Unwinding and (Re)Creating The #UMC, part two [Guest Post]

Category: Technology

The following is a guest post sent to me before UMC Next, but I held off publishing until now so as to not sway the conference. The author outlines a rationale for why The United Methodist Church must be dissolved and how it might be best done.

It is longer than the average blog post on this site, so it is broken up into two parts:

As with all guest content, it is the opinion of the author not the blog owner. I am committed to supporting informed and helpful commentary on all paths ahead for LGBTQ inclusion, so this comes with my support of that effort, not with my endorsement of it as my preferred way forward. Clear? Thanks.

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Unwinding [and (Re)Creating] The United Methodist Church, Part Two

By Rev. Nate Berneking

2. How do we unwind things responsibly?  

First, we must account for clergy well-being, their benefits and pensions especially.  We have all invested too much in this.  This concern is not over my own financial interest.  It is not motivated by money as some might argue.  In fact, to solve this issue, if necessary, I would be willing give up some of my own benefits to insure my colleagues receive a sufficient share.  I believe preservation of our clergy benefits is critical, my belief motivated by deep concern for and a strong sense of my fiduciary obligations to my colleagues and their families.  

Wespath holds around $20 billion in assets from the pension plans and retirement savings.  Those plans have been exceptionally well-managed, by even the most objective standards, but those plans are more fragile in the face of significant disruption to the Church than we may want to admit.  They are only as strong as the financial markets in which plan assets are invested, and the capability of our local churches to pay for unexpected market and demographic changes affecting the benefits obligations.  If one were to assume that the plans achieve only investment returns assured by fixed-income investments (e.g., U.S. government bonds), our defined benefit plans would be underfunded by around 30%.  Though this does not reflect actual returns, or the assumptions upon which ongoing contributions to the plans are based, it is an indicator of the funding level in a distressed situation where benefits would have to be settled up immediately. In Missouri, it represents about $47 million of shortfall. In other conferences, that figure is much higher.  We must account for the underfunding.

Wespath staff and board tried at General Conference 2019 by encouraging the adoption of a petition requiring any disaffiliating (or closing) church to pay its share of the underfunding.  A second petition was also submitted and overwhelmingly passed allowing Wespath and annual conferences to end any further obligation to Elders who terminate their relationship with the United Methodist Church (by converting the stream of lifetime income to an account balance).  Both are extremely helpful in an environment in which small numbers of churches and clergy depart over the issue of sexuality (or any other issue). They sought to ensure that churches left aren’t required to make contributions they can’t afford.  However, we must also account for our past obligations in the face of more significant changes, in the face of a transition to one or more new denominations.   

Second, we must make it easier for local churches and clergy to depart as groups, at least to the extent those churches and clergy are leaving for a successor denomination(s).When taken with the two Wespath petitions noted above, the adopted “disaffiliation” petition adopted in St. Louis actually makes it difficult for a large number of churches to leave the denomination as a bloc, to, in essence, create two or more new denominations.  All three petitions were intended to allow local churches to depart individually and in small numbers, leaving the United Methodist Church intact, if slightly weakened.  If I’m correct in my case for unwinding, however, we should not assume the United Methodist Church remains. Rather, we should reconsider the departures in terms of a large-scale transition from the current institutional structures causing the problems I’ve outlined while we also attempt to retain funding for future pension liabilities and benefit costs.       

Absent a different approach to pension matters in a larger scale disaffiliation (what I’m calling the unwinding of the United Methodist Church), the Wespath and disaffiliation petitions from St. Louis would create an enormous financial obstacle for a group of churches of varying sizes and means. The disaffiliation petition also extends the process for disaffiliating until the next session of the annual conference.  Most smaller churches would have trouble paying the full pension obligation plus a year’s worth of apportionments.  Annual Conferences would be forced to negotiate hundreds of disaffiliation transactions, costing untold dollars in fees and other costs.  Departure would result in clergy forgoing the ease and security of their promised defined benefit instead giving them an account balance to manage and rely on for their future, even if they become part of something willing to accept the future liabilities for that benefit.  I have to believe that many clergy already find themselves caught between their conscience and their family’s financial well-being.  

There may be other reasonable and appropriate ways for local churches to depart as groups, at least provided that those churches and their clergy are leaving for a successor Methodist expression and are willing in good faith and financially able to sustain associated pension and benefits obligations. In fact, Wespath has acknowledged a different treatment for a large-scale disaffiliation would be necessary and appropriate. 

I concede that dividing annual conferences, their assets and liabilities will be exceedingly complex.  Some framework by which annual conference assets are split will need to be included in any set of petitions.  Alternatively, annual conferences themselves might be allowed to disaffiliate for one of the successor denominations with objecting churches free to seek shelter in a conference going in a different direction.[1]  That in mind, however, at some point, every clergyperson, church and conference will need to face the choice of where to go.  Nothing can be left of what we currently know as the United Methodist Church, at least not administratively. 

Third, General Conference must make an honest assessment of the general agencies.  It must take up decisions regarding which make sense retaining for the benefit of successor denominations and how they might continue to be funded without an apportionment.  

Alex da Silva Souto so astutely noted the value of some of the agencies in his essay “Our Movement Forward.”[2]  He also insinuated a critique of the others.  This might be addressed by cutting free the agencies to fundraise combined with a fee-based system not entirely unlike the funding already at work in Wespath and United Methodist Publishing.  In this way, those agencies providing value would still be sought and supported by any successor denominations.  Those whose value is not deemed as valuable may be forced to consolidate or even close.     

Finally, and most importantly, in order to undo things, progressives and traditionalists are going to have to work together, at least on the winding up of the United Methodist Church.  Both sides have speculated as to whether this was necessary in the past.  Now, I think we must agree it is. We will need to negotiate what so many have called an “amicable separation.”      

Legislatively, if conceived with wisdom, these actions would only require a small series of petitions allowing for the start of an orderly fracturing.[3]  I certainly have my ideas about the language of such petitions and amendment, but for now it is enough to say, progressives and traditionalists will need to negotiate. Both groups must develop the petitions together, submit them to the Commission for General Conference by September 1, then lobby their constituents to ensure General Conference 2020 perfects them and adopts them as efficiently as 2019 adopted the petitions submitted by Wespath in 2019.  

As an attorney from the world of corporate mergers and acquisitions, I fully understand that self-interest may derail that effort.  But, the alternative should be always held before us:  splintering, atomizing or “particlizing” of the United Methodist Church, the rapid acceleration of loss of attendance and finally, the inability to sustain the connectional benefits we’ve so loved.  If local churches cannot pay contributions to Wespath, retirees, current and future, might have to accept a reduction in defined benefit payments and the whole fragile web begins to break apart.  Disaster relief efforts of the current scope become impossible.  The Church can suddenly only accomplish what each individual local church can do, and that’s assuming those churches have any lay people left to attend.  We live under a shadow of mutual assured destruction if we fail to act together.  

3. Re-creating

Such an ominous thought is no way to end an article, especially if we truly believe we are “Resurrection people.”  I actually believe it possible to negotiate an exit for all parties, a division of assets and responsibilities and even some shared ministry going forward.  I believe in a future for Methodism.  I’m hoping to be part of it.  Still, churches and clergy will need a place to go once they “leave” the United Methodist Church. I’m not even sure most churches could be prodded “out” without one or more options to which they might go. These new things will most certainly need to be “traditionalist” and “progressive” in order for the churches to seek them.  But, once new things are available, local churches and even annual conferences as groups might make decisions to move affiliation and take advantage of the orderly unwinding.  

Given that and my desire to be part of something new, I’d at least like to say a little about what that could and perhaps ought to be, at least from an inclusive perspective. For as surely as I can work through the intellectual exercise of what must be done to end the United Methodist Church, I can also imagine a new thing, something with its own constitution that seeks to avoid the trouble in which we’ve worked ourselves.  I also believe that traditionalists would do well to consider something similar, if not doctrinally more conservative when it comes to human sexuality. 

To begin a conversation around that new thing, I want to propose that constitutive documents for a successor church have three primary components.  I further admit that I am far from fully decided whether a new church could and should even have a constitution.  That our United Methodist polity has been shaped around something used to form secular governments certainly gives me, and my Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox tendencies, pause.  At the same time, I understand that starting anew may need to begin in a way that looks at least somewhat familiar to the people creating it and joining it.  

First, and certainly more critical than any constitutive document, any new church must be born from a clearly expressed and common ecclesiology that the United Methodist Church always lacked.  I recognize the need to hurry to 2020’s general conference.  I also recognize we havean ecclesiology by virtue of doing and being church.  It may be more accurate to say we need to develop and begin with an intentional ecclesiology that we have always lacked.  Ours has largely been accidental, overly pragmatic, and rooted in offices and structures rather than theological reflection. We must do better than this.  I would say that we must borrow from Wesley what is of value, but to depart from the Enlightenment’s philosophical underpinnings we continue to embrace even as the societies around us push into postmodern and perhaps even post-postmodern philosophy.  There are plenty of thinkers to help us, Methodist and non-Methodist.  For now I will refrain from my own articulation of this theology, but would add that such an ecclesiology ought to ground itself in Sacrament and dignity, pushing past the shallow notions of relationship towards what I’d call “relatedness,” or a sense of each other as fully human, with things in common and different, but always respected and bonded together.    

Second, whatever is new must grant flexibility to local churches and judicatories in establishing a match between credentialed clergy and local congregations, while also protecting clergy based on our various historical hang-ups and sins (i.e., racism, ethno-centrism, gender inequality and yes, homophobia).  This might mean shifting our thinking on retirement saving and benefits.  It might mean eliminating security of appointment. Yet, it will also assuredly mean some means of protecting clergy from the whims of local congregations they serve.  

I see my contradictions:  wanting more freedom and flexibility but with restrictions that protect clergy.  And, Baptist roots notwithstanding, I want to be clear that I have no desire to form a congregationalist denomination.  I simply understand the tension between protecting clergy and creating a new entity which may have a mismatch in the numbers of clergy and congregations.  I understand well the risks and pragmatism of making appointments and matching clergy to churches.  It isn’t easy in our current structures.  Undoing them, shaking things to their foundations, and expecting framers of a new iteration of Methodism to be able to do it the same way simply is not realistic. Still, we must protect clergy who do not look like or articulate a theology exactly like that of the congregations they serve.  

Finally, while I appreciate and even affirm what I see as growing momentum around privileging a judicatory the size of an annual conference rather than a general conference, any new set of rules or church laws must be unequivocal:  any judicatory or entity that exists apart from local churches must only ever exist for the purpose of supporting and resourcing local churches. This, in my mind, may be the greatest sin of the United Methodist Church and its constituent annual conferences. People serving in agencies and annual conferences so easily slide from recognizing themselves in service to local churches to a sense that local churches exist for their benefit or need. Even when nobly conceived (i.e.,imagining local churches exist to support the mission of an agency throughout the world), it dangerously ignores local context and ministry.  This is especially true of annual conferences seeking to impose a host of requirements and restrictions on their clergy and local churches.  The more a conference demands, the lower morale and wellness among local churches and clergy dip.  The more rules imposed, the more the bishop insists clergy must follow the rules, the more attendance at events required, the more data demanded, the worse things get, the harder ministry in the local church becomes.  Any new church’s rules and laws must be explicit, even if they retain the annual conference as a basic unit:  the greater church only exists by virtue and in support of the ministry of the local church. The same laws must restrict judicatory or conference authority to only those actions directly necessary for supporting local church mission and ministry.  Dare I say the church’s rules should even enumerate what those powers might be so as to make the limitation clear.  The same might be said of any sort of general conference.  I affirm the need for flexibility in adapting a church, but that flexibility, especially in the local church, may itself need protecting.[4]  

Should we impose credentialing requirements on clergy?  Sure, but we must be wary that educational debt makes seminary difficult for all but a few, and that local churches are not capable of paying the costs of clergy with a Master’s degree level of education debt.  Should we require the collection of statistics from local churches? I don’t know, but it certainly hasn’t staved the decline for the last 50 years.  Should we have apportionments?  Maybe, but only if we truly understand them as the sharing of resources and restrict our expenditures to only the most critical for resourcing local churches and clergy.  At a minimum, we must leave local churches flexible to adapt to their contexts.  We must stop burdening them with the weight and costs of massive institutional structures incapable of solving their problems or guiding them to the most effective ministry in their local contexts.   

Conclusion

I recognize that this essay is longer that it should be, and yet I must also acknowledge how insufficient it is to the tasks at hand: unwinding the United Methodist Church and (re)creating something new.  At the same time, both processes excite me in their own ways.  And, I worry that no one is yet putting anything in writing as to what might be next or how we get from where we are now to whatever that might be.  We must do both and we must begin the work right now. We must admit where we really are. We must work together, recognizing what’s at stake, and we must make our way unleashed from the bonds imposed by the institution we’ve been assembling for the last couple hundred years.  We must seek to protect people and local churches from our differences and from themselves.  We must create something that allows ministry and its associated problem-solving to occur where it actually has a chance to work, the local church.  God’s work will surely continue regardless of what we do.  But, it seems to me that we also have a responsibility to finish what we’ve started and to continue our work into something that better accommodates the world’s current cultures and people.


Footnotes for Part 2

[1]Wespath considered some of these notions of larger scale disruption in Appendix 4 to the Report of the Commission on a Way Forward. For example, Wespath suggested, notwithstanding the petitions approved by the 2019 General Conference, that liabilities and assets attributable to larger constituent units of the Church, e.g., annual conferences, could be “spun-off” and maintained separately in a disaffiliation circumstance.

[2]Souto, Alex da Silva, “Our Movement Forward,” in Where Do We Go?,45-49.

[3]I see the following as a minimum list of necessary changes: (a) lessen the financial requirement for local churches departing as a group, conditioned on those churches departing as a bloc to form a successor denomination with a willingness to accept continued liabilities incurred under the United Methodist banner; (b) empowering Wespath to assign assets and liabilities related to pensions to departing entities also on the condition those churches and entities depart as a bloc to form a new successor entity to the United Methodist Church; (c) preserving Elder pension benefits as they were envisioned even if those clergy depart, again conditioned on those Elders departing to be part of a new successor entity; (d) allowing for the continuation of Wespath as its own entity, fully empowered to serve any church or group of churches in the Wesleyan tradition; (e) setting forth a framework for dividing and utilizing current assets owned by annual conferences between or at least for the benefit of the constituencies departing as a bloc, again, conditioned on them leaving as a bloc to form a successor entity; and  (f) transitioning valued general agencies from apportionment funding to a fee-based structure that allows fruitful agencies to continue any successor denomination or movement (much as Wespath and the Publishing House currently operate).  I would want more analysis, but I don’t think any of these changes would require a constitutional amendment.  This means they could be adopted in 2020 and put in effect with a timing meant to correspond to the creation of new successor entities.      

[4]Some might desire a fuller conversation on whether a new expression should even have an episcopacy.  I have simply not worked through this question enough.  I will add, by way of footnote, that any episcopacy must have clearer authority and role than what we have in the United Methodist Church.  The current restrictions on authority have really just rendered the bishops and certainly the Council of Bishops useless in providing effective leadership on the issue of sexuality.  If we simply desire the same weakened concept of an episcopacy, we may as well explore other forms of leadership.  If we, however, believe the episcopacy central to our ecclesiology or central to the ecclesiology we desire to express, then we must empower them to lead and to provide for a selection process that reduces the risk of ineffectual individuals gaining access to that authority. 

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About the author: Depending on the day, Nate thinks of himself as a writer, pastor or lawyer.  His job entails the work of all three.  He currently works as the Director of Finance and Administration for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, a large denominational organization responsible for resourcing almost 800 United Methodist Churches in the state of Missouri.  In this role, Nate offers resources and education for local churches and pastors in Missouri and beyond.  He is a graduate of Saint Louis University, Saint Louis University School of Law and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.  Prior to becoming a pastor, he worked as an attorney in the corporate and securities group of a large St. Louis law firm.  When he isn’t working, he enjoys writing fiction and hopes to soon publish his first novel.  He has already written one nonfiction book on church finance, The Vile Practices of Church Leadership, available through Abingdon Press.

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Unwinding and (Re)Creating The #UMC, part two [Guest Post]