Let our People Go: The Cry of Disaffiliating UMC Churches

There are hundreds of UMC churches across the country who are currently seeking to disaffiliate with the increasingly wayward United Methodist Church.   This is the beginning of what will be a long, slow “adoptive curve” rather than any huge “split” which happens all at once.  It is important to remember that none of these departing churches wanted to disaffiliate with the UMC.  They were pushed to the edge because increasing numbers of UMC pastors and bishops refuse to abide by the Discipline.  These bishops were not content to merely defy the Discipline, but they added fuel to the fire by using the “power of appointment” to make disruptive appointments to churches who have a long history and tradition of embracing historic faith.  The UMC “fog machines” are working full time these days seeking to portray disaffiliating United Methodists as disloyal, mean-spirited, and unchristian.  So, let’s be clear about a few things.

First, it is morally wrong for local churches to have their property and assets taken from them.  If you study the history of the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968, then you will know that in the early 1970’s there were EUB churches who regretted that they had joined with the Methodist Church to form what is today known as the United Methodist Church.  These churches expressed to their bishop that they did not feel theologically compatible with the UMC and they asked to disaffiliate. The general response of the bishops was to graciously give the churches the deeds to their property and allow them to leave peacefully.  Today, we would use the phrase, “in the spirit of the Protocol.”   Every bishop has it in their hands to provide a gracious exit.  Few are questioning providing for clergy pensions or even assuring that your final apportionments are paid in full.   What is immoral is asking churches to pay for their facilities, which they have already sacrificially paid for.  It is morally wrong, even if the denomination can legally do so.

Second, the legal basis for these hostile actions is the Trust Clause which states that the denomination holds all property and asserts in trust.  This means that, technically speaking, even though your church paid every penny for your facility, the denomination “owns” everything. 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 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 Scripture, church tradition and our Discipline.


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