Two petitions about disaffiliation were voted as “high priority” and are being discussed and debated this morning. Some have called these types of petitions as a “Gracious Exit Clause.” The idea is that some churches may not be able to accept the decision of this General Conference regarding human sexuality. These plans outline a process by which UM churches can disaffiliate or leave the denomination. Currently there is a process for leaving the denomination in the Discipline, but it isn’t very uniform or clear. It basically leads to a case by case process for each church that desires this. Each of these plans give churches a certain time period to use this option to disaffiliate.
At approximately 11:40 AM this morning the first of the disaffiliation petitions was passed by the legislative committee (the Taylor one for those keeping track). This will be forwarded to the plenary session tomorrow. I want to be clear, the decisions being made today are not binding. They are preliminary actions to perfect legislation before being voted upon by the official General Conference. Only a vote of the entire General Conference tomorrow will make things officially church law and become part of our Book of Discipline. Of course the people making these decisions today are the same people who will be voting tomorrow. Things which pass with a majority today will likely pass tomorrow with a majority. That is likely, but not guaranteed.
Both the Boyette Amendment (which also ended up passing) and the Taylor Amendments (both disaffiliation amendments) will require churches to pay a significant sum to the Annual Conference in order to leave the denomination. This sum would, for the most part, be tied to the amount the Annual Conference will need to fulfill commitments to clergy in terms of their pensions in the future. These have both been called “gracious exit” amendments. The thinking is that this would graciously allow churches to leave the denomination with their property (real, tangible, and intangible) while not leaving the Annual Conference in the lurch of having to meet pension obligations without the ongoing support of leaving congregations. As you probably know, local UM churches hold their property “in trust” of the Conference. This means that ultimately all local church property belongs to the Annual Conference. These disaffiliation plans would provide a way around that provision.
Many of us may recall the many lawsuits that ensued when Episcopal churches began to attempt to leave their denomination years ago. Many of those lawsuits were ugly, expensive, and divisive. These proposals are meant to avoid these kinds of lawsuits in the UMC. The concern of this legislation is that it opens the door for many churches to leave the denomination which may cause the UMC to splinter apart. The deeply held convictions about human sexuality that persons hold will likely mean that some churches will opt to leave if that is made available to them depending on what all is decided here. There will be, however, a significant financial cost to churches who wish to leave with these options in order to ensure the denomination can meet it’s pension demands.
Next up: debate over the One Church Plan