system was not made to take these strains because it is not built on individualism nor on the diversity of theology, much less mission, many of today’s United Methodists share. Another stark reality is this: there is a better chance that General Conference will do nothing, forcing people of conscience to leave The United Methodist Church, hurting our overall mission. A constitutional amendment, requiring a super majority, will not pass and any votes requiring a simple majority are either meaningless or impossible to predict and often distressing to the losers because of how close the vote was. Regardless, putting the future of The United Methodist Church to the vote — putting the histories, the hearts, and the loyalty of so many to vote – will continue to harm us, corporately and individually. Indeed, why do we vote on justice or righteousness? As such, we have to look at another way, a way of preserving the best of The United Methodist Church while allowing conscience.

It seems both conservatives and liberals are at the point of fracturing.[1] Conservatives, for their part, have decided to give the bishop’s commission a try — at least until this past weekend. Why? Because in 2020, they will have the majority of votes, without question. They value the connexion, not because of the financial safety net, but because of the connexion itself. There is a measure of generalization here, to be sure. However, I intend to believe the best about people. To that end, I propose a solution that requires no General Conference vote, no waiting for four years between quadrenniums, and (most importantly) upholds the Book of Discipline while maintaining our connexion. To that end, I propose an expanded federated model found in the Book of Discipline.

A United Federation…of Methodists?

This section proves that we can do a federated model. Skip it and go into the processes sections.

The United Methodist Church has a long history of allowing for “federated congregations,” unique circumstances permitting a congregation to share denominational status with The United Methodist Church and another traditional evangelical denomination.[2] A quick Internet search will reveal numerous such congregations still in existence today, such as Morris Federated Church in Morris, Minnesota. This congregation shares a dual denominational status between The United Methodist Church and The United Church of Christ, coming into existence in 1928. This date is particularly notable since the federation of this congregation pre-exists both the creation of the UCC (1957) and the creation of the UMC (1968). Another such instance is the Church of the Straits in Mackinaw City, Michigan. This church has both the Book of Discipline (UMC) and the Book of Order (PCUSA) as their rulebook.

There is another prominent use of this model, and given its role in the current discussion in the UMC, it is fitting to mention it here. In 2000, Broadway United Methodist Church (Chicago) considered a federated status with a denomination to allow it and its minister to perform weddings between two people of the same gender.[3] While it was voted down, Broadway UMC acts today as a federated congregation, with the congregation members acting in covenant with Broadway, although this is not the process inscribed in the Book of Discipline and, as far as I know, not used anywhere else.

The Book of Discipline allows and regulates the “federated church” model, seeing it as a mission of the local church in a drive for ecumenical ministry. Indeed, there is little more one can do, either from the Protestant or Anglo-Catholic traditions, in attempting to fulfill the prayer made by our Lord Jesus Christ in John 17, that all may be one. From the Book of Discipline, 2012:

¶ 207. Local churches, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may respond to opportunities for ecumenical resource sharing in their communities by creating ecumenical shared ministries, working with local congregations of other Christian churches to enhance ministry, make wise stewardship of limited resources, and live out the ecumenical spirit in creative ways responsive to the needs of God’s peoples as well as to opportunities for expanded mission and ministry.

¶ 208. Definition—Ecumenical shared ministries are ecumenical congregations formed by a local United Methodist church and one or more local congregations of other Christian traditions. Forms of ecumenical shared ministries include: (a) a federated church, in which one congregation is related to two or more denominations, with persons choosing to hold membership in one or the other of the denominations; (b) a union church, in which a congregation with one unified membership roll is related to two or more denominations; (c) a merged church, in which two or more congregations of different denominations form one congregation that relates to only one of the constituent denominations; (d) a yoked parish, in which congregations of different denominations share a pastor.

[¶ 209 is reproduced below]

¶ 210. Connectional Responsibilities—Cabinets, conference staff and other leaders shall be expected to work with ecumenical shared ministries at their inception as well as in maintaining avenues of vital relationship and connection to The United Methodist Church, while recognizing that such avenues must also be maintained with the denominational partners in ministry.

In particular, ¶2548.2 states,

With the consent of the presiding bishop and of a majority of the district superintendents and of the district board of church location and building and at the request of the charge conference or of a meeting of the membership of the local church, where required by local law, and in accordance with said law, the annual conference may instruct and direct the board of trustees of a local church to deed church property to one of the other denominations represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission or to another evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement, provided that such agreement shall have been committed to writing and signed and approved by the duly qualified and authorized representatives of both parties concerned.

As one can see, there are several requirements for a federated congregation, if a local UMC church intends to go that way. It is found in ¶ 209:

Covenanting—Congregations entering into an ecumenical shared ministry shall develop a clear covenant of mission, set of bylaws, or articles of agreement that address financial and property matters, church membership, denominational askings and apportionments, committee structure and election procedures, terms and provisions of the pastorate, reporting procedures, relationship with the parent denominations, and matters related to amending or dissolving the agreement. Ministries shall notify the district superintendent of any amending of the covenant agreement and shall consult with the district superintendent prior to dissolving the covenant agreement. In the formation of an ecumenical shared ministry, ¶¶ 243[4] and 247.1-.2[5] shall be followed in its organization. In an interdenominational local church merger, ¶¶ 2547[6] and 2548 shall be followed. In the case of federated and union churches, ¶ 2548[7] shall be followed.

To summarize, in order to have a federated congregation one must have,

  • A clear covenant, or set of bylaws, that addresses how the local church operates between both denominations.

What is absent? The vote by the General Conference is not needed. Further, as you can tell by digging through the other paragraphs, the approval of bishops and others are needed for property transfers.[8] I call attention to the fact that ¶ 209 does not include permission by the District Superintendent to covenant with another denomination. The only real thing missing this scenario at the moment is the other denomination.

A New, Con-federated, Denomination

To form a federated congregation, one needs a new denomination. How do we do this without rending completely The United Methodist Church — and without waiting for General Conference, dependent upon a vote? This is a tight rope. What must be established is a new denomination to be federated with. These are what I propose as action steps:

  1. An Annual Conference or Jurisdictional Conference “leaves.” Keep in mind that outright separation is not desired and would not be an immediate severing of ties, so leaves is put in quotation marks for that reason. This body is then the nucleus of the new start. Further, in doing so, it must immediately recognize and allow those congregations of that conference who do not wish to “leave” the UMC be immediately transferred — without financial remuneration — to the nearest UMC body. For instance, if a conservative congregation in Colorado wishes to remain in the UMC while the WJ “leaves,” then it is moved to the Great Plains Annual Conference.
  2. Adopt the Current Book of Discipline, changing the names where appropriate to whatever the new denomination intends to call itself. [9]
  3. Develop a denominational structure, such as leadership and budget.
  4. Develop a clear covenant of expectation of responsibility to the UMC. This covenant may promise to pay all pension and healthcare portions of the apportionments and other vital funds necessary to the operation of The United Methodist Church including foreign ministries such as Africa University. It would likewise clearly iron out substantial differences between the Books of Discipline.[10] This memorandum of understanding would include details of votes at the UMC Annual Conference as well as how the Annual Conference includes them in deciding how many votes the AC gets at General Conference. In other words, the federated denomination will have a voice and, albeit small, vote at the General Conference.
  5. Clear all government hurdles.
  6. Organize a general conference to modify the new denomination’s Book of Discipline for all questions on polity and outstanding issues. The United Methodist Church will continue with the current schedule of the General Conference.

To boldy go?

Here are the next steps as I see them:

  1. Once the new body is formed, it will already have a number of congregations in it. For instance, if the Western Jurisdiction “left” it would have several dozen congregations, if not more. It would also have a working polity. This would be the proto-denomination.
  2. A congregation would then, if it chose to, vote to federate with it. (The next steps assume the vote was successful.)
  3. The congregation would then join the new denomination as a federated congregation.
  4. A second vote would then need to take place to leave The United Methodist Church completely. The UMC AC would then have to allow it. If the vote was not successful, it would simply exist as other federated congregations do now, with the method for property transfer, polity, and the such as found in the Book of Discipline. Note, the federated congregation would still have to abide by the Book of Discipline.

There may be a few congregations that will choose to remain as the tie that binds the two, moderately walking the line between progressive and evangelical expressions of Wesleyanism.

Remaining Questions

There are three questions I asked myself in looking at this plan. What about the historical ties to The United Methodist Church, the apportionments, and the itinerant system? Let me return to the Church of the Straits. In regards to membership, the used to keep a dual membership list, to allow the individual to be a member of whichever parent denomination he/she desired:

Up until a few years ago, we kept two separate rolls. As people joined the church, they had a choice as to which denomination they wanted their name added to. Where they had no preference, their name was added to the roll that had the fewer members at that time. However, in recent years we decided to keep only one membership roll, which was membership in The Church of the Straits. Doing so gave us much more flexibility when it came to filling committee vacancies, as well as solving other issues. Again, this has proved to be a viable solution to bringing two churches together while maintaining a dual-denominational standing.

This is important because it allows those who wish to remain a United Methodist to do so while allowing everyone to remain a member of the congregation. All congregations of the new denomination would be listed in the UMC directory which would allow traveling UMC members to find it, but noted by their status. It would allow the congregation to keep the ties to the UMC, to the ME, to the EUB, and to other merged denominations intact.

In regards to apportionments, again we find a practical answer:

The Church of the Straits has also solved the apportionments question.

When it comes to financially supporting the work and ministries of both denominations, this is where it gets split right down the middle. Half goes to cover our United Methodist apportionments, and half goes to our Presbyterian Per Capita offering.

What would need to be carefully examined is the pay to pensions and healthcare as well as other missions. The new denomination, because it is in confederation with The United Methodist Church, would have to decide what to pay in regards to apportionments. Because of this, it would have a place on mission boards as well as a small vote at General Conference. Federated congregations will follow the rules established in the Book of Discipline.

In regards to the system of sending ministers into the local congregation (which, for some reason, does not really matter to larger churches), the Church of the Straits does it this way:

Given the fact that a United Methodist pastor is appointed by a bishop, and a Presbyterian pastor is called by the congregation, the solution is actually quite simple: each time there is a change in pastoral leadership, the other denomination provides the next pastor. In essence, we go back-and-forth…For example, when our United Methodist pastor is appointed elsewhere, we turn to the Presbyterian Book of Order to guide us in the search process of securing our next pastor. Likewise, when our Presbyterian pastor answers a call to another church, we turn to our District Superintendent, who guides us through the appointive process.[11]

This is a possible way, but I believe that the new denomination should be allowed to exercise its own polity and selection of ministers. I would suggest that the normal way of selecting federated ministers be done away in favor of recognizing the legitimacy of the polity, and rights thereof, of the the new denomination. I would suggest that the bishops (or counterparts) also have a small and limited role on the Council of Bishops. Federated congregations would follow such similiar to the Church of the Straights.

The other question is, “who owns the property?” The Annual Conference actually owns the property. Previously, I suggested no transfer of property, but I believe it is necessary. Allow the Annual Conferences to create a way for those who want to depart to the new denomination wholly  to do so with property in hand.

Finally, what is needed is a spirit of Grace. It will hurt the pride to let property go without an financial exchange, or to feel like those who have so wounded us are “getting off the hook” for free. Simply, allowing a separation like this will hurt a great deal in a lot of ways, in memory and in pride. There is some maneuverability in the Book of Discipline, but it will take some grace to allow it to be exercised. But, let Grace prevail.

How much will separate the two?

What would actually separate the two denominations? Admittedly, not much on the surface. They both continue in the Wesleyan heritage, albeit with different working definitions of social holiness. Both will contend for the mission of The United Methodist Church, which is the making of disciples for the transformation of the world. However, there is a real split beyond the surface mechanics. A separate intra-denomination would be allowed to focus on their own version of theology and ethics as well as setting rules for their own polity. In the end, it may be that after a few years of trying this way, a complete separation may occur. Or, the wounds could be healed.

What are the benefits?

Christ commands to us consider the cost of any new enterprise. What are the benefits?

  • The United Methodist Church remains united with the larger missions of the denomination intact. In fact, the new denomination would also have representation on mission boards.
  • Congregations would remain intact. The denomination would remain intact.
  • There would be no need for a General Conference vote for schism, separation, or the lifting of the Trust Clause. We would not need to wait four years to see “what happens next.” This can be done in relatively short time and if property is not transferred, then it may simply need nothing more than the cooperation of the Bishop and the Cabinet.
  • There would be no need for a special General Conference.
  • The Book of Discipline is not broken.

PostScript

  • This is not a dual-affiliation. Members of the new denomination would be members of that new denomination, but as a group, they would have some voice in The United Methodist Church.
  • Because property is now transferred, the new intra-denomination could do with their polity and property as they see fit.
  • The joint missions (Africa University, etc…) would be able to continue.
  • This would be a closer relationship than what is seen in the World Methodist Federation, but still very similar.
  • If the new denomination refused to pay apportionments, it would be removed from the federated status, meaning it would no longer had votes at General Conference or allowed representation on the mission boards of The United Methodist Church.
  • The 2020 General Conference would need to examine the need for, and likely create new Annual Conferences for those congregations in areas where bodies may have left — such as the Western Juridiction.

Foonotes

[1] I am using the labels most self-identify by, with no intent here to slander. Inclusive congregations use this same method, of withholding apportionments, as well. Some have gone so far as to direct apportionments to outside caucus groups.

[2] Note, this is different than a local UMC congregation identifying with an unofficial movement or group.

[3] The Rev. Gregory Dell was charged with violated the Book of Discipline and suspended for a year. Upon returning to his pulpit, he found a way around the Book of Discipline. Broadway later voted against a federated status although, with permission of the District Superintendent and the then-Bishop Sprague, acts as a federated congregation even though it has not partnered with another congregation (see p14 at this link). Reconciling Ministries Network lists three federated congregations who are open and affirming. Dell went on to help found the Church Within a Church movement, a group focused on providing “extraordinary ordinations” for people denied ordination in the Methodist tradition. Recently deceased Bishop Lee and Bishop Carcaño are both familiar with the group.

[4] ¶243 directed the Primary Tasks of the local church.

[5] ¶247.1-2 is in regards to Powers and Duties of the charge conference

[6] ¶2547 is a plan for Interdenominational Local Church Mergers.

[7] ¶2548, Deeding Church Property to Federated Churches or Other Evangelical Denominations, instructs the Annual Conference how to lift the Trust Clause for particular congregations who are federating with another congregation.

[8] A recent decision in Alabama, with loose trust laws, may serve as a warning against congregations attempting to simply remove themselves from the trust clause: “Alabama applies the “neutral principles of law” approach to church disputes: “[C]ivil courts cannot resolve disputes concerning spiritual or ecclesiastical affairs, and decisions of a hierarchical church’s judicatories must be followed regarding such matters, . . . civil courts [may] resolv[e] disputes concerning civil or property rights. “Where the language describing the grantees in three deeds conveying property to a church is ambiguous, summary judgment disposition is improper. Mountain Lakes District, North Alabama Annual Conference, United Methodist Church, Inc. v. Oak Grove Methodist Church, 126 So. 3d 172 (Ala. Civ. App. 2013).” For an older, pre-Episcopal split (and the case law it created) scholarly review, see Louis J. Sirico, Jr., Church Property Disputes: Churches as Secular and Alien Institutions, 55 Fordham L. Rev. 335 (1986). Available at: http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol55/iss3/2

[9] The name of the new denomination shouldn’t simply be Progressive UMC or Conservative UMC, but speaking as someone who values memory, I would like to see United and Methodist in the title.

[10] This would allow the issue of inclusion to be settled as a matter of covenant. If a conservative denomination were started, the covenant would insure that no LGBT minister is appointed to the congregation. For progressives, it would allow inclusion. This would not affect the UMC Book of Discipline.

[11] There is an ME judicial decision related to federated churches and pastors. See here.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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Comments

13 Responses to “No Schism — But (con-federated) forward”
  1. Know More Than I Should says

    While some Methodist Churches serve two masters (i.e. federated), others are houses divided holding separate (e.g. conservative and liberal) worship services in different locations under the same roof. Still others are served by ministers from a different tradition (e.g. Baptist trained, Methodist called). Somehow, I really don’t think this is what John Wesley had in mind when he got this snowball rolling.

  2. So I suppose I wonder why another denomination would need to be invented at all. Why not just allow those who want to to affiliate with other churches in federations? That seems simpler.

    And I wonder how you calculate that the impact of essentially halving contributions to apportioned giving by those congregations that choose federation at this point would not adversely affect the worldwide mission of The United Methodist Church.

    I imagine you have answers for both– but these questions kind of leapt out at me.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    • Taylor, I’m not sure your first question. Do you mean, why not just allow people to federate with, say, UCC or PCUSA? If so, I would answer it this way. 1.) Not sure their rules. 2.) It could sever the Wesleyan connection 3.) It may require the transfer of property.

      As far as the apportionment issue? That is a question – which is why the new denom is almost essential. Because it allows a covenant of sorts to be set. One such part may be to cut apportionment by 25%, rather than 50%.

      I would say that question 2 can be solved best ONLY if there is a new denom.

      • Dave Fowler says

        dollars to donuts the denomination would be $ ahead to just continue to scold congregations (and change appointments) for churches who do not pay apportionments in full. Federating would just lock in the $ losses.

    • Scott Fritzsche says

      Also, by affiliating with a paper denomination, it leaves open the door for reconciliation with the full denomination at some point down the road should that be chosen. The paper denomination could agree to pay a full apportionment (I would be shocked if they did) and then use the rest as a local church for mission etc. while having the denominational leadership such as it is work on a volunteer basis. Much more flexible this way.

  3. Our congregation proposed this in 1996 to our Bishop, who summarily said NO and asked our pastor for her credentials because she would not promise to discontinue performing weddings for our GLB members. She transferred her credentials to the UCC, as have many other gifted UM clergy in our Oklahoma conference. That was 19 years ago, so it might meet with a different perspective, but I’m skeptical.

  4. “so that one group may minister towards justice while another ministers towards righteousness, as both groups define it. ”

    A view from the pew: Problem is these two concepts should not be separated, they are the individual and social aspects of Christianity as envisioned by Wesley. To be effective, justice must be sought by individuals pursuing righteousness. Wesley was the proof of this statement by C.S. Lewis:

    “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves who set out on foot to convert the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Aged, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven [the pursuit of righteousness]. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become ineffective in this one. Aim at heaven [pursue righteousness] and you will get earth ‘Thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

    John Wesley pursued righteousness in his own life and that led him to unexpected places where he enabled others to pursue righteousness in their own lives; the church, England and America were “Thrown in.”

    Wesley’s primary focus was not social justice issues but connecting individuals to the triune God of holy love and then enabling them to live transformed lives centered in God 24/7 regardless of their circumstances. What he set in motion was so effective, that within his lifetime the economic status of Methodists had improved so much, they became spiritually complacent which resulted in Wesley accurately predicting that Methodism would not cease to exist but become the form of religion without the power!

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