The Book of Discipline for the United Methodist Church.

After years of debate, do United Methodists have a path forward?

The Rev. Leon Edward Matthews wants to keep his focus on the Lord and not lawsuits as the United Methodist Church barrels toward a likely split over human sexuality.

That’s why Matthews, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Warren Memorial United Methodist Church, supports a proposed agreement that would allow for churches to retain their property and set aside money for those who want to leave.

In addition to where individual churches and their members land, the business of the church must also be resolved. If the latest proposal is approved in May, it lays the groundwork for what happens to things like property, its outside ministries and a pastor’s pension.

Under the proposal, a new “traditionalist Methodist” denomination could be formed.

It would be a mistake not to view the looming separation from both theological and business angles, said Daniel Dalton, a Detroit attorney who has handled property disputes among other denominations in the past.

He said he has been contacted by many UMC churches, including several dozen in Georgia.

“Most are waiting to see what happens at the May 2020 General Conference (where a vote on the proposal will be held) before they take any action,” he said. “All wish to leave the denomination.”

The big question is “If you leave, do you have the ability to leave without any strings attached?” Dalton asked. “Will you control your own assets and your own destiny? These hard conversations need to be held within the church body. It can end up in court — and it does.”

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The trust clause in the UMC’s Book of Discipline states that the local church owns the property in trust for the entire denomination. According to the UMC News, there are detailed procedures a church must follow, including approval by a district superintendent for the sale, lease, mortgage or extensive renovations of church property.

“We’ve been trying to coexist and it’s not been fruitful,” said Matthews, who describes his views as center right. “Now, we have to find a way to coexist separately and still be a United Methodist Church and still have the basics of Methodism.”

This way, said Matthews, issues can be settled within the denomination and not by a judge’s gavel.

“Good, we finally got everybody in the room,” he said of the joint effort to come up with a suitable proposal that had input from a 16-member group that included diverse voices and bishops.

Signers included representatives from the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines and included the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, UMCNext, Mainstream UMC, Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus.

“We’re a faith community. I don’t think we need to be in a judicial court,” Matthews said. “We’re better than that.”

United Methodists represent one of the largest mainline denominations with more than 13 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S. and more than 467,000 United Methodists in Georgia.

A spokeswoman for the denomination said there are 45,126 churches globally, of which 32,257 are in the United States.

The “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” is expected to come before the General Conference for a vote during the meeting in Minneapolis in May. The General Conference is the UMC’s foremost legislative body.

The proposal, hammered out over several months in borrowed space in a Washington, D.C., law office, lays out a blueprint for the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination, according to a release about the plan.

Here’s what it includes:

  • The new church would receive $25 million over the next four years and give up further claim to the UMC’s assets.
  • An additional $2 million would be allocated for potential additional new Methodist denominations that may emerge from the UMC.
  • Acknowledging the historical role of the Methodist movement in systematic racial violence, exploitation and discrimination, the protocol would allocate $39 million to ensure there is no disruption in supporting ministries for communities historically marginalized by racism.
  • Conferences and local congregations could vote to separate from the UMC to affiliate with new Methodist denominations created under the agreement within a certain period. Churches wishing to stay within the UMC would not be required to conduct a vote. Provisions exist for entities that choose to separate to retain their assets and liabilities.
  • All current clergy and lay employees would keep their pensions regardless of the Methodist denomination with which they affiliate.

Sue Haupert-Johnson, resident bishop of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, said, “Clearly there are some United Methodists who cannot remain in a denomination in which any pastor marries a same-sex couple, or in which any annual conference ordains an openly gay or lesbian person. There are also some United Methodists who cannot remain in the denomination unless every pastor is willing to marry a same-sex couple, or unless every annual conference ordains an openly gay or lesbian pastor. The protocol creates a way for these groups to separate from the United Methodist Church.”

Kenneth Feinberg, a prominent lawyer who oversaw the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, served pro bono as the mediator for the discussions that led to the protocol.

The main impetus for the process, which was held over six all-day sessions, “was the stark reality of ‘What is the alternative?’ Everyone thought the alternative was unacceptable — protracted uncertain litigation, which is very costly and emotional,” Feinberg said. It also likely meant a disruption of the church, so mediation became the best path forward.

It was critical to have the right people in the room that represented divergent views.

The timing for acceptance may be right.

There are many issues before the General Conference, but the issue of performing same-sex marriages and ordination of LGBTQ clergy in active relationships has been brewing for decades.

“Churches, synagogues and all religions are in trouble these days,” said Feinberg. “We wanted to make sure the United Methodist Church stayed united in its desire to move forward in a loving way.” Questions arose about how to restructure the church, governance and the financial consequences of a restructuring.

The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, said he is well aware of how the conflict has escalated and been harmful to the denomination.

He believes this proposal has a greater likelihood of success than previous ones.

“I’m fairly optimistic,” he said. “Every term of the agreement was negotiated and was subject to compromise. No one got exactly what they wanted.”

But some United Methodists are still holding their breaths.

“I’m a traditionalist,” said Johnny Miller, an Atlanta business owner and a longtime member of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta. “I like things the way they are, but a split is inevitable and it’s possible it will get messy. We’d love to avoid that, but the bottom line is about land. I’d love for things to stay the same, but I don’t have any power.”

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