The Trust Clause in the United Methodist Church

Tuesday, April 27th, 2021

One of the key features of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (hereafter referred to as the Protocol) is the suspension of the Trust Clause, which is permitted within the current Discipline of the church. The Trust Clause is a provision in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church which states that all properties held by the local church are actually held in trust for the entire denomination. The relevant statement in the Discipline is as follows:

¶ 2501. Requirement of the Trust Clause for All Property-1. All properties of United Methodist local churches and other United Methodist agencies and institutions are held, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination, and ownership and usage of church property is subject to the Discipline. This trust requirement is an essential element of the historic polity of The United Methodist Church or its predecessor denominations or communions and has been a part of the Discipline since 1797. It reflects the connectional structure of the Church by ensuring that the property will be used solely for purposes consonant with the mission of the entire denomination as set forth in the Discipline.

The Protocol agreement was originally intended to be voted on at the 2020 General Conference. Due to COVID-19, the General Conference was delayed to 2021 and now delayed again until 2022. Many churches have expressed concern that the appointments made during the long interim period (officially caused by the COVID-19 delays) seem to be aimed at removing evangelical leaders from large churches in the country.

The delay has put several churches in states across the country in the unenviable situation of resisting the removal of their pastor against their will because they know the power of the pastoral influence over the vote to leave the denomination. The Protocol does not require any church to vote, so merely by avoiding a vote all churches, by default, will remain within the United Methodist Church. Many leaders of the churches in this situation know that the unwelcome appointment of a moderate or progressive pastor to their churches will result in countless people leaving their congregations, thereby destroying effective ministries that have been built up over many generations.

The Discipline seeks to protect churches from potential Episcopal abuse of authority by requiring due process and consultation with the church before the appointment is finalized. The Discipline states that “the District Superintendent should meet together or separately with the pastor and the committee on staff-parish relations for the purpose of sharing the basis for the change and the process used in making the new appointment” (¶ 428.3); “Consultation is not merely notification” (¶ 426); and “The process of consultation shall be mandatory in every annual conference” (¶ 426.1). Failing to adhere to this process of the Discipline could spawn a number of pre-Protocol lawsuits around the country, which will place this matter before the courts in expensive, public, and drawn-out litigation, the very scenario the Protocol was designed to avoid.

The question is this: Will the courts uphold the Trust Clause of the United Methodist Church in the face of a legal challenge? It is difficult to know the answer to this question, but there are two reasons why a challenge to the Trust Clause may be successful and churches should weigh this carefully when making the decision to defend their claim to their property and land.

First, the original intention of the Trust Clause. It is important that all lawyers representing the local congregations contending for their land remember the original intention 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 Reverend 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.

However, Wesley made it clear that the chief 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. Today, this is being turned on its head. Those churches committed to abiding 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.

Second, the link between the Trust Clause and the Discipline. The United Methodist Church’s Discipline does not actually give a blanket protection for the denomination in exercising the Trust Clause against a local congregation. Many of the churches faced with losing their building and land have one thing in common: they adhere to historic Christian teachings regarding marriage. The problem that the denomination has in exercising the Trust Clause is found in the explicit language within the Discipline which states the following: “the property will be used solely for purposes consonant with the mission of the entire denomination as set forth in the Discipline.” For a conference to legally exercise the Trust Clause it would have to prove in a court of law that the local congregations that they are attempting to take control of are leading the congregation away from the mission and teaching of the United Methodist Church as set forth by the Discipline. Yet, this is precisely what these conservative churches are not doing. They are actually devoted to maintaining and defending the current official stand of the Discipline. Twelves times over a fifty year period General Conference delegates have deliberated proposals to change or eliminate the language in the Discipline stating “homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teachings,” and each of the twelve attempts were not successful, including the famous special-called 2019 General Conference convened to focus solely on this single issue.

It can be clearly proven that such churches are not guilty of leading their congregations away from the Discipline, but are actually seeking to adhere to the current Discipline, which is the official position of the denomination. Local churches that find themselves in this situation could consider passing a church-wide resolution, which addresses two things: first, the local church must affirm their commitment to adhering to the Discipline and the teachings of John Wesley. Second, it should put in writing the pledge made by every elder and bishop at their ordination; namely, that they pledge to defend the “order, liturgy, doctrine and Discipline of the United Methodist Church.” It can, once again, be demonstrated in a court of law that it is the bishops, not the local congregations, who have failed to keep their trust. Moreover, some bishops have actually publicly expressed their intention to bypass the Discipline and have acted with undue hostility toward those churches that stand their ground. The fact is that these faithful churches cannot be found in violation of the Discipline’s Paragraph 2501, the grounds upon which a conference could assert the Trust Clause.

We have all witnessed the messy legal conflicts which broke out in the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) when they separated over the same issues we are faced with today. We would be wise to take a deep breath and seek to work out an amicable separation that avoids these lawsuits. Many of the churches who have been threatened with the Trust Clause are open to paying a settlement with the denomination to address appropriate financial obligations. However, if it comes to a lawsuit, the United Methodist Church should know that, unlike some of our sister denominations who have fought (with mixed success) with their own versions of a Trust Clause, our Trust Clause puts conservative churches who are committed to adhere to the Discipline in a favorable situation. The other increasingly progressive denominations had the advantage over the conservative wings of their denominations because they had been successful in changing their church’s official position on these social issues. This has not happened in the United Methodist Church.

It would be a great witness to the wider culture if the bishops resisted using the unavoidable delays caused by the ravages of COVID-19 as a source of more pain and suffering. Some churches are willing to leave their buildings and land and start afresh. However, our shared hope as a denomination is that we  model before the world a grace-filled and peaceful transition from the United Methodist Church to multiple new expressions of Methodism in the world.