By Chuck Griffin
I am writing this article Thursday evening, March 3, not too long after being on a Zoom call for Wesleyan Covenant Association regional chapter leaders. I am assuming the reader is up to date on two key events that transpired this evening.
First, the United Methodist Church’s Commission on the General Conference has announced there will be no General Conference until 2024. In response, the developers of a new, theologically conservative Methodist denomination, the Global Methodist Church, announced the GMC will become active May 1. Save that link I just gave you—traditional churches and clergy will be going to that website repeatedly for information over the next few months.
Keith Boyette, president of the Global WCA, used words like “specious” and “false” to describe the reasoning behind another General Conference delay. It’s pretty obvious to many of us that the real reason for the delay is simple. UMC leaders have a strong desire to suppress legislation that would give all traditional churches the ability to separate cleanly. It’s time to stop playing their game. (That proposed General Conference legislation has been known as “The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation,” called “Protocol” for short.)
So, no General Conference, no legislation, and now, a new denomination is launching. I suspect most of you in the Holston Conference are thinking, “Now what?” I am going to try to offer you the beginnings of an answer. Most of this is based on what I heard in tonight’s video conference call.
How smoothly the next few months proceed is first and foremost in the hands of our Holston Conference bishop.
Here’s our best option, the one to pray for, the one to seek: It is possible the Holston Conference could vote in its annual conference session to move to the new denomination. For this to happen, our bishop would have to rule that a resolution along these lines is permissible. Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Annual Conference reportedly has ruled in favor already.
It also is our understanding that the Council of Bishops has asked the UM Judicial Council for an expedited ruling regarding whether annual conferences can make such a decision. There already is precedent from the Judicial Council that seems to point toward a “yes” answer.
If successful in an effort to take the whole conference into the GMC, I think we conservatives naturally would support a Protocol-like arrangement for churches within the conference who want to follow the liberal path—Take your property and stay with the UMC. I at least hope we would be more gracious and magnanimous than they have been.
And of course, clergy will be able to go in either direction they choose. Clergy joining the GMC will be required to pledge themselves to traditional doctrine, however, and in the GMC, there will be enforcement.
Okay, next obvious question: What happens if a conference-wide move to the GMC doesn’t work out?
Churches basically would have four options if they want to move to the GMC on their own:
1. They possibly could leave under Paragraph 2553 of the UM Discipline. This is the disaffiliation paragraph. Boyette describes it as “most onerous.” It also has a Dec. 31, 2023 sunset provision, meaning the departure would have to be negotiated, and annual conference approval granted, before then.
2. The existence of an active GMC may make it possible for churches to use Paragraph 2548.2 of the Discipline. This paragraph allows a church to leave the UMC to align with an evangelical denomination. The church, the UMC and the GMC would have to reach agreements regarding the transition. Unfunded pension liabilities could be a big expense for some churches, but again, Wespath, which is prepared to serve both denominations, is trying to be helpful in how those costs could be paid over time.
Where hearts are in the right place, these agreements could end up looking much like what would be achieved through the passage of Protocol. Again, something we’ve known for some time: An individual bishop working with members of an annual conference can make things happen that are not happening on a higher legislative level.
3. Then there’s Paragraph 2549. Essentially, a congregation could walk away from the building, allow the UM Church to close it, and then buy the building back. Again, in a world where people’s hearts are in the right place, the buyback price could be much, much less than fair market value.
4. A church could simply say, “We are no longer United Methodist, and we’re keeping our property. So sue us.” That’s not something most experts would advise right now.
I know clergy have specific concerns, and churches have concerns for their clergy. More will be said about pensions, health insurance and such as we move along. I am hearing assurances that nothing will be lost in terms of pensions. (There are secular laws guaranteeing this.) Benefits in the new denomination should be similar to the UMC.
Current ordained and licensed UM pastors should find the transfer process into the GMC fairly easy. Licensed pastors will be ordained! And clergy with other statuses, or candidates for ordination, will also find the process welcoming, although there might be some additional vetting.
As we have known for years, the major sticking points will happen where congregations and pastors are not in theological alignment. If you’re a conservative church with a conservative pastor, the situation likely will work out cleanly, given enough time.
I know. A thousand questions remain unanswered. Again, keep an eye on the Global Methodist Church website, looking for guidelines and its Frequently Asked Questions page. We at the Holston WCA will be sending you updates as quickly as we can.
The Holston WCA will hold its annual meeting at First UMC Alcoa March 19. Worship begins at 11 a.m., and will be followed by lunch and then a business session. This will be an open meeting, although individual members and representatives of member churches will be the only people allowed to vote in the business session. Additional details coming very soon.
Be blessed in this season of Lent, a time of spiritual discernment. And of course, be in prayer during this time of transition.