Friday, June 10, 2022

Methodists: Don't miss your exit!

Dr. Warren Lathem, a retired UMC pastor and husband of a blogger friend, writes on Facebook, (1) Warren Lathem | Facebook :

"Atlanta drivers know if you wait until the last minute to try to cross 6 lanes of traffic to get to your exit, you are likely to either miss the opportunity and wait for the next one, or get run over by a delivery truck. Therefore, we have learned to get prepared to exit long before the exit appears.
The UMC made a provision for churches to disaffiliate (exit) from the UMC taking their property and all assets without any liability for future unfunded UMC pension benefits. It is described in paragraph 2553 of the current (2019) Book of Discipline.
However, this provision has an expiration date: December 31, 2023. There are costs involved, specifically paying the church’s share of the unfunded pension liability (the conference has to provide that number) and any unpaid current year apportionments plus one more year apportionments. Various other bishops and Conference Boards of Trustees have added other requirements, some quite onerous.
The paragraph 2553 of the 2019 General Conference made provision for disaffiliation by a local church and was ruled constitutional in 2021 by the Judicial Council. This meant disaffiliation could be processed beginning in 2022. Seventy churches in North Georgia completed the process and were approved/ratified for disaffiliation at the June, 2022 Annual Conference.
The remaining churches wishing to disaffiliate have a very narrow window. They must complete the church decision making process and ask for a church conference to be scheduled January 1- February 28, 2023. The North Georgia Conference must vote on whether to ratify the local church disaffiliation agreement which is scheduled for May 31, 2023. No further opportunity for ratification is presently planned.
In order to meet this deadline it is imperative churches act now. The Annual Conference has published very specific procedures which must be followed exactly to be able to successfully execute this process. A sixteen page disaffiliation package has been prepared to help churches navigate this laborious process. The packet is available via email on request.
Please do not believe the speculation that there is no need to do anything before the 2024 General Conference. Also do not believe the speculation that the 2024 GC will make the process easier and less costly. Indications across the church reveal an agenda to thwart the process of disaffiliation. For example, one bishop has declared no churches will be allowed to disaffiliate until after the 2024 GC. Another has required churches to surrender 1/2 of their assets in addition the Disciplinary requirements. Further, the centrists and progressives who were involved in the negotiations which resulted in the Protocol for Separation have withdrawn their support for the legislation in the 2024 GC. The NGA bishop has declared, “The Protocol is dead.”
There is not sufficient evidence to believe the 2024 GC will adopt a new version of Paragraph 2553 nor make leaving less onerous, if even possible. Many have speculated they will, but this a very unlikely outcome.
Therefore, I believe you will have one opportunity: Annual Conference 2023. If you miss the exit, you will have probably made a very costly mistake.
In order to avoid missing the exit, you must begin moving toward it now, not later. Now. No one knows how many NGA churches will seek to disaffiliate in 2023. It could be hundreds. The exit ramp is fast approaching and the exit lane will fill quickly. You need to move toward it quickly.
Please do not let conference leaders, centrist/progressive clergy, or other church members convince you there is no hurry. The time is now.
There are folks available to speak with you, your church leadership, your church or a group of churches to help with understanding the current situation and the necessary process to successfully get through this exit.
In many churches there has been little or no discussion of the whole matter forcing the decision. Often that may be the natural state of inertia in many of the congregations of the UMC. Or it may be a theological misalignment of the pastor and the congregation. Further, it may be the fear of conflict in the congregation. Now is the time to face the fears and the consequences. Time is of the essence.
Disclosure: after 50 years of ministry in the UMC I transferred to the Global Methodist Church. It was in some ways a very sad and difficult decision. However, it was for missional reasons, first, then doctrinal and theological reasons. I believe we have a great missional future together. Our Wesleyan heritage is one of outwardly focused mission. It’s time to pursue it again.

"Interestingly, the reasons churches are discussing leaving almost always have nothing to do with human sexuality, the high-profile issue at the General Church level. They are talking about a misalignment of mission, decades of ineffective pastoral leadership, the misuse (in their opinion) of their apportionment dollars, the forced closing of local churches, the seizing of local church assets, and a desire for a viable future which appears to no longer be possible in the UMC. They have watched their children leave to go to effective orthodox churches, often independent or loosely aligned with an association of churches. They have observed the sometimes slow and sometimes rapid exit of their contemporaries to other vital churches in their community. They have observed the politically driven actions of the leadership of the conference in hiding or withholding information that for years was readily available to local churches. They have had to receive and pay the salaries of District Superintendents who have little experience and often no serious effective experience. Some of them have had a new DS assigned and have never met them in over two years! Many discuss the all-consuming institutionalism of the denominational leadership while experiencing either benign neglect or open hostility from that same leadership to the needs of the ministry of the local church. Now many of these most faithful United Methodists gather in sanctuaries for worship, look around and see fewer than 50% of the folks who were there just a few years ago. Some will say this is simply the result of Covid. Certainly some of it is. However, in most churches this downward trend in attendance stretches over multiple years and pastors. They never see a believer’s baptism. Confirmation classes have fewer than five or none at all. They are threatened if they do not pay their annual apportionment in full. They are not included in any district or conference decisions, not even consulted. So they want out with their assets to continue ministry in a more effective way. They may not be sure what that looks like, but they know what is current reality is not working."

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