The followup to a previous post yields the result and the difficult road ahead.
As Went Mississippi
A few months back, Hacking Christianity reported and commented on two large Mississippi congregations that were petitioning to leave The United Methodist Church.
At the time, Heather Hahn reported for UMNS that both The Orchard and Getwell Road UMCs in the Mississippi Annual Conference had taken congregational votes and were about to begin negotiations to leave.
Despite the missional language of reaching people for Christ, what was being negotiated is very specific: the property, endowments, and debts of the local church, if it ceases to be United Methodist, revert to ownership by the Annual Conference. Everything. That’s the law…with a favorable past of being enforced, thanks to The Episcopal Church preceding us in dealing with schismatics for the last decade.
Since both sides wanted to avoid a court battle and lawyer fees, they held negotiations to the terms of the disaffiliation, much like “who gets what” in a divorce.
- The local church, since it is their current members who paid for the building and its upkeep (Getwell is ~30 years old, and Orchard still has their founding pastor), likely pushed for minimum settlement money to be paid, reasoning they bought it all already.
- The Annual Conference, since it was their investment of seed money and assigned pastors that started BOTH churches and the profits will be used for new church starts, likely pushed for maximum payout since it ultimately owns everything anyway.
We ended our writeup with the following section:
The stakes are incredibly high for Mississippi. Not only are they potentially losing $500,000 a year in apportionments, they could potentially lose almost $10m in property money to be used for new church starts or whatever they allocate that money for.
But they also stand as the bellweather which will signal the deals that other churches can expect to get. And if they leave tons of money on the table or get cut out completely…so will the rest of the UMC, with schismatic elements emboldened by the negotiated terms and lowered risk.
My hope is that the Mississippi AC upholds the Discipline.
My hope is that they stand firm on the expectations of our tradition and our covenant.
My hope is that the churches buy back their property in full (the non-indebted $10m).
My hope is that the financial pain for these exiting churches is so high that it shakes the stained glass in the old Wesleyan Covenant Association logo.
My hope is rather rigid, it seems. But it only serves to honor the Discipline that the other side so seems to venerate 100%…except when inconvenient.
Sadly, it appears such hopes were dashed upon the rocks.
According to lead pastor Bryan Collier, The Orchard Church (Tupelo) reached a settlement with conference leaders that made its departure official as of May 19, 2017.
The congregation agreed to pay 100 percent of its 2017 apportionments and to release the annual conference from all financial and legal liabilities. In turn, the conference has released the congregation from the trust clause. Therefore, The Orchard now has complete and unfettered ownership of its property and assets.
Their 2017 apportionment is between $270k-$300k, so let’s be optimistic and say they bought their $7m property for $300,000.
A Payout Far Too Low. Absurd even.
The reality is that this payout is far too low, for at least two reasons.
First, the property value is estimated at $7 million, with the church owing around $5 million in debt. If the Orchard church uprooted and abandoned The UMC, the Annual Conference would own both the debt and the property. Assuming they sold it for 90% of its value and paid off the debt, that’s still a windfall of $1.3 million that can be used for missions and ministry.
Second, and even more egregious, is that the payout is barely more than the church’s deficit in apportionment giving which began in 2013:
- In 2015, Orchards paid 81.7% of their quarter of a million dollar apportionment, a shortfall of $45k for shared missions and ministry.
- In 2014, the deficit was $38,879 of shared missions and ministry.
- In 2013, the deficit was $35,177 of shared missions and ministry.
We don’t have the numbers for 2016 or 2017, but let’s assume the three year trend-lines hold of 81%. Conservatively, the Orchard Church would have not paid $52,250 in 2016 and $60,000 in 2017 of their apportionment. Over a five year period, Orchards is estimated to have withheld $231,306 from the Mississippi Annual Conference shared missions and ministry.
In short, the Orchard Church bought their $7,000,000 property and their $300,000/year obligation with only $69,000 of new money. 69 thousand dollars. That’s it.
That’s a bargain for them. And a ridiculous shortfall for Mississippi shared missions and ministry. If I was a tithing church in Mississippi, I’d be hopping angry at Conference leadership. And I’d be really closely scrutinizing the Getwell Road deal, coming in a few weeks.
What can other ACs do?
I hoped for the Mississippi Annual Conference to uphold the Discipline and make leaving The UMC as painful as possible for these churches. That did not happen, so now their template of taking on debt and paying a year’s apportionment may become on the table across the Connection.
But there’s several things Annual Conferences can do now to ensure Orchards robbed The UMC instead of started a trend.
- Ensure all local church deeds have the proper Trust Clause language. This is a simple check to make sure no churches have slipped through the cracks without proper deeds. If this work is done before separation, then it will be helpful.
- Establish a minimum payout policy that Annual Conference committees have to abide by. While it seems the Trustees of Mississippi was willing to give away the farm, other conferences would not be able to if a minimum payout was decided by Annual Conference policy change.
- Bishops and DSes can establish direct communication with local church lay leadership. While focusing on pastors who have set their mind that they are leaving, local leadership may not be in the same place. For DSes and Bishops to open communication with them early and often, that would go a long way to cooling tempers and hotshots looking to replicate the Orchards fiasco.
Annual Conferences worried about losing decades of investment and current operating capital–which would then be shouldered on more and more of their churches (theirs will now go up $300k a year spread out among many churches)–would do well to heed these suggestions and keep the Orchard tempest in a teapot.
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