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Church court clarifies property-transfer rules

Book of Discipline

The Judicial Council clarified church law related to the transfer of property, ruling that Paragraph 2548.2 in the Book of Discipline cannot be used as a pathway to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.

HEATHER HAHN
UM News

Key points:

A church law that some have pushed as an exit path from The United Methodist Church can only be used to move property—not members—to another denomination, the Judicial Council ruled.

“Paragraph 2548.2 establishes a process for the limited purpose of deeding and transferring church property to another denomination but does not apply to the membership of a local church,” the top church court said in Decision 1449, referring to a paragraph in the denomination’s Book of Discipline.

The Judicial Council further ruled in the decision released August 23 that The United Methodist Church must already have an existing agreement with the other denomination for such a transfer to occur.

No such agreement currently exists with the Global Methodist Church, a new theologically conservative denomination that launched this year.

Backers of the new denomination have been trying to compel United Methodist annual conferences—church regional bodies—to allow churches to use the measure to withdraw from The United Methodist Church.

The Judicial Council’s ruling disputes that the measure can be used for that purpose. The process in Paragraph 2548.2 “may not be used as a pathway for local churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.”

Bishop David Bard of the Michigan Conference remains open to exploring new pathways for churches seeking to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, but using this piece of church law to create a way out will not work based on the recent ruling. “While I am still digesting Judicial Council Decision 1449, it seems evident that in this decision the Judicial Council has now effectively closed paragraph 2548.2 as one pathway for disaffiliation. I know this is a disappointment to some.”

At issue in Decision 1449 is how United Methodist leaders should apply Paragraph 2548.2 in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book. The provision, which has been part of the Discipline since 1948, allows an annual conference to direct the local church trustees to deed property to one of the Pan-Methodist denominations or another evangelical denomination.

Paragraph 2548.2 goes on to say such a transfer must take place “under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement.” The church statute specifies that such an agreement must be committed in writing and “signed and approved by the duly qualified and authorized representatives of both parties concerned.”

After the Global Methodist Church launched on May 1, the United Methodist Council of Bishops asked the church court a series of questions about the provision.

In particular, the bishops asked which bodies within The United Methodist Church have the authority to determine what counts as an evangelical denomination and to approve any agreement with that denomination.

“Subject to General Conference approval and ratification,” the Judicial Council answered, “the Council of Bishops is the body authorized to determine if an entity qualifies as a ‘denomination’ and to negotiate and enter into ‘an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement’ within the meaning of ¶ 2548.2.”

Put another way, the church court ruled that the Discipline gives the Council of Bishops the authority to negotiate with other denominations and draft ecumenical agreements. However, General Conference — The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking body — must approve the agreement before it can take effect.

General Conference typically meets every four years. But because of COVID-caused delays, the next legislative assembly has been postponed three times since 2020 to now 2024.

The Judicial Council said that Paragraph 2548.2 may only be used with other processes in the Discipline that change the membership and ministries of local churches, such as interdenominational local church mergers and ecumenical shared ministries.

The church court said an annual conference — by a simple majority vote — may direct a church’s board of trustees to transfer property to another denomination only if the following four conditions are met:

    • A written allocation, exchange of property or comity agreement between The United Methodist Church and the recipient denomination must already exist that the Council of Bishops has signed and the General Conference has approved.
    • The agreement must comply with the connectional polity of The United Methodist Church and must not contain provisions that church law prohibits or does not authorize.
    • A charge or church conference must convene and pass a resolution requesting the property transfer by a majority vote of the members present.
    • The presiding bishop and a majority of the district superintendents and of the district board of church location and building must give their consent to the property transfer.

“Any use, implementation, or application of ¶ 2548.2 or exercise of this right by an annual conference without, apart from, prior to, or contrary to those four conditions would be unconstitutional, null and void, and of no legal force or effect,” the church court ruled.

With all the complications surrounding Paragraph 2548.2, the Judicial Council pointed to another provision — Paragraph 2553 — that General Conference enacted with the express purpose of “Disaffiliation of Local Churches Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.”

Under Paragraph 2553, congregations can leave with property and members if they meet certain financial and procedural obligations. That is different from Paragraph 2548.2, which solely deals with property.

Earlier this year, the Judicial Council ruled on multiple questions of law related to Paragraph 2553.

“It stands to reason that, if disaffiliation of local churches could be accomplished under ¶ 2548.2 or any other provision of The Discipline, the special session of General Conference in 2019 would not have gone through the trouble of enacting ¶2553,” the church court said.

The Rev. Dennis L. Blackwell, a Judicial Council member, released a dissenting opinion. He argues that the majority’s decision invests authority in the bishops not given them by General Conference. He also notes that Paragraph 1504.23, another provision passed by the 2019 General Conference, lists Paragraph 2548 as one way congregations can change their relationship with The United Methodist Church. Paragraph 1504.23 requires departing churches to pay a fair share of pension liabilities no matter what mechanism they use to exit the denomination. 

In a separate opinion, Judicial Council member Beth Capen concurred with the conclusion of the majority’s decision but took a different approach in her analysis.

She specifically addressed the resolutions submitted to annual conferences that characterize Paragraph 2548.2 as a means for local churches to disaffiliate or separate.

“Local churches may not circumvent the requirements of ¶ 2553 by arguing that their departure comes under some other paragraph in the Discipline,” she wrote. “Nor may they rely upon potential proposed legislation that might be considered at a future General Conference (such as those references that were made to the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation). Proposed legislation has no bearing or effect.”

A United Methodist News review of U.S. annual conference reports and publicly available journals has found that annual conferences have approved about 470 church disaffiliations under Paragraph 2553 since 2019.

James Deaton, Michigan Conference’s Content Editor, contributed to this story.

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The Michigan Conference