The following questions were posed by Minnesota United Methodist clergy at a post-General Conference all-clergy gathering on March 11. The answers contain the best information we have at this time.
Leadership, Advocacy, and Action
How will the Minnesota Conference Cabinet lead in the months to come? What are the Cabinet’s commitments to churches and clergy, particularly those who feel the Traditional Plan damages their reputation and hinders their ability to do ministry?
The letter from Bishop Ough to the clergy of the Minnesota Annual Conference, which you can read here, outlines the commitment of the bishop and the Cabinet in the months to come.
Will clergy be safe in this annual conference if they are open about their identity or orientation?
The bishop made clear in his letter to clergy that he will do everything in his power to remove all barriers for persons who identify as LGBTQIA+ to be ordained and licensed for ministry. He also shared at the clergy gathering that he has no desire to receive or process complaints in this matter, and asked the body gathered if we can commit to not filing complaints against one another. Our Board of Ordained Ministry has gone on record to state that they will continue to evaluate candidates for ministry based on our nine characteristics of effective ministry—and that sexual orientation and other identity characteristics will not be taken into consideration. That said, safety is a high ideal, and as long as the Book of Discipline as it is currently written stands, and as long as fear of difference exists in our society, we cannot guarantee safety.
Can we as an annual conference take a stand to denounce the actions of General Conference 2019? How and when would we do that?
Only the Annual Conference session can officially speak for the Minnesota Annual Conference. There are plans to work on a statement to bring to the June 2019 session that clarifies who we are and how we want to live together as the Minnesota Annual Conference. The content of that statement has not yet been developed, as it needs to be a collaborative process. The development of this statement will happen over the next two months. It will likely be more productive to declare who we are together than to denounce the actions of the 2019 General Conference.
What can reconciling people/those working for inclusion to do right now to differentiate themselves?
Every person and church can do ministry in a way that embodies our deeply held Wesleyan values that God’s grace is extended to all people, our table is open to everyone, and all persons are of sacred worth. Nothing is stopping us from doing that individually and in our local settings. We are aware we have bad press to overcome. To that end, the annual conference is making available micro grants of up to $1,000 for congregations to do an external media push to communicate their values and commitments, and extend a genuine welcome to those in their community.
What place is there for civil disobedience toward The Book of Discipline?
The bishop has often said that, as clergy, we need to be freed up to do the ministry we are called to do in our contexts, and we need to do our ministry with grace and integrity. That still stands. The Book of Discipline is complicated; it was created over many years and has become unwieldy in its forms and its long lists of “shalls” about a variety of things. It would probably be accurate to say that no person upholds every line of The Book of Discipline in every part of their ministry, presuming we have all read every line! We have committed ourselves to faithfully serve within this denomination, and that includes being guided by a Book of Discipline. We can choose to work to change The Book of Discipline through legislation, which we have the opportunity to do every four years at General Conference. We can choose to ignore or defy The Book of Discipline, for which there may or may not be consequences depending on the situation. It is always within our responsibility to determine how we minister with grace and integrity, and remain faithful to the vows we made at our ordination and licensing.
Finances and Apportionments
Bishop Ough has said that “so much will be hurt or damaged” if apportionment dollars are withheld from the church. What kind of damage will result?
Everything we do as an annual conference is supported by apportionments in part or in full. Starting new churches, developing leaders, revitalizing existing churches, moving clergy, providing a camp ministry, administering clergy benefits, training emergency response teams for disasters, sending teams on conference mission trips—all of that (and much more) is because of the generosity of giving from our congregations. The same goes for the general church. All the mission work we are engaged in around the world is made possible by apportionments. Financial support for colleges and seminaries comes through apportionments. The resourcing we receive from Discipleship Ministries and other agencies is because of apportionments. It’s also important to remember that all that ministry is done by people. The Minnesota Annual Conference employs 30 non-clergy staff or contract personnel who are dedicated and committed to resourcing our churches. When churches choose to not pay their apportionments, it not only limits our ability to fund ministry, we put in jeopardy the jobs and livelihood of the people who continue to work so diligently on our behalf.
How much of a church’s money and/or apportionments goes to the denomination and/or the General Conference?
The amount of money each congregation is asked to pay is determined by a formula that is based 15 percent on each congregation’s number of members and 85 percent on each congregation’s expenditures. The apportioned amount for churches in the Minnesota Annual Conference represents 10 to 14 percent of each church’s annual budget. Of the money that was apportioned to local churches in 2019, 23 percent is designated for the general church, and 77 percent will remain here in Minnesota.
Of the total amount of churches’ apportioned dollars that go to the general church, here’s how they are distributed:
• World Service Fund (underwrites Christian mission and evangelistic efforts around the world): 51.4 percent
• Ministerial Education Fund (supports programs and efforts that prepare individuals for pastoral ministry): 17.4 percent. Note: 25 percent of these dollars stay in Minnesota and fund educational opportunities for clergy, such as seminary scholarships and educational debt-reduction grants, licensing school, course of study classes, and continuing education for clergy.
• Black College Fund (supports 11 historically black colleges and universities to develop leaders for the church and community): 6.9 percent
• Africa University (supports the only United Methodist-related, degree-granting university in Africa in its quest to develop future leaders): 1.6 percent
• Episcopal Fund (supports active and retired bishops, and their episcopal leadership): 15.2 percent
• General Administration (underwrites general church activities that are administrative in nature—like General Conference and the General Council on Finance and Administration): 6.1 percent
• Interdenominational Cooperation Fund (supports ecumenical relationships with other Christian denominations): 1.4 percent
Will the Minnesota Annual Conference reduce conference staff and/or lower apportionments?
We are continuing our focus on our Journey Toward Vitality and fully funding our mission. We assume the congregations of the Minnesota Annual Conference will continue to support our shared mission and the good and essential work we are doing in this annual conference. However, we are closely monitoring apportionment receipts so that we can respond in timely ways if we need to make adjustments to our planned expenditures. We have reserves to carry us over for a season so that we can make strategic, and not reactive, decisions. Our funding priorities are starting new churches, developing leaders, and revitalizing and resourcing churches. We have no plan to cut staff at this time as they are how we deliver our ministries. The Minnesota Annual Conference operates on a lean apportioned budget given our expansive vision for ministry, and seeks to faithfully steward all of our resources.
Based on the Wespath petition, is the clergy personal investment plan (UMPIP) account affected for 2020? Is it wise for clergy to leave to protect their retirement—money in the bank now rather than an uncertain future for The United Methodist Church?
All clergy pension accounts are secure now and in the future. Wespath has posted its own FAQs about clergy pensions post-General Conference 2019 and they can be found here.
Wondering About the Future
Is there any hope that General Conference 2020 will be any different? Are there new movements underway and can they spur real change in 2020?
Votes for full inclusion of persons identifying as LGBTQIA+ have increased at each General Conference since the early 1980s. However, the legislative gridlock of recent General Conferences and the shifting demographics of the global church suggest that General Conference 2020 could be a repeat of past General Conferences. Many would say that our structure and governance no longer works in our complex, diverse global church. The disappointment many are feeling about General Conference 2019 has spurred some movements seeking to re-order The United Methodist Church to create more local or regional autonomy. It is too soon to see what will happen, but one effect of General Conference 2019 has been the mobilization of the American church, in particular, to find ways out of this gridlock and allow for an expression of United Methodism that is fully inclusive of the gifts of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Can a congregation remain together and exit the denomination?
The legislation passed at General Conference allowed for a process of “gracious exit” until 2023, whereby the trust clause would be released so that a congregation could leave with its property after having met all of its apportionment, pension liability, and building loan obligations. That piece of legislation is being reviewed by the Judicial Council for its constitutionality. The current Book of Discipline does outline a process that maintains the trust clause for United Methodist congregations that are requesting discontinuance as a United Methodist Church. A congregation seeking to leave the denomination needs to consider all the implications. Where is it going after it leaves? All of our churches are able to operate as charitable religious organizations due to an umbrella ruling of the IRS given to The United Methodist Church. To be legally compliant, each church would need to re-incorporate as an independent entity, and it cannot presume that its clergy leader will exit the denomination with it. If the clergy does exit the denomination, they no longer have clergy credentials unless they secure them from another credentialing body.
Could the churches of the Minnesota Annual Conference leave The United Methodist Church together?
Currently there is no provision in The Book of Discipline that spells out how an entire annual conference would leave the denomination. Again, the conversation becomes where would we go? If The United Methodist Church as it exists determines it will dissolve and form two or more new denominations, then that would be the presumed path. Entire annual conferences would choose which of the new denominations they would belong to. If a new movement is formed that is a split from the current denomination, individual churches or an entire annual conference could decide to go with that new break-away body. The least likely scenario would be that the annual conference decides to leave the denomination and form its own new church in Minnesota. But is it possible to do so? Yes, with some legal and organizational challenges to navigate.
What would it take to form a new denomination—beyond conversations? How do Minnesota United Methodists get involved in that while also pastoring to churches and caring for families?
Forming a new denomination requires many things.There needs to be organizational structure, incorporation, and recognition by the government in the region in which it seeks to exist. It would need operating guidelines and a new constitution or governing document. And of course there needs to be critical mass of people and churches willing to be a part of this movement with the funds to resource it. There is active work around the connection to determine a new form of United Methodism that allows for the diversity of churches in our current denomination. And there is work being done to determine the viability of forming another Methodist denomination. It is too soon to know what will get traction to effectively move us forward.
What church are the 2020 ordinands being ordained in?
The United Methodist Church under the 2016 Book of Discipline, as amended by the 2019 General Conference (much of which is still under review by the Judicial Council.).
Process and Enforcement
What is the process for clergy to relinquish credentials?
A clergy would turn in their credentials to the bishop’s office. Before taking that step, it’s important for clergy to have conversations with their district superintendent and the conference benefits officer. If a clergy surrenders their credentials, they would not be eligible for the subsidy of medical care in retirement that our annual conference currently provides, and all current benefits would cease. Their pension is vested, and the pension implications are outlined in the Wespath FAQs (which can be found here). The clergy could pay for the full cost of health insurance to keep continuation of coverage for 24 months.
If one’s credentials are removed for performing gay marriage, how is her or his pension impacted?
The impact would be the same as for clergy surrendering credentials. Their pension is considered vested, and their full account would be converted to an individual UMPIP account with no further contributions made. The clergy can choose whether to leave their account at Wespath for investment purposes.
Is there a statute of limitations for bringing charges against a clergy or a church for making a choice that is not consistent with The Book of Discipline? Is there a “double jeopardy” exclusion for clergy that have already been brought up on charges for the same offense?
There is no statute of limitations for filing charges against a clergy. If a clergy violates The Book of Discipline multiple times for the same offense (i.e. officiating a same-gender marriage), the clergy could be charged for each separate instance.