Readers of Hacking Christianity know we have been following the story of a breakaway church suing the Pacific Northwest Conference for its property. The church, which has been a United Methodist presence since 1884, is seeking to leave United Methodism and take their ~$1million property with them. They’ve hired legal counsel to push this effort through the secular courts.
One of the church’s attorneys, Daniel Dalton, has extensive ties to the Wesleyan Covenant Association and prepared their legal founding document. Dalton frequently blogs on the topic of the trust clause while shilling his firm’s services to local churches upset by denominational angst.
This sales tactic creates a vicious circle causing church angst while selling the solution to that angst. But are his blogs reflecting the reality of the case?
Alleged Court Update
This week Dalton published an update on the case which reads like bad news for the Pacific Northwest Conference. During a one-sided recitation of the oral arguments, he writes,
“On Monday, April 9, 2018, the Court issued its decision rejecting the argument by the Conference who suggested that case (sic) decided before the 1968 merger that formed the United Methodist Church bound the Court to find that the United Methodist denomination is hierarchal, as opposed to congregational.”
If true, this would be a big deal as the enforcement of the trust clause is predicated on the fact that the denomination is hierarchical in nature. In a case where a local church doesn’t have, or doesn’t have written out, the trust clause in its title, the fact that the denomination requires it would be moot.
So this seems bad. But is it what really happened?
Real Court Update
I currently serve in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, the same conference as the newly named Mead Community Church. Interested in the full story, I contacted PNW’s conference treasurer Brant Henshaw to see if he would explain what had happened.
Henshaw shared that the facts of the matter were a bit different than what Attorney Dalton has presented. While the judge had a range of options for his ruling, this decision was not unexpected and hardly a win for Mead Community Church. Henshaw said:
“Mr. Dalton seems to have forgotten that it was his motion for summary judgment that was denied, not ours.”
A careful reading of Dalton’s post does appear to align with Henshaw’s correction. If the plaintiff (Mead Community Church) had demonstrated that The United Methodist Church was not hierarchical, there would be no need for a trial.
Dalton admits this, but it is hidden in confusing contradictions. One sentence after Dalton writes “the uncontested facts demonstrated that the local Church was the sole owner of the property,” he also admits “that there were issues of fact that had to be determined at trial concerning the property ownership issues.” Which is it? Perhaps the confusion is the purpose of such writing.
A Question of Audience
As a blogger, I spend a fair amount of time wondering who my audience is for anything I write. This post had me wondering again about Dalton’s audience, and by way of association (no pun intended), the WCA’s.
Our careful read of Dalton’s description reveals a manipulative retelling of the facts, but for whose benefit? Certainly, this post wasn’t written to persuade the judge. And both parties involved in the case are cognizant enough of the facts to know that this is, at best, a positive spin. So who is the audience?
Thankfully, Dalton kindly provides the answer to this question of “which audience?” in his closing section:
“The professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC can help your local church leave the denomination as well.”
If you want the facts of the case, read multiple sources.
But if you want a sales pitch shilling services to remove millions of dollars and generations of faithful gifts from The United Methodist Church, then by all means, read Dalton’s blog.
Honestly, I feel bad for Mead Community Church right now.
I can’t imagine that it’s pleasant for most anyone to go to court, even if you are convinced that you are in the right. The fact that this motion for summary judgment was filed back in November, and followed by many billable hours, certainly must test one’s patience and endurance. I can have some empathy for the people of Mead, even if I find them to be so very wrong in this situation.
But this is a big win if you are Dalton or the Wesleyan Covenant Association. A future court date means more business and more resources taken from a local congregation. And if you can misconstrue the facts just right, you’ve got another case of denominational cruelty to stoke the flames of schism with.
It’s a win/win for the lawyer, even when it isn’t for anyone else.
One Final Thought
This case is important because it is part of a larger effort to exit property and people from The United Methodist Church. Regardless of their expressed feelings, the people of Mead are being preyed upon to satisfy a larger organization’s goals.
Just as the Wesleyan Covenant Association warmly embraced their own board member who took United Methodist property with him as his church went non-denominational, we see that the Wesleyan Covenant Association has no problem facilitating the transfer of United Methodist property to another non-denominational church. Every church that leaves Methodism makes it weaker and easier to bargain with or hold hostage. And every church that leaves brings in more money to the official legal counsel of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, who can advertise his services to more people.
A vicious circle indeed.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.