Arbitration for a New Methodism

A key problem for separation in the United Methodist Church is the well-being of the denomination’s assets. For example, there are $420.7 million in assets among the ten general church agencies (the vast majority of which is restricted and the better part of what is left is designated for various purposed by their boards). Below that are a wide variety of annual conference and other assets.

The argument against separation is the threat of a potential tsunami of lawsuits over the distribution of those assets into new denominations. Setting aside the issue of local church assets and the trust clause (which can be addressed with various exit provisions), there are many more assets. The experiences of other churches, such as the Episcopalians, are hailed as a cautionary tale of years of wasted money on legal fees and bitter rancor.

This is a legitimate concern, but it can be prevented.

Any scheme of separation or dissolution could include provisions for mandatory, binding arbitration procedures for determining the future of our assets. Church law can be created so that all disputes are settled out of court through denominational arbitral panels. We should heed Paul’s warning to the Corinthians, “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?” (I Cor. 6:1).

I am drawing the concept of arbitration from my experiences with a child with special needs and my work with organized labor and teaching labor studies for Indiana University. In employment law and special education law, there are various mandatory procedures for resolving disputes that avoid lawsuits. For example, workers compensation was created to prevent companies from being bankrupted by lawsuits while compensating injured workers. The concept of collective bargain is designed to channel conflict toward fair and productive ends. In special education, parents go through a procedure of due process rather than filing lawsuits against school corporations. Even Major League Baseball has arbitration.

So, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The models are out there for creating a process for mandatory, binding arbitration in the transition to the creation of new denominations. We can avoid the time and expense of lawsuits if we are willing to rely upon the Holy Spirit (and the expertise of dedicated lay persons) to give wisdom to the saints.

I do not have a specific proposal for such a process. That work remains to be done in preparation for filing petitions in September. Rather, I offer this as a concept that can be combined with other ideas to create a viable plan for separation/dissolution.

In short, I am calling on everyone—traditionalists, centrists, and progressives—to take literally 1 Corinthians 6, not the line about “sodomites” in verse 9 but the verses before it. Paul admonishes the deeply screwed up congregation in Corinth to settle their disputes in-house. That was a bold statement of trust on Paul’s part because this was the last group of Christians I would have trusted with making any decision! Like us, they were arguing about sex and attacking one another. And yet, Paul believed in the Holy Spirit’s ability to endow these flawed believers with gifts for the wellbeing of the church. I am taking my cue from Paul’s example of pastoral leadership.

Creating a process of arbitration to deal with our assets is one fruitful way all of us can apply the scriptures to our current crisis. And in doing so, God can bring out the better angels among us.

[For those of you who have experience in these areas in your secular work, I invite you to use this post to start a conversation.]

[For more perspective order my book The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops]

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Notes for a New Methodism

Rev. Darren Cushman Wood is the senior minister of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana and is an elder and full member of the Indiana Annual Conference. He is a graduate of the University of Evansville and Union Theological Seminary (New York). Darren was a delegate to the 2004 & 2008 General Conferences and a delegate to the 2000 & 2016 Jurisdictional Conferences. He is the author of "The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops" and "Blue Collar Jesus: How Christianity Supports Workers' Rights."

6 thoughts on “Arbitration for a New Methodism”

  1. Yes, Darren. Yes.

    And the early church in Syria, at least, created an ecclesial court that did pretty much just this kind of arbitration, with the bishop of the region as the arbiter.

    This can and does still work, as you note, in multiple other venues.

    It should definitely be proposed as part of any separation/dissolution agreement.


  2. No Darren, no. Something much more than financial assets or potential lawsuits is at risk. Perhaps it is already lost; however, I think not entirely so. Will this be the ecclesiology we now model for the world? I know it has been our history, sadly so. For me it is not so easy to separate brothers and sisters from one another. Seen in another light, had we held all of our congregations and clergy to a higher standard over the years we would not have ended in this cul-de-sac. Had we been a church where honest conversation could take place rather than the shows that parade as annual conferences and had many of those who now want to separate to “receive their fair share” paid their denominational askings over the years things would be different now. This reference to apportionment payment is not about you or me — we did the best we could, I think. It is about the Grangers in Indiana and the Christ Church, Fairview Hts., Illinois that have paid next to nothing and now are ready to graciously separate taking their share.


    1. Phil, we share the same sadness and in many respects the same understanding of the church. Where we disagree is in our discernment of what is possible in this historical moment. I believe that the Spirit is calling us to stop trying to fix this broken system and is giving us an opportunity to create something with greater integrity, a denomination that takes the best of United Methodism and leave the dysfunctions behind. And yes, yes, yes, I am not so naive to think that in a new denomination there will be no problems. It is not a choice of whether to have problems or not; it is a choice of which problems we should devote ourselves to. I believe that it is far more productive to devote our energy to dealing with the problem of starting a new denomination rather than spend any more time trying to fix the old one. It is truly about stewardship. And we will be good stewards when we allocate the assets (financial, spiritual, relational, etc.) into new forms of Methodism. Or to put it another way, it is nothing less than institutional idolatry to keep sacrificing these gifts that God has given us on the altar of the United Methodist Church.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I believe I hear you and you will not be surprised that I disagree. I’m not calling for sacrificing any gift on institutional altars. I am suggesting that sinfulness will follow any reordering, it is endemic to institutions. Should we give up on the future of the US institutions because of Donald Trump. (Maybe I shoudn’t have asked that question! Hmmm, I’m thinking.) Aren’t you simply responding to one perfectionistic impluse with another? All systems are broken and need reform — it is the nature of social institutions (thank you, Reinhold). I believe a move to divide will simply localize (and in even bolder relief) the brokenness of Methodism in every city and town in the US for future generations. We have seen this play in the 19th Century divisions. Good intentions perhaps but bad sociology. Think about all the towns, in Indiana alone, with 2, 3 or 4 UMC congregations. “Now is our chance to show those uppity folks they were wrong!” Not hard to understand where this would be headed. Already, the formation of new competing congregations is underway. Have you checked out what the WCA is already doing this in Virginia? I still believe the response to our sinfulness is repentance, not setting up another golden calf to dance around. My suggestion is that if you don’t want to spend time fixing up the old one — then don’t.


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