In recent years, other large, U.S.-based denominations facing similar deep divides related to sexuality became embroiled in ugly lawsuits. These cost millions of dollars, as former fellow church members sued each other over church properties, doing great harm to many and violating clear biblical teachings.
At its upcoming special General Conference session, will the United Methodist Church dare to try a more gracious approach, based on treating those with whom we disagree as we ourselves would want to be treated?
The business before the February 2019 UMC General Conference includes five stand-alone petitions to offer “gracious exits” so that congregations who could not live with the other decisions made could leave our denomination with their property.
While details differ, all would require a congregation to take significant steps before being allowed to leave, and, very importantly, three of these petitions are clear that they would NOT just allow leaving for any reason, but would only apply to narrow circumstances “for reasons of conscience” specifically related to our denomination’s approach to human sexuality after the 2019 General Conference.
The reality acknowledged by United Methodist leaders across the spectrum is that no matter what happens in St. Louis, some will be upset and leave our denomination. As a delegate, I have received emails from United Methodists in my conference telling me that they will leave if the vote goes one way, and others saying they will leave if the vote goes the other way.
Nothing new that develops between now and February 26 will change the basic fact that there is no possible outcome to this General Conference that is even minimally acceptable to everyone, and so ANY outcome will result in some leaving.
How will we treat those who feel they need to leave?
If we will not adopt any “gracious exit” petitions as a top priority, then we must explore: what is the alternative?
Sadly, a repeated pattern seen in denominations with similar systems of centralized ownership of church property has been for regional denominational officials and departing congregations to descend into nasty spectacles: spending millions of U.S. dollars suing each other in secular courts over who gets to keep the properties that members of the departing congregations built, paid, for, and maintained over many years. This was seen when the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted new policies on sexuality and marriage with which many of their congregations could not live.
Is diverting literally millions of dollars out of church offering plates, away from mission, all for the sake of suing other church folk, really the best Christian stewardship?
If we believe that Christians outside of our denomination, even including former United Methodists, are still our brothers and sisters in Christ, then Scripture speaks directly about such lawsuits. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 (NRSV):
When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?
In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.
All gracious-exit petitions seek to avoid violating this clear biblical teaching. Failing to pass any gracious-exit petitions would invite a flood of lawsuits over property.
Without gracious-exit requirements, it is often a default stance of regional denominational officials to “play hardball” in fighting to take away the buildings from departing congregations, even when it does not seem in their best interests to do so. One striking example was when the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in upstate New York left the Episcopal Church over sexuality controversies, and became embroiled in a lengthy property lawsuit with denominational officials. In the meantime, this congregation continued growing, particularly among college students, and ministering with the local homeless community. The eventually offered to buy their building from the denomination. But regional denominational officials, with the support of national denominational leadership, refused to sell to them. . They instead sold the property to become a center devoted to promoting the Islamic religion, and sold it to the Muslims for one third of the price that the Christians had offered upon being kicked out. The Diocese also reportedly added a legal requirement that the new owners could never sell the property to the Good Shepherd congregation. (You can read all about this here.)
On a more practical level, when gracious exits are not offered to departing congregations, so that they have to abandon their buildings, this can be a net financial loss for the denomination, contrary to some misperceptions. If our denomination is stuck with an empty building, then the annual conference (i.e., its active congregations) will suddenly have to pay not only legal fees, but also for property maintenance, any debts, and liability insurance (which could be particularly high given how empty buildings are considered an “attractive nuisance”). While this varies by location, in some places, we would have to start paying property taxes, as religious exemptions do NOT always apply to empty churches not being used. (For examples of where “vacant” church property is taxable, see here, here, here, and here.) And abandoned churches can be notoriously difficult to ever sell, particularly if they are historic buildings, attached to a cemetery, and/or outside of a metropolitan area.
When denominational leaders insist on keeping buildings to themselves, they may not foresee the long-term damage to the church’s witness. Empty buildings are bad for local communities. Furthermore, our non-Christian neighbors know that we claim to serve a God of love, but when they see different kinds of Christians fighting each other, especially so unnecessarily as with these property lawsuits, they sometimes conclude we are all hypocrites and lose interest in attending any of our churches.
Gracious exits err on the side of caution in seeking to obey Jesus Christ’s teaching that the way the world will know that we are His disciples is by the love we show for each other (John 13:35).
Recently, some lobbying of delegates has denounced any gracious exit proposals, and tried to frame this as a “partisan” issue, as if gracious exits are only sought by traditionalist United Methodists and should be opposed or filibustered by anyone whose perspective is otherwise liberal.
But there are major flaws with these arguments.
While indeed the Renewal and Reform Coalition supports both the Modified Traditional Plan and gracious exits, the latter has also been supported by several outspoken advocates of liberalizing our standards on sexuality.
Among the emails I have received as a delegate is one from a former liberal caucus leader within my annual conference. He said, among other things, that if we adopt either the One Church Plan or Traditional Plan, we will also need to decide what sort of gracious exits to offer to those who cannot live with this.
One of the stand-alone gracious-exit petitions was submitted by Commission On a Way Forward (COWF) member Leah Taylor, who endorsed only the One Church Plan. This reflects how there was consensus among most commission members across the spectrum that all plans needed a gracious exit, and so the commission initially included an exit path with each of the three plans, before the Council of Bishops majority faction effectively removed gracious exits from two of the plans.
Another gracious-exit petition was submitted by former Alaska Conference lay leader Lonnie Brooks, an advocate for liberalizing our sexuality standards, who went out of his way to defend the controversial election of Karen Oliveto as bishop before the Judicial Council, and who serves on the Advisory Board of the “Mainstream UMC” group. Brooks told the United Methodist News Service he also supports us delegates considering gracious-exit petitions as the first order of business, explaining, “We need to keep church separation out of the courts to the maximum degree that can be done,” and citing his involvement in a battle over property that dragged out in the courts over six years, the sort of scenario he wants to avoid “play[ing] out across the whole church.”
Do we also want to avoid this?
Last fall, a group in West Ohio of leading critics and defenders of our denomination’s sexuality stance (with more of the former) came together to “urge the 2019 Special Session to approve a gracious and equitable process for exit” for congregations. Their open letter, worth reading in full, includes:
- “While we pray for a unified way forward, the reality of our circumstance convinces us that any decision made at the 2019 Special Session will likely lead to congregations and pastors deciding they are no longer able to remain in the United Methodist Church.”
- “A more clearly defined process provides the greatest possibility of an even-handed and equal administration of process for congregations that believe they cannot remain.”
- “Approving a gracious and equitable process before addressing proposed solutions will help to set a tone of generosity and freedom as the hard decisions of the 2019 Special Session are debated and decided.”
- “Approving a gracious and equitable process before final decisions are made offers the best possibility of helping the ‘winning side’ avoid the temptation to take advantage of their majority position by imposing insurmountable or punitive obstacles for congregations who elect to end their relationship with the UMC.”
As I understand the West Ohio group’s letter, their call for voting on the gracious exit petitions as our first priority seeks to make it most likely that we would fulfill the biblical Golden Rule of treating those with whom we disagree as we would want them to treat us (Matthew 7:12).
One new argument against gracious treatment of exiters is that we delegates must be prevented from directly voting on any of these petitions in 2019. But remember, a committee at the 2016 General Committee already passed a gracious exit petition, and this was part of the package of petitions that we were prevented from voting on then, with the promise that we could come back to such matters at this special General Conference. How many times can the same petition be referred and filibustered before this begins looking a little cynical?
For years, I have encouraged people considering leaving the United Methodist Church to stay, even when it has been difficult. I hope to continue doing so after this month.
I realize that loving each other can sometimes mean staying together. But not if this means keeping ourselves together by locking someone in a room and trying to forcibly prevent them from leaving.
Refusing to respect their free will and carefully considered decisions to leave us, however sad, is not loving. It’s a recipe to guarantee increasingly bitter, nasty continued conflict, with neither party feeling loved or respected by the other.
Scripture has a lot to say about the bonds of unity Christians must have with each other. But it seems a bit of a stretch to treat these biblical passages as primarily meaning that it is God’s utmost concern to preserve the recent structural systems, which have only been around since 1968, which set our one denomination apart from Christians in all other denominations.
If we are serious about being ecumenical Christians, then shouldn’t we apply the biblical calls to loving bonds with other Christians to how we treat ALL other Christians? Even those who feel the need to pursue their ministry without the same denominational structural ties they currently have with us?
Even if that means finding gracious ways to treat them as we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes, and seeking to avoid the costs, scandal, and horrible witness of suing each other over property?