Bishops discern ways for churches choosing to separate from UMC; seek court's guidance on Jurisdictional Conferences

March 16, 2022
WASHINGTON, D.C. -  The Bishops of The United Methodist Church in their March 15 called meeting discerned pathways for churches choosing disaffiliation and separation. The bishops have met two consecutive weeks to discern pathways forward in these changing times.
 
The bishops affirmed by an overwhelming majority that paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline would be the primary paragraph used for disaffiliation and separation. It is understood that different contexts may require utilization of additional paragraphs in the current Book of Discipline namely paragraphs 2548.2 and 2549: and that they would employ the values and principles as outlined in paragraph 2553.
 
It is also understood that paragraph 2553 is not operative in the Central Conferences but in matters related to disaffiliation and separation, the values and principles of 2553 would be used. Paragraph 2553 was added to the Book of Discipline at the 2019 Special Session of General Conference.

 In addition, the Council of Bishops affirmed by a strong majority that they would hold to a set of values and principles in all matters of disaffiliation and separation:
  1. Mutual Recognition 

  • Declare mutual recognition of Christ in the other as individuals as well as constituted churches and look for the fruit of God’s Spirit in the ministry and mission.
  • Agree not to actively disparage one another with our words and actions that seek to undermine the ministry of the other. 
  • Will faithfully and carefully exercise the disciplinary requirements of the sacraments, ministry and mission.  
  1. Caring for pension liability

  • Even if the GMC assumes pension liability for active pastors moving forward, the unfunded pension liability for past service remains within The United Methodist Church.
  • Caring for Pension Liability is essential to protect the health and well-being of the denomination moving forward and to further ensure the protection of the clergy who remain as well as retirees who may depart. 
  1. Voting Threshold

  • Paragraph 2553 established the following voting threshold:  The decision to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.
This threshold was affirmed by the Judicial Council in Decision 1379:Any legislation of the General Conference permitting the "gracious exit" of a local church must require at a minimum that (1) the disaffiliation resolution be approved by a two-thirds majority of the professing members of the local church present and voting at the church conference, . . .”
  1. Ability to add additional standards

    • Paragraph 2553 established standard terms for any church disaffiliating including such things as apportionment payments, property, pension liabilities, and other liabilities.
    • In addition, Paragraph 2553 states, Annual conferences may develop additional standard terms that are not inconsistent with the standard form of this paragraph.”
 The bishops empowered the Executive Committee to form a team that would assist conferences with best practices and resources needed for the work of separation and disaffiliation with the primary goal being to advance the mission of the UMC and assist those whose hearts and minds have already left to leave.
 

Jurisdictional Conferences

The Council of Bishops has also asked the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding Jurisdictional Conferences to be held to elect and assign bishops. They have tentatively set November 2-5, 2022for Jurisdictional Conferences should the Judicial Council rule in favor of holding the regional meeting. This date was previously scheduled for Jurisdictional Conferences following the General Conference.
 
In the questions to the Judicial Council, the bishops want to know if they have constitutional authority to set regular sessions of the Jurisdictional Conference to elect and assign bishops without the General Conference occurring first. The bishops are also asking the denomination’s top court to decide when the assignment of newly elected bishops would occur if such elections occurred after September 1. Here are the bishops’ questions:

Question 1: Does the Council of Bishops have constitutional authority to set regular sessions of the jurisdictional conference to elect and assign bishops pursuant to ¶¶ 26, 27.2 and 45 of the Discipline, notwithstanding that the General Conference has not occurred since the last election of bishops in the jurisdictional conferences and the General Conference has not acted upon a report of the Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy as contemplated by ¶ 512?

Question 2: If the answer to Question 1 is yes and the election and consecration of the new bishop(s) occurs after September 1, when does the assignment of the newly elected bishop(s) begin?

Question 3: Is the assignment date of “September 1 following the jurisdictional conference” set forth in ¶ 406 altered if the election and consecration occurs before the customary July election(s) that result in assignments taking effect in approximately one to two months after election and consecration?

The request for the ruling came after the second postponement of the General Conference from 2022 to 2024, heightening the burden of bishops attempting to provide effective episcopal oversight and leadership. Due to vacancies created by retirements after the postponement of General Conference in 2020, special assignments to cover vacant episcopal areas in the United States have been faithfully served by bishops who continue to serve their residential areas.

“The threat to the continuance of the episcopacy and the sustainability of effective episcopal leadership will increase as more retirements are expected, whether due to mandatory retirement, vocational retirement, or voluntary retirement. Therefore, the rationale for this request for declaratory decision is readily apparent, and the need for an expedited decision on the request is compelled given the current and expanding burden,” the bishops said in the filing to the court.

The COB is asking for an expedited decision.

Council of Bishops President Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey affirmed the work of the bishops and their willingness to care for the mission and witness of the UMC.
 
“The work of a bishop has grown more complex and yet the bishops continue to grapple with difficult decisions in a world of competing values. They do so with grace and unafraid; knowing that God is with us,” said Bishop Harvey.