Dear Church Friends and Family,
Somehow, it’s August. Summer is almost over, fall is just around the corner, and Christmas is just 146 days away. You’re welcome.
But I’m not here to ruminate about changing seasons, the passage of time, or the fact that scientists recently recorded the shortest day ever on Earth—a full 1.59 milliseconds shorter than average. (Come to think of it, that may explain why the summer seems to have flown by…but I digress.) Instead, I want to start August with a brain teaser: Name a 14-letter word for confusion, or uncertainty. I’ll wait.
The word you’re looking for is disaffiliation, and it’s all the rage in some United Methodist circles, these days, because it’s a word that describes the act and process of a local church separating itself from the Annual Conference. As in all things Methodist, the process seems complicated and a little arcane, so before you hear about it on the street, I thought it would be good to give you the deets as far as we know them as of 1:00 a.m. Monday, August 1.
The precipitating event for the talk of disaffiliation was the Special General Conference of 2019, which voted to impose what was called the “Traditional Plan,” which strengthened the already-existing restrictions in the Book of Discipline that forbade the ordination and appointment of pastors from the LGBTQ community, as well as the performance of same-sex weddings by United Methodist pastors, in United Methodist buildings.
As you might expect, this was the source of considerable consternation within the United Methodist Church in the US and elsewhere. As a result of that decision, a temporary allowance was made for churches who were theologically not on board with excluding LGBTQ people from leadership positions, or from the ability to have church weddings. Also, as you might expect, this was not a simple process—for instance, there were some significant financial knots to untangle before a church could cut the cord.
Then there was a plot twist—UM Churches with conservative theological outlooks became concerned that their Conferences were not going to take the prohibition seriously, and would try to have it reversed or diluted at the next General Conference, scheduled for 2024. Based on that concern—and possibly some intense marketing by law firms seeking to make church disaffiliation a specialty—a number of theologically conservative churches have chosen to disaffiliate themselves from the United Methodist Church. (Yes, you’re understanding that correctly—separating themselves from the Church that already has the restrictions they want.) Others are considering it.
Those hoping that a compromise might be reached at the 2024 General Conference, correcting or softening the 2019 rules, are generally choosing to stay put and wait to see what happens.
Now, to the process…
In the Wisconsin Conference, if a church decides that it is interested in investigating disaffiliation over LGBTQ restrictions, the District Superintendent must be informed by September 1. That kicks off a two-month period of discernment, at the end of which there would be a church conference in which members of the church would be eligible to vote for or against disaffiliation.
If the vote is in favor, that begins the process of formally untangling the finances and other connectional links to the Wisconsin Conference. Current year apportionments and next year’s apportionments will need to be paid, in full. Any outstanding loans would need to be paid, in full. A sum to be determined by a set formula similar to that used for apportionments would also need to be fully paid into the pension fund by the departing church. Obviously, the Conference would no longer be appointing pastors or providing support for pastors. Pastors would also need to be in communication with the DS regarding their intentions—staying with the Church, or separating from it.
And all of the above would need to be sorted out and paid by December 31, 2023. If that doesn’t happen, the window closes and the church can no longer disaffiliate. This is not arbitrary, but is a time frame set by the last General Conference.
This is not a complete and comprehensive explanation, but it should give you the flavor of the process, at least. If you have further questions, you can contact me and I will be glad to direct you to resources prepared by the Conference office and the United Methodist Church. Any editorial comments are mine.
In my discussions with you, frankly, I’ve heard no one express any interest in going through the disaffiliation process. I don’t anticipate this being on our to-do list, but as I said earlier, I don’t want you to hear about it and be uninformed. It is always possible, at least, that other churches in our area may choose to take the disaffiliation route—and if that occurs, we will be tasked with reaching out to our brothers and sisters in love during what will surely be a turbulent time.
These are interesting times for the United Methodist Church, and more than ever we are being challenged to stand up for our core beliefs in love, justice, and the God-given rights of all people. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know, or you can also contact Annette Meints, our Ad Council chairperson.
God bless you. Have a safe rest of the summer…and I’ll see you in church!