If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the news about the amicable separation agreement that has been proposed for consideration at General Conference 2020 that would create a pathway for “amicable separation”. If you haven’t already, check out the press release, protocol statement, and FAQs at those respective links.
I want to be clear at the outset that a lot is still unknown at this point — this protocol just dropped yesterday, and to a large degree there’s a race against the clock to get it in front of General Conference 2020. With that in mind, hopefully this will cut through some of the noise that’s out there about what the proposal actually is and does. I’m not going to regurgitate every last detail, so seriously go check out the protocol itself and the FAQs linked above — I had a lot of questions myself that were finally answered on my second (and third and fourth…) read.
Why This Plan
It’s worth a quick note at the top about why this plan warrants such significant attention, especially since other plans have been kicked around for some time. Notice you haven’t seen a post here about, say, Indianapolis or Bard-Jones.
There are lots of reasons, but the main one I’ll offer is that the group that developed it is amazingly (ideologically) diverse, with buy-in from groups that I was surprised could find consensus on the color of the sky, let alone questions of polity. While that is not, of course, an automatic indication of a good plan, when such a diversity of perspectives can find it acceptable, it’s at minimum worth giving a close look. They also, by all accounts, had a good process with the help of a professional mediator that led to this end product. Was it perfect? No. But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
I’ll also offer that, on its face, it seems to be a true compromise. Traditionalists, progressives, and centrists alike will find plenty to both celebrate and to bemoan. Again, this does not automatically make a plan good, but it’s hard for any side to clam victory over the others in this plan which I’d argue is a positive thing. And again, it’s imperfect, but if there were a perfect solution to any of this we’d have gotten there a while ago.
What the Protocol Is
The headline, of course, is that this protocol proposes creating a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that maintains current restrictions on the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy and the ability of clergy to officiate same-sex weddings. Churches wishing to affiliate with this new denomination would be free to do so without the costly court battles other denominations have experienced. The collection of entities currently known as the United Methodist Church would continue on, albeit in a much smaller structure but without the aforementioned restrictions.
Significantly, while this separation is pending, the protocol calls for an abeyance of administrative and judicial proceedings related to human sexuality. Basically, this pushes pause on charges and church trials while this all unfolds, and halts the closure of churches other than voluntary closures for reasons of financial insolvency or lack of participation. This is not an official action by any body, but rather relies on individual bishops and others to not press or move forward with charges. But, this abeyance would hopefully minimize harm done while this process unfolds. And, not inconsequentially, gives all involved a chance to make a showing of good faith that will (hopefully) allow the rest of this process to proceed as healthily as possible.
Lastly, this would ultimately create a US Regional Conference. This has been a topic of considerable recent discussion, but effectively means that discussion of US-centric issues could stay within the United States rather than having to be considered by the General Conference. This is a big topic that is worthy of more discussion but, in essence, as the church becomes increasingly global in nature, this would significantly streamline General Conference sessions by allowing them to focus on work and discussion that affects the entire church. Moreover, a US Regional Conference would have similar authority to Central Conferences outside the US to modify portions of the Book of Discipline for their local context.
What the Protocol Is Not
It’s worth emphasizing (because major media outlets have consistently gotten this wrong) that this is just a proposal. The General Conference, which meets in May in Minneapolis, still has to enact any and all of this. So, if you see a headline that says the United Methodist Church has agreed to split, find a better source for your UMC news.
It’s also not official in the sense that it’s not coming from any organized entity within the church. This has its pros and cons, but the biggest way this is significant is it creates some additional hurdles before General Conference. These may be non-issues, so we’ll hold off on extensive discussion for now.
Who Votes on What and When
A big question about every plan dealing with these issues has been along the lines of “will my church have to vote on this?”. The short answer here is “not unless they want to,” but here’s a bit more detail on this front:
Central Conferences (outside the US)
By default, Central Conferences will remain part of the UMC. However, they may choose to change that affiliation with a 2/3 vote to be taken before December 31, 2021.
Again, by default annual conferences will remain part of the UMC. However, annual conference may choose to change that affiliation through a two-step process.
First, a motion must be made to vote to change affiliation and that motion be supported by 20% of the annual conference session.
Then, by July 1, 2021, the annual conference will actually vote to change affiliation. If that vote passes by a 57% threshold, the annual conference will affiliate with the new traditionalist denomination. If it fails to pass by 57%, the annual conference will remain part of the UMC.
By default, local churches will follow the affiliation of their annual conference. However, if a local church wishes to affiliate with a different denomination than their annual conference, the church leadership (typically the administrative board or equivalent) will determine whether the vote threshold will be a simple or two-thirds majority, and within 60 days a special church conference will be called for that vote to take place. This vote must ultimately take place by December 31, 2024.
Regardless of what affiliation a local church chooses, if departing the UMC they will be released from the trust clause, will retain their assets and liabilities, and will have no further obligation other than pre-existing loans to the annual conference. If and when the local church closes or their new denomination ceases to exist, a lien will be placed on the property to cover their unfunded pension liabilities.
There’s been much discussion about the financial implications here, so let’s break it down a bit.
$25 million over 4 years to the new Traditionalist denomination
This one’s gotten a lot of attention so we’ll tackle it first: The protocol calls for the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) to budget for $25 million to be paid to the new Traditionalist denomination between 2021 and 2024.
Now, it’s valid to ask why departing churches get a payout, and the short version is they have equity in structures (general/jurisdictional/annual conference agencies, property, etc.) they’re leaving behind to form a new denomination. What everyone has sought to avoid is lengthy, costly, ugly court battles that realistically end with those structures being liquidated and the proceeds divided up. While $25 million sounds like a lot, the court costs alone would be several times that if this all got litigated, and in exchange for that amount the newly created denomination agrees to relinquish any claims they may have in that regard.
$2 million for other new denominations
While the protocol specifically contemplates a new Traditionalist denomination, it also recognizes other new denominations could arise from it. So, GCFA will place $2 million in escrow for those potential denominations.
$39 million for communities historically marginalized by racism
Finally, the protocol calls for a total of $39 million ($26 million from the UMC; $13 million from the new Traditionalist denomination) to be allocated over 8 years from 2021–2028 for strengthening communities historically marginalized by racism and ensure they have full participation in the governance and decision-making of the UMC (with congregations in the new Traditionalist denomination also having the opportunity to participate in programs). Not a lot of details yet here, but stay tuned.
What Happens Next
Obviously, there’s a lot still to be worked out here, but a few specific things to watch for in the coming days and weeks:
- Reactions from Bishops and Local Advocacy Group Leaders. If the Commission on a Way Forward and GC2019 taught us anything, it’s that that only really matters if there’s buy-in across the denomination. There’s reason for optimism here, especially since all sides have affirmatively committed in the protocol to advocate for its adoption. But, this also calls for a voluntary laying down of arms (through the abeyance of judicial and administrative proceedings) for the time being. And this, ultimately, counts on individual bishops and those seeking to press charges to voluntarily choose this route. So, watch what individual bishops and local advocacy group leaders do here.
- Legislative Text. Right now, none of this is in a format that can actually be voted on. Specifically, we don’t have the actual language that would be modified in the Book of Discipline to enact any of this. And, with these kinds of seismic changes, the devil will be in the details, so to speak. So watch for that language to be released and reactions to it. One specific thing to look for is whether there are constitutional amendments required, which could really throw a wrench in the timeline.
- Judicial Council and GCFA Reports. From the sound of it, GCFA has had some involvement in this protocol, but I haven’t heard anything about the Judicial Council’s involvement (which has likely been minimal as the group assembling the protocol wouldn’t have had standing to request any sort of declaratory decision). Regardless, the Council of Bishops will be requesting analysis from both groups, which could throw a wrench in things.
- GC2020 Contingencies. This is, of course, not the only legislation for General Conference to consider in May. The Council of Bishops and Commission on the General Conference will be working to place this on the agenda, but it’s worth asking what will happen with other legislation (including other proposals for addressing issues of human sexuality). Plus, by my read of the protocol, we’ll go from GC2020 immediately into a called General Conference for those continuing with the UMC, followed immediately by the initial US Regional Conference — all between May 5 and 15. So, lots of questions there.
A Final, But Important, Thought
I should say that I’m not one who has seen separation as inevitable, nor am I one who is breaking out the sackcloth and ashes over it. Theologically, I’m squarely in the camp of being excited about anything that will help the capital-C church be effective in ministry. Do I think God has long desired for the UMC to break up? No, I don’t. Do I think God can use this for God’s glory? 110%.
That said, though, while we want to keep an eye on the end goal here, how we go about the coming months is just as important as where we’re heading. If this is indeed the direction we’re heading as a denomination (which it could well not be!), I firmly believe that we can honor God, and what God has done for the last 52 years through the United Methodist Church, by modeling what it means to go our separate ways and leave one another with a blessing.
And, along those lines, the details that are going to be worked out in the weeks and months ahead are important. It’s easy to theologize this as “God’s going to work it all out,” but the truth is that God will do that through us. And, both as the continuation of the UMC and new expressions of Methodism, the decisions being made now will have implications for hopefully many, many years to come.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be updating this post in the coming days, and will likely post more as new details become available. If I got something wrong, or if you’ve got questions I haven’t addressed, feel free to reach out and I’ll answer if I can.