Behind the scenes on the separation of a church

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Earlier this week reports about a formerly United Methodist church exiting the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference (EPAC) spread across the Internet (based largely on Walter Fenton’s story at Good News Magazine). As Fenton reported, the Wesley United Methodist Church in Quarryville, PA voted to leave the denomination, and in a negotiated settlement the EPAC allowed the existing congregation to retain the property at a cost of $100,000 rather than to exercise the trust clause that all United Methodist congregations observe in regards to their property. While Felton’s article quotes Wesley Church’s Executive Pastor Larry Rineer, the response from the EPAC seemed less complete, so we reached out to EPAC Bishop Peggy Johnson and her staff to try and get a fuller picture from their perspective. Bishop Johnson was very helpful and referred us to Rob Shoemaker, who has served as the legal counsel of the EPAC since 1980. Shoemaker was able to help fill in some details to offer a fuller picture of this transition.

The Wesley United Methodist Church in Quarryville has experienced rapid growth in recent years under the leadership of R. Blake Deibler. Located in Lancaster County (the heart of the Amish country), Quarryville is a rural community with a population just under 2,000. Over the past 20 years, Pastor Deibler grew the church from 30 to a worshipping congregation of around 600. Conservative-evangelical in their theology, the Wesley Church became more and more concerned about the United Methodist Church’s direction on homosexuality, and what seemed to them to be a failure in holding pastors accountable when they disobeyed the church’s proscriptions against the ordination of GLBT persons and conducting same-sex weddings.

“We did not take this step lightly,” said Executive Pastor Larry Rineer in the Good News article. “A great deal of prayer, conversation and thought went into it. The idea of leaving the denomination was a grassroots movement in the congregation that had been welling up for years, but in the past we did not think the timing was right.” However, earlier this year the congregation decided that it was time for a change, and voted 441 to 5 to leave the denomination. It was at this point that leaders in the church reached out to the Southwest District Superintendent to express their desire to leave the United Methodist Church.

“Our first order of business was to keep the congregation United Methodist if we could,” said Rob Shoemaker, EPAC legal counselor. “The bishop and the D.S. both made a pitch about what we might do for the church that would address their concerns, but it became clear that they were not going to reverse their decision, and given that fact we had to decide to do something.”

Shoemaker stated that the congregation was fully aware of the implications of their decision, including the possibility that the annual conference might exercise the trust clause and retain ownership and control of the building the Wesley Church had just built in 2012. “They had done their homework and were clearly aware of the trust clause in their decision,” Shoemaker said. “That became the basis of all our conversation . . . they didn’t try to get out of it but accepted that as a given.”

As the annual conference looked at the situation it became clear that there were some unique factors to this situation. The Wesley Church was located in a very remote area, that had experienced rapid growth under the leadership of a dynamic pastor. However, that growth had led to the construction of a new facility in 2012, and with the church holding around $4,000,000 in debt. The membership of the congregation was almost unanimous in their decision to leave, and the hope of continuing with the remaining few and repopulating quickly seemed to be remote. “We were looking at a situation where we could litigate to hold on to a building we would owe a significant sum of money on,” Shoemaker said, “but we had no belief that we could pay the debt.” After checking with colleagues representing other annual conferences, EPAC decided to negotiate based on a contractual agreement which stipulated that all provisions of the United Methodist Book of Discipline had to be honored, and that the goal was for the annual conference to receive the fair value of the equity in the building paid so far. This agreement guided all the conversations to follow.

Eventually, after many conversations, the Wesley Church agreed to pay $100,000 to the EPAC as compensation for the equity in the building. Additionally the church paid off an earlier commitment to a capital campaign, as well as their apportionments up to the date of the final contract ending the relationship between the church and the UMC. The Wesley Church also agreed to refrain from using any United Methodist signs and symbols. Once the agreement was complete, the EPAC issued a quit claim deed to the Wesley Church and relinquished their trust relationship, giving the building and all responsibility for the debt to the newly constituted Wesley Church.

“The Wesley Church didn’t fight this negotiation at all,” said Shoemaker, “because they knew that the trust clause was in place throughout the negotiation.”

While the EPAC Trustees and Cabinet negotiated the details, the final agreement was presented to the full session of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference in May of this year. After much discussion and sorrow, the conference approved a resolution approving the agreement. However, out of concern that this decision might set a precedent for other churches considering leaving the denomination, the conference also approved a 3-point process for the future. The process stipulates:

  1. That the charge conference of the local church – not the pastor, nor any group or committee of the church — present to the Annual Conference, in writing, a detailed explanation of the reasons for their intent to withdraw.
  2. That the Conference Board of Trustees wait to be given authorization and direction by the Annual Conference before engaging in any discussion or negotiations regarding the ownership of any United Methodist Church property or asset.
  3. That any vote taken in a local church regarding a change in its relationship to the annual conference be considered invalid unless it is taken within the the context of a Church Conference as prescribed in the Book of Discipline and that the Bishop or District Superintendent, presiding over the Church Conference, be given adequate time to communicate with members of the congregation as to the full implications of their withdrawal.

Shoemaker said that he believed the process in this case worked because of the unique situation. “We honored the Discipline, didn’t waste the church’s money, and preserved the supremacy of the trust clause,” he said.

Shoemaker said that one learning from this situation is the need for District Superintendents to be more directly involved at an earlier stage so that congregations don’t drift away before it is too late. “We were engaged in an 11th hour effort with Wesley Church,” he said, “and by then it was too late to help keep them in the UMC. Maybe we should have been in conversation earlier.”

Shoemaker said that there is another smaller United Methodist Church in the area to continue the work of the EPAC, and that they are hoping that those members at Wesley Church that wished to stay in the UMC may choose to affiliate there.

“This was a difficult situation,” he said. “No one was happy about this.”

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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