By Walter Fenton
August 6, 2021
“Wait a second,” said a United Methodist layperson at a church where I was making a presentation. “Did you just say the people who attend my church don’t own the property and building?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I had to answer. “According to the UM Church’s trust clause, local congregations hold church property and assets in trust for The United Methodist Church.”
It can come as a surprise to some United Methodists to learn about the UM Church’s trust clause, particularly to members who transferred into it from another denomination. And even some long-time members are not aware of the clause. Many people have faithfully and joyfully served local churches without ever knowing about the trust clause. However, recent developments (e.g., news that some local churches have left the denomination and the likelihood that an orderly and amicable plan of separation will be approved at the 2022 General Conference) have forced laity and clergy to familiarize themselves with it.
When people first learn about the trust clause, particularly in our current context, it is tempting to assume it is a relatively recent invention that enables the denominational hierarchy to hang on to power and resources. In fact, the trust clause has always been a feature of Methodism’s connectional polity.
John Wesley and his followers, dedicated to revitalizing the Anglican Church through evangelization, planted meeting houses throughout England and Ireland, and in the American colonies. Unable to personally ensure sound preaching and teaching was always being declared in every location, Wesley and early Methodist leaders constructed a “trust clause” stipulating that the meeting houses were to be held in trust for the Methodist movement. This allowed the leaders to evict preachers, teachers, and if necessary, even a congregation if they deviated from Methodist teaching. The clause was carried over into the Methodist Episcopal Church in America when it was established in 1784, and it has applied ever since.
Whatever its history and merits, theologically conservative United Methodists have soured on the trust clause. They believe it has been used in a punitive fashion to subtly or not so subtly threaten traditionalists congregations that deviate from general church leaders who increasingly lean progressive on some theological and ethical issues. Consequently, theological conservatives who unite together to create the Global Methodist Church will not adopt a trust clause.
So, what are the ramifications for such a church?
It will be a connection of the willing, not the constrained. Local congregations will join, support, and remain in the Global Methodist Church as long as they believe it is fulfilling the mission it sets forth at its founding.
Lacking a trust clause, Global Methodist Church leaders will have to function without a tool to cajole or threaten local congregations to support the general church financially. The general church’s ministries, its administrative bodies, and its leaders will have to demonstrate they are capable of casting a vision for fulfilling the denomination’s shared mission. They will also have to establish the discipline and competency required to implement plans and bring them to fruition. In short, they will have to demonstrate value to fulfilling the mission the local churches share in common and support with their financial resources.
A church without a trust clause will also help short circuit any protracted conflicts between the general church and a local congregation. The Global Methodist Church’s annual conferences will, of course, have the right to expel a local church that repeatedly deviates from its core teachings and standards, but it will not be able to seize that church’s property and assets. Likewise, a local congregation will be able to exit the church at any time, but without any claim upon the general church’s services and resources. Lacking a trust clause will decrease the likelihood of a church property dispute ever being litigated in civil court.
The absence of a trust clause will not be without some risks. Since it will be relatively easy for local congregations to part ways with the Global Methodist Church, the composition of the connection could be more fluid than denominations with a trust clause. This will naturally impact budgeting matters and the allocation of resources as it works to fulfill its mission.
However, the vast majority of theological conservatives believe a church without a trust clause is to be preferred to one with such an instrument. Therefore, the people of the Global Methodist Church will have to demonstrate an eye for the long-term, be committed to what they are building, patient with one another while they build, and willing to trust in God for the future.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.