(Retired Pastor Mike Shockley is writing to his friends, fellow clergy and members of the congregations he served in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for over 30 years as an Elder in Full Connection.)
“The (Loss of) Trust Clause”
Previously I’ve confessed that I’m just a retired pastor doing the best I can to love God, love people and try to help friends and former parishioners navigate with clarity and honesty the confusing and confounding landscape of schism in our church.
Now that the conflict has devolved to the point of name-calling (“demonic”; “haters”; “liars”; “racist”; “stupid”; “ignorant”; “thieves”; along with numerous unprintable others on social media), I’m frankly stunned that Traditionalists and Progressives have sunk to this point.
None of us are immune to caving into “the flesh”. But it is precisely the flesh which we are called to crucify, not the people who oppose us. They are people created in God’s image. They are people for whom Christ died. They are people to whom the Spirit of God calls.
One of the most surprising epithets I saw was rather inexplicable. “Greedy”. Greedy. Really?
I served the itinerant system of the Florida Conference for over 3 decades. A few of the churches had some “rich people”. Some (not all) were generous. That being said, I served churches filled with non-affluent folks. I served churches made up of farmers, farm workers and middle income transplants from “up North”. They were African, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and White. I served people working shifts in service industries, single mothers raising their kids; grandparents raising their kid’s kids.
They understood their responsibilities. They took pride in paying 100% of their apportioned funds every year. (While appointed there, no church I served ever failed at that). Sometimes it came “down to the wire”, but they always dug deep and found a way to make ends meet. They sacrificed and worked hard. And by year’s end, all bills and all apportionments were paid and thousands more were freely given to missions, to disaster relief, and to the homeless.
In other words, I served terribly greedy people, right?
Most importantly, the people I served trusted their relationship to the Conference. They trusted the Conference leadership. They trusted me. And I trusted them.
And they understood the “Trust Clause”. They knew that the property wasn’t theirs to do with as they pleased. As one put it, their church operated a “franchise” of the UMC. So the walls they painted, the roofs they fixed, the grass they cut and the hymnals they bought were all done for the glory of God and the sake of our Connection.
What they probably did not understand (as I did not at the time) was that the Trust Clause (called the “Model Deed” in early Methodism) had a purpose beyond questions of legal ownership. And It had absolutely nothing to to with who might profit or have control of assets.
The late Dr. Thomas C. Oden, an outstanding Methodist theologian who wrote authoritatively on John Wesley’s teachings, had this to say about the true purpose of the “Trust Clause”:
“The Restrictive Rules have become the central fortress of the United Methodist constitutional system. Their doctrinal standards are embedded in every trust clause of every local church and in the Discipline. The trust clause embedded in the property deed transmission is a legal guarantee in a court of law. The trust clause is not written to protect the Conference, but the doctrinal standards, and to protect the Conference only insofar as the Conference protects the doctrinal standards. The trust clause guarantees the right to use property only to those who are guardians of its doctrinal standards.”
Dr. Oden brings forward a crucial point. If indeed the Trust Clause guarantees the right to use property only to those who are guardians of our doctrinal standards, who are those guardians?
If we say the Conference leaders, then we must ask why they decided to preserve our doctrinal standards on paper but block the defense of those standards in practice? Why did they enact a policy that says, “our doctrine remains, but any who defy it will not be corrected”? Under this policy, are they actually guardians in any real sense? If our leaders have failed their duty as guardians, do they have a right to claim property based on the Trust Clause?
And what does this have to do with the “greed”label slapped on churches who wish to disaffiliate and retain the property? Or on the “greedy” Global Methodist Church ready to receive them if they so choose? Or on the “greedy” Conference who claims the legal right to exercise the trust clause? Nothing. No one here is greedy. This mess has more to do with grief and pain than greed and grasping.
But it’s jaded in the extreme to stick that slur on congregations whose sweat, tears, love, sacrifice, generosity and prayers have been poured into their church ministries and facilities for generations. And not only into the bricks and sticks, but into the ability of the UMC to minister mercy and compassion to needs around the world.
I call upon all leadership of the Conference, the WCA, the GMC and the local church clergy to put an immediate stop to all the senseless, counterproductive name-calling, back-handed memes and social media ugliness. Find a way to separate without biting and tearing at each other. Better still, lead by Christlike example for the sake of the people in our churches. They are the ones paying the price. They are the ones who are asking “what has happened to us?” They are the ones weeping over the loss of a trust that was supposed to be protected.