On April 26, the United Methodist Church’s top court ruled that while some provisions of the newly adopted Traditional Plan remain unconstitutional, the rest of the plan is valid as church law. (Read the full decisions—Decision 1378 and Decision 1379.) Below are the answers to some questions you might have in light of the ruling.
The Judicial Council has ruled. Did anything change about what was passed in St. Louis?
In essence, no. The Traditional Plan as approved at the Special Called Session of the General Conference was ruled constitutional. The pieces that had been ruled unconstitutional prior to the Special Session continue to be unconstitutional. Actions of the General Conference, unless stated otherwise in the approved legislation, will go into effect January 1, 2020, and an update will be made to the 2016 Book of Discipline.
What will change in the 2016 Book of Discipline?
• The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” will be expanded to include persons in same-sex marriages or civil unions.
• Bishops will be explicitly prohibited from commissioning or ordaining who have self-identified as LGBTQ, and they will not be permitted to consecrate as a bishop a person identifying as LGBTQ.
• If a clergy is convicted in a church trial for presiding at a same-sex marriage, a mandatory, minimum penalty will be required: a one-year suspension for the first offense, and removal of credentials for a second offense.
• District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Boards of Ordained Ministry will be prohibited from recommending persons who do not meet all disciplinary requirements.
• Churches will be able to request disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church. Requirements for disaffiliation include:
>A two-thirds vote of the professing members of the local congregation.
>A disaffiliation agreement to be negotiated between the annual conference and the local congregation’s Board of Trustees. This negotiated agreement will include these four items:
Payment of any unpaid apportionments from the previous 12 months, plus an additional 12 months of apportionment payments.
Payment of the congregation’s pro-rated share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liability. This amount will be calculated based on market value similar to a commercial annuity provider.
The congregation has satisfied all debts, loans, and obligations prior to disaffiliation, or made arrangements to have them assigned to the new entity.
The congregation may retain its current building and property provided it has met the above financial obligations. It will pay for any legal work and fees for transfer of titles.
>Ratification of the negotiated disaffiliation agreement by the annual conference session.
Every year since 1972, the General Conference has affirmed the language of “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and the prohibitions to the ordaining of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and clergy presiding at same-sex marriages. Isn’t the Traditional Plan simply affirming that stance once again? Why is there so much turmoil in response to this? TheBook of Discipline has never before required a mandatory penalty for clergy convicted of a disciplinary offense at a church trial. Bishops have had discretion in handling complaints, as each circumstance is unique and the just resolution process has sought to be fair and grace-filled. The essence of the Traditional Plan is enforcing compliance with an understanding that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The actions of the 2019 General Conference suggest that more than 60 percent of United Methodists in the United States do not agree with that statement. They would point to how our Book of Discipline says all people are of sacred worth and would affirm the giftedness and calling of all people. The rulings of the Traditional Plan give no space for a congregation or conference that seeks to be in full ministry with the LGBTQIA+ community. Welcome without the opportunity to be married in our churches or called into leadership through ordination is not full inclusion, and for many United Methodists, it is no longer acceptable to tolerate those limitations given their understanding of scripture and God’s unconditional love for all people.
What will General Conference 2020 bring?
No one knows for sure. Groups and individuals have an opportunity to write legislation that will be debated and voted on, and if passed, it would take effect in January 2021. Everything in our Book of Discipline is up for revision every four years. However, given past General Conferences, and the make-up of global delegates, it is highly unlikely that the Traditional Plan and the language regarding the prohibitions around homosexuality will fundamentally change. There are efforts around the country to significantly change the structure of The United Methodist Church, including the formation of one or more new expressions of the church in order to give space for two very different understandings of how we are called to live out our faithful interpretation of scripture. What has become increasingly clear is that the current form of The United Methodist Church will change. There could be legislation that would create a pathway to allow entire annual conferences to exist in a new structure. The One Church Plan was the best hope to hold us together as a “big tent” church, but because that did not pass, there is an active movement for a major portion of our church to separate and form something new.
What are we doing in the Minnesota Annual Conference to help us prepare for what happens next?
• The leaders of our key teams (Pensions, Trustees, Board of Ordained Ministry, Cabinet, Camping) are meeting to share information about how we are doing scenario planning and monitoring assets. We believe that the shape of The United Methodist Church will be significantly different after 2020, but we don’t know what it will look like. Therefore, we want to be prepared for every contingency, and these teams are doing their due diligence to consider all options.
• We will devote a day of our upcoming annual conference session to consider our identity as an annual conference, and seek clarity about how God is calling us to be the church and therefore what next. There will be conversations around the state for clergy and lay members of annual conference in the month leading up to annual conference so they can be fully informed and prepared for the conversation and decisions to be made in June.
• We continue to focus on our Journey Toward Vitality and our gospel imperatives to grow in love of God and neighbor, reach new people, and heal a broken world.
If a gracious exit is available, should our church pursue that option now?
• This needs to be a careful, detailed process, and there are steps that have yet to be determined. Practically, it would be January before the annual conference is ready to enter into conversation about the creation of a disaffiliation agreement with a local church. The agreement will then require ratification by the annual conference session before disaffiliation could occur. Next year’s annual conference will be in June 2020, which is after General Conference 2020 (taking place May 5-15). That timetable allows us to be prudent and know all our options before initiating the disaffiliation process.
• There is currently no other expression of The United Methodist Church for a church to affiliate with. Exiting now would mean either becoming an independent congregation or determining another denominational affiliation. Each of those options have considerable legal and organizational processes. Clergy would no longer carry credentials if they leave with their congregation.
• The market value of the unfunded pension liability for a local church will be significant. Instead of each local congregation deciding whether to go or stay, it would be more strategic for the annual conference session determine how we want to participate in whatever form The United Methodist Church might take in the future. An annual conference would be in a better position to deal with the unfunded pension liability as a whole.
• It is our hope in Minnesota that we do not lose our witness or strength as a church rooted in a Wesleyan understanding of the gospel. We think we can do that better together, and would ask our churches to hold steady until after General Conference 2020 to give time to see how the movements are coalescing and what enabling action might happen at General Conference 2020. In the meantime, we will continue to clarify our identity, organize, and prepare so that we can be ready to decide our future once it becomes clearer what the options are.
What is the best thing we can do as a church in these uncertain times?
• Create space for thoughtful conversation on our core beliefs as United Methodists, and in particular, our understanding of what it means to be in ministry with the LGBTQIA+ community.
• Clarify your identity and values as a congregation. We cannot plan for every contingency, but when we know who we are, it becomes easier to determine what we are to do.
• Commit yourselves to growing in your practice of respectful conversation so that we can model, as the Apostle Paul says, “a more excellent way” (see I Corinthians 13 if you need a reminder of what that excellent way is!).
• Stay focused on your mission of offering Christ to all people.
• Pray, listen deeply to one another and to God, and stay informed about what is unfolding so you can make the best decisions possible that ensure the future of our collective witness and mission.