How the Trust Clause Got Turned on Its Head

Wednesday, December 4th, 2019

May of 2020 will be a momentous General Conference for those in the United Methodist denomination. This could likely be the Conference where the denomination formally divides into two or three separate expressions of Methodism.

Central to the negotiations of a possible split are issues centered in the Trust Clause of the United Methodist Church. The Trust Clause legally establishes that all buildings and properties do not belong to the local congregation, but to the United Methodist denomination itself (specifically, the annual conference). Thus, the discussions about “leaving” the denomination are important because the group that “leaves” has to accept the fact that they must leave all of their property and buildings behind unless some concession is made by the denomination to allow them to keep their property and buildings if, for example, certain financial payments are made.

However, it is important for all United Methodists to not forget the original purpose of the Trust Clause. When John Wesley had the first house of Methodist worship built in Bristol, he established rather hastily a Trust Clause after the prevailing pattern practiced by Presbyterians. This essentially gave the local church Trustees the rights over the building, property and appointment of preachers. Once George Whitefield saw the Trust Clause that John Wesley had established, he immediately wrote a letter of warning to John Wesley that if this Trust Clause prevailed, it could mean that local congregations could appoint their own preachers and even prohibit Rev. Wesley himself from preaching from the very church he had helped to establish. In response to this, Mr. Wesley made major changes to the Trust Clause so that it resembled what we have today; namely, the denomination owns and controls the building, land, and pastoral appointments of all local United Methodist churches.

This much of the history is fairly well known by Methodists. However, what seems to be lost in the discussion is Wesley’s own reason for why he made this change. Wesley made it clear that the whole reason for this very strict Trust Clause was to protect and preserve orthodoxy in the church. If a pastor failed “in the exercise of their ministry” or in the “proclamation of the gospel” then Wesley did not want his hands tied in removing that pastor from the pulpit of a Methodist church. The Trust Clause was very explicit that only authentic Methodist doctrine should be preached in Methodist pulpits. By 1763 it was required that all Trust Clauses follow the pattern of the Birchin Lane Preaching House in Manchester. In this pattern for all Trust Clauses, it is explicitly required that in order for a local congregation to retain control of the land and buildings, . . . “those so appointed should preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament and four volumes of sermons” (Works of John Wesley, vol. 9).

Thus, the purpose of the Trust Clause was to protect the church from heterodox teaching which was inconsistent with the Scriptures and the received interpretation of the Wesleyan message as found in Wesley’s canonical sermons. Those churches who are refusing to abide by the United Methodist Discipline are the ones who have actually violated the Trust Clause and should be the ones who lose their land and buildings and be required to go and start their own denomination if they wish. However, just the opposite is happening in the United Methodist Church. Our Episcopal leaders continue to appoint and affirm clergy who will not abide by the Discipline and will not teach and preach historic faith. Furthermore, those who long to remain United Methodist, and who long for churches to abide by the express will of the General Conference and the historic doctrines of the Christian faith are faced with losing their land and buildings. The Trust Clause was designed to protect churches from false doctrine. Today, the Trust Clause is being used to pressure churches into embracing false doctrines. The Trust Clause, founded to preserve Wesleyan teaching, is now being used to threaten those who hold to historic faith, so that they will risk losing everything if they do not embrace novel doctrines which stand in clear violation of church tradition and our Discipline. The Trust Clause has been turned on its head.


  • C.A. Buster says:

    This article fairly well represents another’s observation, “The UMC is experiencing a hostile-takeover by liberals”.

    • Richard says:

      Dr. Tennent,
      Thank you for an understanding of how and why John Wesley established the Methodist Church’s Trust Clause. I believe the last paragraph really sums up what is happening in our denomination. In particular with regards to the appointment and affirmation of clergy who will not abide by the BOD.
      What is most concerning to me is that the laity in general and at our church in particular (Western North Carolina Conf) seem to lack any idea of what is happening. They seem oblivious to who AC 2019 just elected as delegates for next year, and the various boards and offices. Maybe some will awaken as AC 2020 arrives.

  • Joan Wesley says:

    …the UMC currently has a crisis of ignorance. When people in a denomination or church fail to understand their own history, they are liable to confusion and misunderstanding.

  • It would seem that AC’s knowingly and brazenly violating the BoD are in fact in breach of their fiduciary duty as Trustees. Therefore, an argument could be made that churches wanting to leave apostate AC’s should be able to retain their assets and the AC’s have forfeited their claims.

  • B G Carter says:

    Rev. Tennent’s reasoning is sound; however, the erroneous teachings on sexual orientations and practices have been embraced so long by Methodist episcopacy, next clergy, that one can predict the episcopacy’s attempt to use “ownership and its denial” as a weapon against true Methodist/Christian teaching. Their slogan–
    “if you want to keep your building and material assets, cave in to our culture’s acceptance of every
    sexual practice, combination, and orientation”
    If not,go into the wild, bereft of building and money. How saddening! That’s why I no longer attend my local church in Boca Raton whose senior pastor, mirroring the position of our Fl. bishop, offers support for those who would undermine sound Christian doctrine.

  • Gary says:

    Do you have any atheist friends or family? Here is the best method to convert atheists to faith in Jesus Christ:

  • Steve A says:

    I wondered why they just didn’t leave and join their episcopal and PC USA buddies. Of course, it’s the money element that holds them back…. Wesley would’ve run the instigators out with a braided whip long before things got this bad. I hope this lesson is learned now.

  • J.m.turner says:

    Thanks Dr. Tennent for this foundational information. I recently attended a memorial service for one of our members who had the song, “Somewhere over the rainbow”, sung. The last words of the song, “why, oh why can’t I”, leapt out at me! A rainbow theology has accepted the sign while continuing the sin. The deluge of water is replaced with a delusion of false doctrine.

  • I left a very liberal United Methodist seminary and transferred to Asbury to finish my M.Div. and preparing for ordination in the UMC. The Western NC Conference board of ordained ministry blew up in indignation and treated me with verbal abuse when I met with them. A homosexual pastor on that board took me into a side room and offered to “counsel” me one on one. I felt filthy. The verbal abuse continued after I moved Annual Conferences. Again the Board of Ordained Ministry was highly adversarial at every interview making snide, demeaning remarks about Asbury Seminary and my choice to go there. They practiced hate, discrimination, and verbal abuse. One of my undergraduate professors who was a known homosexual and graduate of Duke Divinity also told me never to go to Asbury. The liberals have despised Asbury Seminary and holiness and sanctification for 50 years or more. My career was ruined. I was discriminated against in the appointment process time and time again. But God took care of us. This article is true. There is no discipline for the unorthodox preaching and peddling lies and hate in the UMC and hasn’t been for a 100 years. It’s so sad. My great grandfather was a holiness Methodist pastor. It’s not the same church. Wesley would not recognize it.