The ripple effects are waves upon not-too-distant shores
The Mississippi Two?
Recently, two high profile United Methodist churches in Mississippi voted to begin to leave United Methodism. Here’s the write up on UMReporter by the Good News Movement and the Mississippi bishop responded here. As rationale for their actions, both churches expressed discontent with LGBTQ inclusion, and neither offered critiques of their district or Annual Conference or even their own bishop.
As I see conservatives nodding their head and saying “yeah, stick it to The Man” and progressives saying “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”…I’m not sure the real effects of a church leaving are properly understood.
When a church leaves The United Methodist Church, there is a wave of pain…but it doesn’t travel very far, and it is felt most directly by the people closest to the local church itself. Their action of discontent doesn’t reverberate to the global church (the source of their discontent) to the same magnitude that it affects the annual conference, whom they are most likely to be in alignment with.
Let’s run the scenarios:
Taking the money…but from whom?
When a church leaves The UMC, they take their yearly tithe with them. Churches pay a yearly tithe to the regional and global entities called an Apportionment: a portion from each church meant for work beyond their borders. A typical dollar in the offering plate given to a local UMC is apportioned like this, with only 2% given to General Church needs, but 7% given to regional needs.
If a church gives $10,000 a year in a church tithe, and they withhold that tithe, then that is $10k less given to the Annual Conference budget. Mt. Bethel in Georgia did that to North Georgia AC in 2014 (link). It hurts. But if they leave the denomination, then that $10k apportionment is simply redistributed among the rest of the churches: say 40 churches will pay $250 more in Apportionments.
So if a church leaves the denomination, they do not actually harm the finances of the global church very much: the regional authorities simply redistribute and reallocate the assigned funds, with most of the burden shifting to the large churches in their conference, which are likely ideologically similar to them. So the action doesn’t affect the target of their discontent.
When a church leaves The UMC, they do not hurt the general church at the level they hope for…they just make life harder for every other church in their region when it comes to the church tithe. They do harm to fellow churches, not directly to the regional powers-that-be.
Taking the property…but who loses out?
When a church leaves The UMC, they try to take their property with them. Church properties are held “in trust” by the local church and revert to the Annual Conference when the church is sold or no longer is United Methodist. That’s been a key deterrent to hot-headed decisions: the financial loss gives even the most wayward church pause.
So what normally happens when a church closes, due to decline or financial woes?
When a church closes, their property reverts to Conference control and is occasionally used for a new church plant, but more often it is just sold. In my annual conference, the majority portion of a sold property’s profit is given to a fund for new church starts. The life cycle begins again: with a church’s death, it gives new life. With liquidation comes baptism of something new. It makes sense.
So when a church leaves and does not compensate the Annual Conference, the life cycle stops. There’s no money given for new church starts. There’s no easy entry back into a neighborhood. The people harmed are those non-Christians who might otherwise have found Christ.
When a church leaves, they are saying they do not want The United Methodist Church to have the resources to reach new people in new places, or people in their neighborhood. They do harm to evangelism to which all are called, not to institutional leadership.
Taking the voice of the people
When a church leaves The UMC, they take their people with them. This means that, eventually, their church congregation will switch their memberships from The UMC to their local church or their new affiliated denomination.
While that is their choice, again it is the Annual Conference that suffers most. Allocations of General Conference representation are done by membership of a region. If two churches with a membership of 5000 leave, then that is 5000 fewer members for the allocations, and the Annual Conference becomes at risk of losing two votes at General Conference.
We know population matters very much because churches often do not do their required work of auditing membership rolls. Here’s the data on that trend. In short, population = representation, so lowering the population decreases representation.
When churches leave out of protest, the effect is that the Annual Conference loses representation in the global church, and is less able to advocate for their region across the whole of Methodism. It’s an odd target if the leaving church is ideologically similar to their conference.
Summary: Misfires and Short-Sightedness
In short, if you are discontent with The UMC as a global entity, disaffiliation will not harm the global UMC to the same degree as your district or Annual Conference:
- They will bear the financial burdens of your absence.
- They will lose the church planting ability.
- They will have a diminished voice for change or continuity in the denomination.
But if you are discontent with your regional entities, then that’s where disaffiliation makes some sense: you may not care if your circles of harm include your neighboring churches. It’s mean, but at least the recipient of your discontent is also the recipient of the harm of your actions.
But what about Mississippi?
Knowing this, the Mississippi case makes little sense given that the two churches are in theological alignment with their Annual Conference. Their AC will bear the most harm, not the Western Jurisdiction or the Bishops.
It only makes sense if this is part of a larger effort.
We will turn to that in the next post on this blog. (Cue foreshadowing)
In the meantime…
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