After months of private negotiations, the deal is done. And so, perhaps, is United Methodism as we know it.
A Negotiated Plan of Separation
As outlined by United Methodist News, in 2019 a group started by Bishop Yambasu, the Bishop of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference in Africa, began negotiations for a plan of separation of The United Methodist Church. Along the way, they recruited a professional mediator to help them overcome some of the sticking points. You can read the released documents here:
Without replicating their publications, I’ll try to explain it (including one critical piece) and will save critiques and commentary for when I have had more time. This article is as much for me to explain to my local church as it is for you so feedback is appreciated!
Let’s start with the end in mind. If all goes as planned under this Plan of Separation:
- In 2022, The United Methodist Church will be smaller globally but with stronger regional independence on some polities and practices. Several regions—including the USA region in either 2020 or 2022—will have removed the anti-LGBTQ language from their regional polity. The denomination will be structurally similar to its current makeup (general agencies, bishops, general conference, etc), just smaller and with real decisions about reorganization and funding and branding on its plate.
- In 2021, the Wesleyan Covenant Association will create its own denomination (name pending) and will be recruiting annual conferences and local churches to disaffiliate from United Methodism and reaffiliate with them. This new denomination will be funded by their own membership, along with…wow…$25 million dollars to be paid them from United Methodism (total amount paid over four years by GCFA—where the money comes from directly is an open question). Very importantly, the WCA gives up any claim to any other property or resources of The UMC beyond the local churches or conferences that affiliate with them.
- In 2021, Liberationists (or I guess Centrists or even a region like the entire Western Jurisdiction) who wish to leave United Methodism and create their own denomination will have access to $2 million dollars in seed money for their effort. Yeah. The difference in cash is appalling! If they leave, they likewise give up all claims to common property or resources.
- Expressions will tentatively be eligible to retain their pensions at WesPath (Wespath will make some basic requirements) and have some shared general agency resources between them. For eight years, there will also be a shared fund of $39 million dollars which will support racial ethnic churches, national plans, and Africa University. It will be distributed by The United Methodist Church but any expression is eligible to apply for those funds for their ministries.
Okay, so that’s the endgame. Now, how do we get there?
A Methodist Turducken: Three Conferences in One?
Article VI, section 5-6 outlines how this proposal will work at the 2020 GC. It seemed to really skimp on details and timeline, so I consulted and got more information and…I have to say…one of their proposals for how it would work is pretty bonkers on the surface but it makes logical sense. One proposal plans for THREE Conferences one after another, in the same week, like an ecclesial turducken. Here’s one way it could turn out:
First Conference: Everyone all together
On May 5th when the 2020 General Conference meets in Minneapolis, at the first opportunity a motion will be made to suspend the Rules and to adopt the Plan of Separation’s financial and legal agreements (read it here). All 862 delegates will vote on the Plan of Separation (and any other enabling legislation). Assuming it passes, the Bishops are expected to close the 2020 General Conference, while calling for a Special General Conference to meet…the next day.
Second Conference: WCA and Post-Separation UMC separate
The next day, the delegates will have decisions to make because there will be two options.
- Those delegates and other Traditionalist leaders who wish to start the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s new denomination will meet separately (either at the Convention Center or close by). They are not under any Discipline and can do whatever they want, however they want.
- The Special General Conference of those delegates who wish to remain United Methodist will convene to consider the Regional Conferences Plan (either the one by the Connectional Table or another). They might likely also consider the proposed Global Social Principles and some other petitions with significant global impact.
For the latter, whenever the Special GC is done, the bishops are expected to gavel it closed, and announce that the Regional Conferences will meet…the next day.
Third Conference: Regions of Post-Separation UMC
Finally, for the remainder of the 2020 General Conference allotted days (until the 15th), the various regional conferences will meet like mini General Conferences and pass legislation which will (eventually) apply only to their regional contexts. This is when the antigay language will be removed from the Discipline that will apply to United Methodists in the USA (and perhaps other regions as well). The WCA will continue to meet separately until the time runs out.
…Yeah. Me too. This is bonkers but as long as the constitutional questions are answered (how on earth do you amend the constitution for the Regional Conferences and then hold a regional conference before the amendment has been ratified by the global electorate?) AND everyone plays the game as agreed (this is my concern), it could work out as planned. If not, then some adaptations might mean it is just two conferences in sequence (no Regional Conferences until 2022), but regardless: the plan is to have the major pieces AND the harmful language removed by May 15th. Wow. Get out the popcorn!
Shutting down and shutting out
In the interim time leading up to the Turducken General Conference, there’s some immediate changes that will take place.
- Immediately all complaints and judicial processes against LGBTQ+ inclusive acts will be “held in abeyance.” It means any complaint made will not be processed until the end of GC2020, which if all goes well they will be dismissed at that point. So not a moratorium, but effectively one. This is 100% necessary and the only reason any progressive could support this deal. Stop the harm. A sigh of relief to LGBTQ+ inclusive communities everywhere.
- Part of the negotiated agreement is that the influencers and caucus group leaders will advocate for the deal with their constituencies, and the parties will cease supporting other competing plans. The Indianapolis Plan? TOAST, BABY. Next Generation UMC? New Expressions Worldwide? Bard-Jones? Without the collective support of these representative caucuses and regions, it is highly unlikely any other plan will merit a majority, although some of their ideas may live on in other expressions (such as All Belong’s series of petitions that are not a “plan” and thus are not in competition with this Plan of Separation).
- Annual Conferences are forbidden to close any churches between now and the 2020 GC (with some exceptions). Kinda unnecessary, but I get why we don’t want conferences going heavy-handed on minority-viewpoint properties between now and then.
After GC, Who votes and When?
The biggest question that every church has for each plan is “will each local church have to vote?” The answer seems to be “Not unless they want to.”
- By May 2021, new expressions like the WCA and perhaps others will need to have formed and be ready to be affiliated with.
- From now until July 2021 (outside of the USA it is December 2021), an annual conference can be compelled to vote whether to leave the UMC and affiliate with another new denomination. The threshold is 57% (such a random number, but I’m sure it was negotiated between the Traditionalists’ desire for 50% +1, and the other’s desire for the traditional two-thirds 66.7%).
- Until 2024, if a local church wants to go along with the annual conference, they don’t need to vote. If the local church does want to vote on whether to go a different direction than the annual conference, then they have to vote. Finally, if a local church wants to leave altogether and NOT affiliate with a new expression, then the Discipline applies (trust clause, pension payments, votes by the annual conference, etc).
So there you have it. No action required by your local church except if you feel strongly to go another way than your annual conference.
One lament is that Central Conferences after the 2020 GC will have a LOT of social pressure to go along with their region. A holdout (progressive or traditionalist) annual conference will feel rather alone if the rest of their central conference goes with a different direction. And the potential framing of this choice as “are you pro-gay or anti-gay?” will be really problematic for honest conversations in Africa and the Philippines. Ugh.
Challenges going forward
Yes, the 2020 General Conference delegates will need to decide whether to support this plan or another plan. That’s a given. But in the coming months, there’s some unique challenges for some other groups.
First, the Judicial Council will have to weigh in on this plan—particularly the mechanism of the Regional Conference before the Constitutional Amendments are ratified. That is one for the Council members, not armchair lawyers, for sure! If that doesn’t pass, then it will be 2022 before the regional conference can meet.
Second, Traditionalists will have a lot on their plate. In addition to creating a new denomination, the sequence of events at General Conference means that Traditionalist GC2020 delegates will have to decide to shape the WCA denomination before their annual conferences have voted to separate. That sounds really tricky but in the four months ahead, annual conferences could make their leanings known—even though the administration and nominated leadership of the conference may not be in sync with their annual conference delegates. I fear reactionary pushes will lead to short-sighted votes…
Third, Progressives (especially in the Western Jurisdiction) will have to hold their dreams of a new denomination more lightly because we will be stuck with the church as it is, just less anti-gay. So efforts to create a denomination from the ground-up, absent of its inherited colonialistic and systemic sins, will need to shift to reform rather than build. Although with some nominal seed money for a new progressive expression, there still might be the chance for congregations or conferences that are willing to try.
Finally, the general church will have some decisions to make. General Conferences and Agencies and Independent Commissions will have some strategic decisions to make as to whether they will pivot themselves to serve multiple expressions or whether they will focus on the Post-Separation United Methodism. And the Council of Bishops will shrink or become so top-heavy that reform is needed.
Okay, that was too much, too quickly. There will be better explanations and questions answered in the coming days, and I have definite opinions I’ll be offering up about this proposed plan of separation.
But at least for the interim time, here’s the best Hacking Christianity can offer to explain it. Leave questions in the comments and the post will be updated as necessary. Finally, churches are welcome and have permission to reproduce or link to this post with attribution.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.