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]