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What should United Methodist congregations know about disaffiliation?

Local churches may complete a process of disaffiliation through several different Discipline paragraphs. ¶2553 is the primary path. Graphic by Laurens Glass, United Methodist Communications.
Local churches may complete a process of disaffiliation through several different Discipline paragraphs. ¶2553 is the primary path. Graphic by Laurens Glass, United Methodist Communications.

With the postponement of the 2020 General Conference to 2024 and the announcement by the Wesleyan Covenant Association that it will launch the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022, we at Ask The UMC are receiving many more questions about disaffiliation. 

These questions have made it clear that there is a lot of confusion and misinformation in the church about this topic.

Our role at Ask The UMC is to provide accurate official information about The United Methodist Church. No entity of The United Methodist Church is asking any congregation to disaffiliate or even consider disaffiliation. We are not encouraging any congregation to do so, either.  Our goals with this FAQ are to provide clarity and accurate information about the process of disaffiliation for those who may be considering it and to dispel confusion.

Step 1. Contact your district superintendent or their designee.

Whether your congregation is beginning to explore possibilities of disaffiliating or seems ready to take a vote, the first and most important step is for your pastor to contact your district superintendent.

If you are the pastor and you are just beginning to explore these questions, contact your superintendent to ask for guidance about how to explore well and for detailed information about how the process of disaffiliation works in your annual conference. This is important, because exactly how the process will work varies by annual conference. What you may have heard or read about in another conference may not apply in yours. Your district superintendent can give you the most accurate information so your congregation can make its best decisions informed by the facts.

If you are the pastor or other contact person designated by your conference policies and you have completed the initial steps to request your a called church conference for a vote, contact the district superintendent through the means specified by your conference. The district superintendent may have additional questions for you at that time to make sure you are working from accurate information and a clear sense of the congregation’s readiness for a vote. These questions are not designed to delay you. They are designed to ensure your congregation’s decision process is well-informed, healthy, and in keeping with all of the requirements set forth by the Book of Discipline and your annual conference.

If you are not the pastor or other designated contact person, you will want to talk with your pastor or designated contact person about any questions or concerns about the process.

2. Understand the terms that apply to your congregation.

Three paragraphs in the current Book of Discipline may be used to complete a disaffiliation in which the congregation may retain much or all of its property and assets. Only ¶2553 relates directly to disaffiliation¶2548.2, and, under some circumstances, ¶2549.3.b may be sometimes also be involved to address related property issues. 

Using Paragraph 2553

The Council of Bishops and Judicial Council Decision 1449 have affirmed  ¶2553, added by the 2019 special called General Conference, as “the primary paragraph used for disaffiliation or separation.” They have also recognized that there may be some instances where ¶2548.2 or ¶2549.3.b may apply to how property matters are addressed. 

¶2553 outlines the steps the congregation, the district superintendent, and the conference must take to request, meet the criteria for, and complete a disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church.

These provisions require, at a minimum, three things:

  1. a decision to disaffiliate by a two-thirds majority of the professing members present at a church conference (not charge conference);
  2. the payment in full of two years of that congregation’s apportionment commitment as set by the conference;
  3. the payment in full of the congregation’s pro-rata share of the conference’s pension liability, based on a formula approved by the annual conference.

Annual conferences may add to these requirements, and some have done so. Some conferences require a full three years of apportionment payments. Some require repayment in full of grants made to the local church. And most require that the congregation complete a discernment process, guided by the district superintendent, before a church conference may be scheduled to consider disaffiliation.

Disaffiliation is complete only when all payments due are made in full, the annual conference has approved the motion of disaffiliation and the effective date of disaffiliation set by the annual conference is reached. 

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The Role of Paragraph 2548.2

This paragraph has been part of the Book of Discipline for many years. It permits the annual conference to direct the local church trustees to assign the deeds of church property to the proper legal representatives of a Pan Methodist church or another evangelical denomination.

This paragraph  is about transfer of property. It is not about a congregation changing its denominational affiliation.

The transfer of property may happen “under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement, provided that such agreement shall have been committed to writing and signed and approved by the duly qualified and authorized representatives of both parties concerned.”

The key words in that sentence are "church property," “permit,” and “annual conference.” This paragraph was created to give permission to annual conferences to order such transfers of deeds at the request of the local church. This paragraph does not create a right nor a process for congregations to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.  Nor does it allow local congregations, by themselves, to transfer their property to other denominations. It creates a right for congregations to request such transfer of property, and then only where local laws require the congregation's involvement in the transfer. The annual conference determines whether and when such transfer may take place. The annual conference may only consider such a request after the presiding bishop and the majority of the district superintendents and the district board of location and building have given their consent. And as the Judicial Council decision clarifies, the "comity agreement" referred to in this paragraph is created by the Council of Bishops and affirmed by General Conference. Annual conferences cannot create comity agreements with other denominations. No comity agreement exists between The United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church.  

The language of ¶2548 permits either a vote of the charge conference or of a church conference to request transfer of property to a church of another denomination. This provision about property transfer is not about a vote for the congregation to disaffiliate or join another denomination. The Council of Bishops has noted that Judicial Council Decision 1379 requires that any motion to disaffiliate must “to be approved, reach a two thirds majority of the professing members present and voting at the church conference.” The lower thresholds to request a transfer of property named in ¶2548.2 do not apply as a valid vote to request disaffiliation. 

The Role of Paragraph 2549.3.b

This paragraph authorizes the presiding bishop and majorities of the district superintendents and the district board of location and building to declare that “exigent circumstances exist that require immediate protection of the local church’s property.” The effect of that declaration is the immediate transfer of all property and assets of a local church to the control of the conference board of trustees. Exigent circumstances include, but are not limited to, situations where the property will no longer be used for the purposes of The United Methodist Church or the congregation is no longer in a position to maintain it for the denomination.

In this circumstance, the congregation may request that the conference board of trustees establish terms to obtain its former property and some of its assets. Alternately, the annual conference may instruct the conference board of trustees how to handle specific cases or classes of cases that may fall under these provisions. The South Georgia Conference has done so as a means to allow more time for disaffiliations to take place after the December 31, 2023 expiration date of the provisions of ¶2553. Absent such explicit instructions by the annual conference, however, there are no guarantees about what terms the trustees may offer, and the trustees are under no obligation to negotiate the terms they offer. So while it may be possible for your congregation to exit under this paragraph and have some property and assets when you do, the risks of greater costs or the entire loss of property and assets are substantial.  

3.  Use a discernment process facilitated by the district superintendent.

Your district superintendent will help your congregation complete an intentional discernment process before a church conference to vote on disaffiliation is scheduled. Working through this process with the district superintendent is not only required in most conferences, but wise.  Using such a process will help your congregation make its decisions with due care for each other and your future together.

A sound discernment process helps members of the congregation listen to and respect each other’s views, learn about both the costs and the benefits of either decision, and help reveal whether there is a two-thirds majority of professing members to allow a vote for disaffiliation to prevail. Wise congregational leadership will choose not to schedule a church conference to vote on disaffiliation if there is uncertainty about that majority.

A sound discernment process may also be able to reduce harms that may be unintentionally caused by the results of the vote. Votes about disaffiliation are never simply rational or financial. They are also deeply emotional. A vote to disaffiliate is a vote to leave relationships with other people and institutions that have helped congregation members grow in Christ over the years. In other denominations, such votes have resulted in people leaving the church. The questions become who leaves, how many people leave, and how to address the losses to the remaining congregation when they leave.

Your district superintendent will work with your congregation at each step of the discernment process. Discipleship Ministries and The Council of Bishops are developing resources to assist congregations in their discernment. You can find the Discipleship Ministries resources here. Wespath has also posted an informative FAQ about the impact of disaffiliation on continued ability to participate in the UMC's pension programs. We will continue to update this page with additional resources as they are made available. 

4. Follow the terms of your process carefully.

The denomination’s Trust Clause remains in effect at all times. All congregations and ministries of The United Methodist Church hold their property and assets in trust for the denomination, and specifically for the annual conference.

Under any process of disaffiliation, your congregation will want to avoid any situation in which you do not follow or appear not to follow the requirements as set forth by the Discipline and your conference.

If a congregation takes actions that have the effect of severing it from The United Methodist Church or uniting it with another denomination, apart from the guidance of the district superintendent and the requirements of the Discipline and the conference, the provisions of ¶2549.3.b to transfer all property and assets of the congregation to the conference board of trustees may come into effect. And in a situation where the congregation has acted in ways that are not compliant with the Discipline and the guidance of the district superintendent, the conference board of trustees may not offer the congregation any terms to obtain its former property or assets.

This is not an outcome that bishops or congregations would prefer. The bishops are prepared to pursue this outcome under the authority of the Trust Clause should it be required.

Still, it is an outcome that can easily be avoided.

Clear lines of communication between the church and the district superintendent that show ongoing progress toward completing the processes set forth by the Discipline and the conference will help ensure as gracious a transition and outcome for all as all would desire.

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