I want to support the Protocol. It is the best of available options, but when it comes to protections for the local church it is seriously lacking. It relies on our institutions implementing it in good faith and as intended. Unless this fatal flaw is addressed then completing the Traditional Plan is the only option when dealing with noncompliant and corrupt institutions.
So, what happens when one party does not honor the agreement? It’s an important part of a contract or covenant. Our failure to adequately provide for that circumstance in the UMC’s foundational documents is ultimately why we are in the mess we are in now. If we do not address that issue in the Protocol legislation then we are in for an additional nightmare within the one we are already living. The horror is that the proposed legislation does not adequately address the question, “So what happens when one party does not honor the agreement?”
The authors of protocol legislation recognize its importance, at least regarding employee benefit plans, but not regarding ownership of local church property in a separation agreement.
The legislation devotes pages to specifying each party’s responsibilities and rights on employee benefits. Paragraph 8 is full of should, shouldn’t, could, couldn’t, must, and mustn’t. Everyone knows what is expected of them and what they can expect from others.
Then, there is paragraph 8C (5) a-d which specifically addresses Failure to Support. This is the process that allows Wespath to enforce the provisions without going to court if one party does not honor the agreement. Remedies include: seizing assets in sequestered funds, reducing benefits, and assuming control of plan sponsorship decisions. This a prudent provision given our history. It would be imprudent to trust good intentions to avoid complex litigation involving a plethora of statutes across multiple jurisdictions.
Paragraph 8C(5)a-d identifies funds which can be accessed and benefits that can be withheld to enforce the agreement. They do not require constitutional amendments or civil litigation.
Yet, there is no similar process to address what happens when an Annual Conference fails to comply with the provision to transfer local church property under the terms of separation. Each local church will be left to seek relief through costly civil litigation, possibly while their church building remains padlocked for years.
Local church property is held in trust for the Annual Conference and the only authority that the Protocol asks the Annual Conference to yield to is the assertion in paragraph 1b that allowing local churches to separate is a distinctly connectional issue under the jurisdiction of the General Conference. That is a confession of ecclesial understanding, and we know how useful those have been in resolving our disputes. Even if it is correct, it does not nullify civil statutes protecting property rights of corporations throughout every jurisdiction in the world. Explain to a judge the concept of our ecclesial principle of connectionalism and why the court should supply a specific remedy for the problem when the church had the opportunity to do so and chose not to.
Paragraph 7b sets out fair and reasonable terms for separation agreements and specifies some things an Annual Conference may or may not do. However, these carry no more weight than any other Disciplinary mandate. An injured local church could appeal through the Judicial Council and eventually get a decision in their favor. They can then take that decision and add it to the stacks of Judicial Council Decisions that are currently overflowing the Western Jurisdiction waste baskets.
Even Paragraph 17 acknowledges that property transfers must conform to applicable laws of the several jurisdictions. The authors of the section on Employee Benefit Plans understand the uselessness of relying on goodwill and Disciplinary requirements to protect assets, so they identified funds that can be attached and benefits that can be withheld to satisfy the obligations…without litigation.
The Protocol needs a similar Failure to Comply paragraph for Annual Conferences that refuse to honor terms of separation and/or place additional financial burdens on a local church seeking to disaffiliate. Just as Wespath should not have to initiate litigation to assure compliance with Protocol terms neither should a local church. When an Annual Conference refuses to comply with the terms of separation then a fund within the General Church must be identified whereby the UMC must assume the additional debt and/or litigation costs on behalf of the local church. Similar to the Employee Benefit Plans section, benefits must be identified that can be withheld from the Annual Conference to help recoup the cost.
It is possible that such a paragraph was omitted because the authors earnestly believe that the Protocol legislation will be universally honored by every Annual Conference simply because the Discipline says so. It is possible it is omitted because the authors know that many Annual Conferences have no intention of honoring separation agreements and such a provision would bankrupt the UMC.
Certainly, we have evidence to support the latter. The egregious treatment of Oakland UMC in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and Naylor UMC in the North Georgia Conference took place while they were exercising options granted under our existing Discipline to exit the UMC. We could add scores of others. Without a Failure to Comply paragraph that is just as strong as the one granted Wespath, we can expect thousands of egregious cases.