The 2019 Special General Conference of The United Methodist Church adopted a new provision of the Book of Discipline, paragraph 2553, providing a process by which local churches could disaffiliate or exit from the denomination, released from the terms of the trust imposed on property of the local church. However, the adoption of the provision is now likely invalid.
At the conclusion of its meeting from August 7-9, the Commission on General Conference (COGC) released the results of its investigation into allegations of voting improprieties at the 2019 Special General Conference. That investigation determined that there was credible objective evidence that four ineligible persons cast votes using the credentials of delegates who were not present at the Special General Conference.
Only one of the votes taken at the Special General Conference could have been impacted by these ineligible persons casting votes – the vote to substitute a minority report for the legislative committee report on the Taylor Disaffiliation Petition, which ultimately became paragraph 2553. The motion to substitute passed by two votes. Under the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order for the General Conference and Roberts Rule of Order, any possibility that invalid ballots might affect the result of a vote renders the entire ballot null and void.
The COGC therefore concluded that the vote on the motion to substitute the minority report was void. While the COGC did not address the legality of the adoption of the disaffiliation petition as amended by the minority report, the likely impact of the COGC determination is that paragraph 2553 was not legally adopted. The COGC has asked the Council of Bishops to refer the determination on the legality of the adoption of the disaffiliation petition to the Judicial Council for ruling. If the Council of Bishops makes such a request of the Judicial Council, the earliest the Judicial Council is likely to act on it is at its spring 2020 session.
The practical impact of this development is that efforts to disaffiliate under paragraph 2553 will most likely not proceed as annual conferences await further clarity. Furthermore, the Judicial Council likely will determine that paragraph 2553 was not legally adopted by the 2019 Special General Conference meaning that such a path for a local church to withdraw from The United Methodist Church is not presently available. However, if a congregation desired to withdraw from The United Methodist Church, it could seek to negotiate such a withdrawal or act to close as a United Methodist congregation and re-open as another congregation. If the latter course were pursued, the annual conference could seek enforcement of the Trust Clause.
When the allegations of voting improprieties were first disclosed, the WCA affirmed its support of efforts to ensure that General Conferences are conducted with integrity. The WCA is grateful for the careful and thorough investigation undertaken by the COGC. Given the results of that investigation, the action taken by the COGC is appropriate.
Legislation will be submitted for the 2020 General Conference to address disaffiliation along with other legislative proposals to resolve the ongoing conflict in the UM Church. The deadline for filing such legislation is September 18, 2019.
By Keith Boyette
August 12, 2019
Rev. Keith Boyette is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.