Every Christian recognizes the virtue of Charity and desires to nurture it to perfection. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that Prudence is a virtue also. There is a biblical term for walking in the company of one while leaving the other behind. It is called folly. Do not be foolish. Let Charity judge the motives for another’s action, but Prudence will recognize the reality of those actions and the effect they will have.
This essay is for those who are already in the Separation Process outlined by the leadership of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Others may find it useful. If your church is committed to the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition, then I encourage you to proceed with the discernment process even though the likelihood of success is nominal. At the close of this essay, I will mention some things that I believe might improve the chances of success and some things that I believe will not. This is my personal analysis.
First, get an attorney. If your church is engaged in the South Carolina separation process without an attorney, then you are behaving irresponsibly. How many ways can I say it? Get an attorney. Hire a lawyer. Procure legal counsel.
I am not an attorney. Discussing the separation process requires discussion of legal matters, but I do so from the perspective of natural reason and as a Christian—not as an attorney. Everything you read here regarding the legal process needs to be examined by your attorney. If you do not have one, get one. In fact, if your church does not have legal counsel then you shouldn’t even read this. Your church is too irresponsible to be engaged in the process.
The next thing we need to know is that the Conference process does not include an offer to transfer the property. It is only a process to close your church. The alleged agreement to transfer property is not legitimate. It is not valid. The Conference has no intention of transferring property to your new entity. This is only a process to close the local church without the Conference having to follow a more complicated disciplinary procedure or risk defending a legal claim against an exigent circumstances seizure.
This alleged process to separate is governed by two documents covering two independent actions.
The Discernment Process is governed by a press release from the Office of Bishop and a collection of FAQ pages, a few pages of directions from the Conference office, and verbal assurances from various Conference officers. It claims to receive its authority from and be under the jurisdiction of the Book of Discipline of the UMC. The discernment process is administered by the Office of Bishop and the District Superintendents. The action resulting from the discernment process is either a decision to remain a United Methodist congregation or a decision to close the church.
The process to transfer property is governed by a document called the Agreement to Separate. Its authority is derived from the articles of incorporation. It is under the jurisdiction of the laws of the State of South Carolina and its courts. The process to transfer property is administered by the Conference Board of Trustees.
The way theses processes have been presented has caused many to believe that they constitute one process—that the two actions are interdependent. No. The actions are independent, and the processes are independent. For example, under the discernment process a local church could vote to close but not avail itself of the offer to transfer property. Similarly, the Agreement to Separate claims no interest in the specifics of the Discernment Process. It does not say a thing about a thirty-day process or two-thirds vote. The Agreement to Separate begins with the premise that the local church vote to close the church has already occurred under the supervision of the bishop and is awaiting Annual Conference ratification. The Agreement to Separate is an offer made to churches who have already voted to close.
According to my reading of the paragraphs the bishop cites as governing this process, and according to the way the Discipline has been consistently applied in this Conference in the past, once the church votes that it cannot function as a United Methodist congregation (effectively a vote to close the church) then that decision must go to Annual Conference for a vote. If there is no other proposal from the Conference Trustees for the transfer of property then the assets are assumed by the Conference in compliance with Discipline with no other action necessary,
Unfortunately, the Agreement to Separate is not a legitimate offer to transfer property and demonstrates that the Conference has no intention of transferring property to the new entity. As I warned initially—and as many local churches have now learned—there are three provisions that are impossible to accomplish. This is an impossible contract. The insurance coverage required in paragraph 7b, c, and d does not exist and cannot be purchased at any price. Since it is impossible for the local church to comply with the terms and because of the non-severability clause in the Agreement, the offer is void. The offer to transfer property was void the day it was written.
Sometimes, impossible contracts occur because of an accident or because the author wrote a clause on a subject of which they lacked special knowledge. Usually, an impossible contract is the result of a blunder. The South Carolina Conference intentionally created an impossible contract. They willfully included three terms that they knew would be impossible for the local church to accomplish and would thereby place them in default of the agreement to transfer property. It may be lawful to do such a thing—I do not know. It may be ethical in certain professions—I do not know. However, to develop a process and write an impossible contract that would cause the other party to default and place the Conference in a position to gain an unjust enrichment at the expense of the local church is immoral by any Christian standard.
At least three people involved in constructing this document had to know what they were doing. The fact that the United Methodist institutions charged with overseeing the moral and ethical behavior of theses individuals finds this to be acceptable behavior is sufficient reason for Christians to want to get out of the UMC.
The bishop, by virtue of his office and his role as Secretary of the Council of Bishops, is deemed an expert in things connectional with special knowledge not held by the average church member. He had to know that these provisions were taken verbatim from a Florida Conference document where they were already determined to be impossible terms. He had to know that the inclusion of those terms forced the cessation of the Florida disaffiliation process and resulted in litigation with over one hundred churches.
The Chair of the Conference Board of Trustees, who directly supervised the production of this document, is not only a person with expertise in things connectional who would be aware of the above-mentioned facts, but by virtue of his office he is deemed to have expertise and special knowledge in matters of insurance and real estate. It is inconceivable that he thought anyone could obtain such a policy.
The Conference Chancellor is expected to review such a document. Perhaps it was withheld from her. Perhaps she saw it and advised against it. Perhaps she saw it and endorsed the action. We do not know. Those are questions that the members of the Annual Conference have a stewardship responsibility to ask her. We do know that she is supposed to advise on these matters and would have known it was an impossible contract.
It is beyond credulity that all three of these professionals together with the staff and consultants employed in this work could be so incompetent in their office as to believe that this was a legitimate offer. The evidence suggests the contrary. The Conference leadership never had any intention of transferring title to the new entities. They might as well have stipulated that the agreement is valid only if delivered by a flying pig during a month with three full moons.
Perhaps this is all legal. Maybe among the organizations that license realtors, insurance agents, lawyers, and financial advisors this is all ethical, but in the vernacular of the street where I live this is called a scam.
So, what is something that can make separation while keeping your property possible? Your local church can make a counteroffer. You have received an offer. In what world do people accept real estate offers without making a counteroffer? (By the way, did I mention you need an attorney? If your church does not have legal counsel, then you are too irresponsible to engage in this process.) Your church can probably acquire a tail policy with three years retroactive coverage from your current agent. Submit an offer to eliminate paragraphs 7 b, c, and d and insert the tail policy in its place. Have your attorney write or review your offer and submit it at once. The clock is ticking.
I believe that the Conference leadership is receptive to reasonable offers. Despite what might be inferred by other things I have written, the people at the Conference office in Columbia do not have horns and tails and walk around with pitchforks. When they answered their call to the ministry, they did not want to be in a mess like this any more than we did. They do not enjoy this war we are in any more than we do. Charity drives me to believe…to hope…they will be responsive to a counteroffer that will get us out of this, but the Conference leadership cannot respond to an offer that is never made.
Don’t wait for somebody else to do this for you. A serious problem with traditionalist churches in South Carolina is that too many of them are waiting for somebody else to do the hard work for them. They are expecting a white knight to rescue them. They are waiting for some larger church or some parachurch group to do the work and then ride their coattails. That is bad. You need to speak up for yourself. If one hundred churches submit counteroffers then maybe the Conference will want to negotiate as a group, maybe not. It is the responsibility of your church to make a reasonable counteroffer.
As Christians, we have a moral obligation to exhaust every avenue for settlement before choosing either to litigate or walk away. Continue the discernment process and make reasonable counter proposals. If by the end of the discernment process the Conference has not acted in good faith, if they still have no intention of transferring property, if they are still holding to their demand for flying pigs, then do not hold the church conference. The result of the discernment process may be that the Conference is not acting in good faith and you cannot make a decision in those circumstances.
I will tell you what will not help. There is a popular proposal going around that says wait until June and try to force more favorable terms though an Annual Conference vote. That will serve no purpose. The Conference leadership is not bound by such a vote. They are free to ignore it. If such votes meant anything, then we would not be in this mess. If you believe you cannot persuade them to accept a counteroffer, then you should know that you certainly cannot compel them. Your Conference leadership, by virtue of their offices, have the power to determine the terms of property transfers. Even if you could find a way to write a binding resolution with more favorable terms, the bishop can simply withdraw the offer to separate altogether.
Furthermore, it is not likely you could get a majority vote in support of traditionalists. I have visited more churches over the past few years than the bishop or any district superintendent. I can tell you that traditionalists are not the majority in this Conference. The clergy are overwhelmingly in the progressive mindset and the laity are substantially in the progressive centrist camp—especially the voting delegates to Annual Conference. Centrists are far more comfortable with progressives running things than traditionalists. It is not that they like progressives. They just dislike traditionalists more.
In the past, I have suggested Annual Conference actions that might be of some help, however the deterioration of trust, integrity, and disciplinary accountability has accelerated so rapidly in the last few months that I doubt any of them are still feasible. South Carolina is on the verge of the state that I predicted in 2019:
“Nothing in what was passed at GC2019 prevents the leadership in your Annual Conference from changing their practice whenever they choose, and there is nothing you or anyone can do about it.
Such a change does not require any vote in your Conference. They don’t need your permission and can act over the objections of the membership. The leadership of an Annual Conference is about one or two dozen people. They decide the policy for your Annual Conference. You can object. You can cite the discipline and bring them up on chargeable offenses. All these things were done in the parts of the UMC where these practices are now common. The United Methodist Church has no mechanism to compel an Annual Conference leadership to act contrary to their own desires.”
If we are going to be successful while working within church discipline, then it will be by persuasion not compulsion. If the solution requires compulsion, then only the civil courts have that power.
Did I mention to get an attorney?