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What is the United Methodist Trust Clause?

The trust clause declares United Methodist property and assets are held “in trust” for the benefit of the entire denomination. Excerpt from "The Doctrines and Disciplines of the Methodist Episcopal Church. 1864.," courtesy of the General Commission of Archives and History.
The trust clause declares United Methodist property and assets are held “in trust” for the benefit of the entire denomination. Excerpt from "The Doctrines and Disciplines of the Methodist Episcopal Church. 1864.," courtesy of the General Commission of Archives and History.

An Integral Part of Methodism Itself

United Methodists and generations of Methodists before us have structured ourselves for ministry through a connectional system. In a connectional system, the question is not, "What is best for me or my congregation?" Instead, we consider what is best for all, the whole connection.

United Methodists today join the generations of Methodists who built and sustained the church so United Methodist ministry will continue into the future. The trust clause is one way we seek to be United Methodists, all bound together with a common vision and mission in the service of our Lord.

The United Methodist Trust Clause

The United Methodist trust clause is a statement included in legal documents (deeds) declaring that the property and assets of a local church or United Methodist body are held “in trust” for the benefit of the entire denomination. The trust clause ensures that United Methodist property will continue to be used for the purposes of The United Methodist Church.

The Book of Discipline provides the wording of the trust clause in a variety of forms, depending on whether the property in question is a place of worship, a parsonage, intended for some other use, or acquired from another United Methodist entity. The version of the trust clause for places of worship makes clear the property must continue as a place of worship for United Methodists:

"In trust, that said premises shall be used, kept, and maintained as a place of divine worship of the United Methodist ministry and members of The United Methodist Church; subject to the Discipline, usage, and ministerial appointments of said Church as from time to time authorized and declared by the General Conference and by the annual conference within whose bounds the said premises are situated. This provision is solely for the benefit of the grantee, and the grantor reserves no right or interest in said premises.” (¶ 2503.1)

The Book of Discipline requires that such a trust clause appear in all deeds of all United Methodist properties. This requirement is a “fundamental expression of United Methodism whereby local churches and other agencies and institutions within the denomination are both held accountable to and benefit from their connection with the entire worldwide Church.” (¶ 2501)

What does it mean to hold property “in trust”?

Holding property in trust for The United Methodist Church means the “holder” is required to use the property exclusively for the purposes of and to benefit The United Methodist Church. It also means that if, at any point, it becomes clear the holder can no longer or chooses no longer to function as part of The United Methodist Church, it forfeits all rights to continue to hold the property, and the property itself and all other assets transfer to the denomination. In the case of a local church, the property and all assets of the local church would transfer to the annual conference board of trustees. 

What does the trust clause require of local churches?

Because a local church holds its property in trust for the denomination, it has a legal obligation to maintain and protect that property so it can continue to be used as a United Methodist church in the future.

The Book of Discipline sets forth detailed procedures a church must follow prior to taking most major actions affecting its property. For example, the district superintendent and at times the district board of location and building must consent to any sale, lease, mortgage, or extensive renovation of the church property. This consent by the district superintendent and district board reflects the denomination’s shared interest, through the trust clause, in the future of the church property.

When a local church closes or leaves the denomination, the future care of any remaining members of the congregation is a primary concern. The district superintendent is responsible to help those who wish to relocate their membership to another United Methodist congregation.

The trust clause affects what happens to the property and assets of the local congregation. Typically, management of the property and assets transfers to the annual conference. The trustees may put the property and assets to another use or sell the property and use the proceeds, along with other remaining assets, to benefit the mission of the conference.

What happens if there is no trust clause in the written instrument of conveyance?

Occasionally, the United Methodist trust clause may not have been included in the written documents that convey property (such as deeds). The absence of the United Methodist trust clause in writing in these documents does not mean there is no trust clause. The Book of Discipline notes that whether the trust clause is explicitly present in these documents or not, any one of the following constitutes an implied trust clause with the same effect:

1. The property was conveyed to The United Methodist Church or one of its predecessor denominations;
2. The name, use, or customs (including liturgy) of The United Methodist Church or its predecessors was used by it at any previous time so that the community recognized it as part of The United Methodist Church, or
3. The congregation at any time accepted an appointment of a pastor by a bishop of The United Methodist Church (or a predecessor denomination) or an assignment of a pastoral leader by a district superintendent of The United Methodist Church (or a predecessor denomination). (See ¶ 2503.6)

What is the history of the trust clause in Methodism?

Trust clauses in Methodism go back to John Wesley himself in mid-18th century England. By 1750, John Wesley had accumulated three properties as meeting places and ministry sites for the Methodist societies. He wanted to make sure that local societies could not take control of these properties from the connection he was creating. He was aware of some other religious societies where local society members had refused to accept or sought to remove clergy or other leaders sent to them by the leaders of the larger society of which they were part. Wesley had also seen situations where people in a local society became influenced by teachings contrary to those of the Methodist movement and sought to leave while taking the society’s property with them. Wesley wanted to ensure that leaders chosen by him would never be shut out or removed by local societies. He also wanted to make certain that Methodist properties were used only and always to teach established Methodist doctrine and be available to Methodists for their ministries.

With those concerns and purposes in mind, Wesley asked several lawyers to craft deeds for the Methodist preaching houses in England at the time. These deeds served as models for all future deeds for Methodists. In 1796, a form of these deeds, often referred to as “The Model Deed,” was approved by the General Conference for American Methodists. This Model Deed and the mandate for a trust clause in all church property documents first appeared in the Book of Discipline in 1797.

Did the 2019 General Conference change the trust clause?

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The trust clause itself was not altered by the 2019 General Conference.

Instead, a time-limited provision was approved which allows congregations to leave the denomination with their property and assets “for reasons of conscience” related to changes made by the 2019 General Conference regarding homosexuality, after meeting certain requirements The requirements include the following. First, at least two-thirds of the professing members present at a church conference must vote in favor of disaffiliation. Second, the church must pay to the conference

two full years of apportionments and the congregation’s pro rata share of their conference’s unfunded clergy pension liability as determined by the annual conference. Finally, after all payments are completed, a majority vote of an annual conference session must affirm the closure of the church as a United Methodist congregation and its disaffiliation from the denomination. These provisions expire Dec. 31, 2023.

How does the trust clause benefit the church today?

Every United Methodist church is part of a larger connection of shared purpose and mission that has been in existence for hundreds of years. This connection is at the core of what it means to be United Methodist.

United Methodists today join the generations of our forebears who built and sustained the church so United Methodist ministry will continue into the future. The trust clause protects the property and assets that they have purchased, built, and improved over time so they will always be available for ministries offered by future generations of United Methodists.

 — Adapted from resources by the General Council on Finance and Administration

This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.