We are on a series of Pastor’s Notes exploring the United Methodist Church, and the proposed “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” If you’ve missed a note, you can read our previous notes on our website.
A few weeks ago, I shared with you that I saw this separation as a positive development, and over the next few weeks I want to unpack why I think this is positive. These are my opinions I’m sharing and you can find others online who think differently than I do. One of the things I want to show you in this series is that the separation in the denomination is not all about homosexuality. There are some very practical reasons why it has become necessary for the United Methodist Church to separate that are not primarily about ministry with LGBT+ people.
Today, we’re going to get really practical and talk about church property. We are blessed at Schweitzer with an incredible building. We have about 125,000 square feet in our buildings on about 10 acres of valuable land in a great location. We also have endowed funds that yield annual returns. God has been good to us and provided for us in incredible ways. We have a church family that has sacrificially given over the years so we can have our property debt free.
This next sentence usually surprises a lot of people. Schweitzer Church is not the owner of our property nor any of our other assets. We hold these assets “in trust” for the denomination, specifically for The Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. We call this the “trust clause,” which has been in place since John Wesley.
There are certainly benefits of this arrangement. I serve as a Trustee of the Missouri Conference and we regularly have churches close across the state. The Trustees negotiate the sale of the church property and the funds then go back into Missouri Conference to fund ministry, a lot of times these funds help start new churches.There have been several churches in the Missouri Conference that have been started because of this trust clause.
The trust clause also adds to the dysfunction. If a church wants to leave the denomination because they are in disagreement over something, they would have to reach an agreement with the Bishop and the Conference Trustees. Currently, for a church to leave the denomination they would essentially have to buy their building back from the Conference. The trust clause is one of the reasons why we’re stuck. Churches cannot leave the denomination because they cannot afford it.
There are several denominations that have split in the last 20 years that did not suspend their own trust clause and the results were disastrous. The Episcopal Church is a classic example. As The Episcopal Church has fractured, they have ended up spending millions of dollars in litigation over the buildings.
The separation that is being proposed for the UMC would allow churches to realign in a new denomination free of the trust clause. The new “traditionalist” denomination that is being proposed would not have a trust clause moving forward to ensure that no one is stuck in the future. As I understand, the United Methodist Church that would exist post-separation would still hold a trust clause.
The trust clause has become a very practical reason for the dysfunction in the UMC. Personally, I believe churches should align with other churches that share similar theology, mission and vision. When churches and leaders are aligned, we call can do exponentially more than when they have to spend our energy fighting. One of my hopes and prayers for the future of Schweitzer is that when the dust settles we would be aligned with other healthy churches in a healthy system that shares a similar vision. To me, that would be a great outcome.
Let’s keep praying for God to lead us.