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Letter urges GC2019 to prioritize exit plan
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The 2019 special session of the General Conference will be held in The Dome, part of the America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis. A theologically diverse group of clergy and laity urges General Conference delegates to pass a gracious exit plan for churches. Photo by Dan Donovan, courtesy of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission. 

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“It’s wake up and smell the coffee. This is what’s involved if you choose to walk away,” said The Rev. Cathy Johns.

A theologically diverse group of United Methodists wants General Conference delegates to prioritize passing a “gracious and equitable” plan for churches exiting the denomination.

The bishops have called the special session of the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly on Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, with the aim of resolving the church’s longtime debate.

A letter from the West Ohio Conference urges “a process for exit be adopted prior to the consideration of any proposed model or solution.”

Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, who leads the West Ohio Conference, said the letter shows a desire for engagement in the process but taking up exit plans first would be a mistake.

“I think people put a lot of time into it,” he said of the letter. “But the idea that this would be done before all other matters are attended to does not compute for me as a proactive way forward. By making this the first thing taken up, are we announcing defeat?”

The Rev. Cathy Johns, co-senior pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Cincinatti. Photo courtesy of Johns.

Palmer served on the Commission on a Way Forward, whose report will be taken up at General Conference. The 2016 General Conference authorized the commission to help find ways for the denomination to stay united.

In the letter, Rev. Bryan Bucher acknowledged that he and fellow letter contributors were thinking about what’s best for local churches.

Since 1797, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have had a trust clause as part of the Book of Discipline that contains church policies. The clause prevents churches from simply leaving and taking United Methodist property with them.

While U.S. courts have a long track record of upholding the clause, its enforcement in recent years has taken varied forms. Bucher noted that conferences are more likely to reach a financial settlement with newer exiting churches to avoid taking on their substantial debts. Meanwhile, conferences are more likely to claim the property of less debt-ridden churches.

The letter suggests the process should include these five elements:

  1. An open period of up to five years for churches to decide.
  2. An ability for local churches to leave with property and assets, but with a payment plan for debts to any United Methodist entity.
  3. Provision for an exiting church to pay the conference for unfunded pension liabilities.
  4. An arrangement for an exiting church to pay at least one year’s apportionments — that is, requested giving — to their conference or three years’ apportionments if they have not paid full apportionments for the preceding four years.
  5. An assurance that the aggregate obligations for pension and apportionments not exceed the amount of the congregation’s annual operating budget.

The goal is not to encourage churches to leave, said Rev. Cathy Johns, “I think it could have the exact opposite effect,” she said. “It’s wake up and smell the coffee. This is what’s involved if you choose to walk away.”

Heather Hahn, multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service

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