It's Time For The Trust Clause To Die
6 months ago my twitter feed was flooded with messages and commentary on the Southern Baptist Convention. Many of my twitter friends are connected to that denomination in some shape or form and the intensity of the debate and the depth of their disagreements was significant. The back and forth dialogue was fast and furious enough to rival any of Vin Diesel’s family troubles. Towards the end of it, I couldn’t help but marvel – “these churches COULD walk away at any point, but they don’t.” For all their squabbles – they are united around missional alignment and that is something the Methodist Movement desperately needs.
As many of you might know, the United Methodist Church is facing a very public, very drawn out division. The headlines will tell you that we are arguing over the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion – but for those of us in the trenches, we know that behind the flashy headlines is a wealth of issues that goes far deeper than hot button topics. Beyond the surface level conversation, regardless of denomination – I believe it is time for all Methodist Churches to let go of the Trust Clause.
[If you’re not familiar – the Trust Clause is written into the structure of the current United Methodist Church and basically states that local churches are NOT owned by the local congregation. The local congregation’s property is held “in trust” by the conference. The conference is the group that makes the decision to close a church, sell a church building, etc. If a church wants to leave the denomination they have to pay significant disaffiliation fees to “purchase” their freedom.] Initially, John Wesley instituted the trust clause to ensure that none of the new Methodist Societies that were springing up could be influenced or invaded by any Calvinist theologies. There was an effort to enforce doctrinal unity through the trust clause. As well intentioned as it may have been, even then it was a misguided concept. Since that time, it HAS been used for good things – even if it was the wrong thing to do. For example, when the role of Pastor became open to black people and then eventually women as well – there was significant push back in certain congregations. An African American or a woman might be appointed to a church – and the church would try to reject that appointment. However, because of the trust clause – they were unable to refuse the new appointment, and many of the times a positive experience with a new type of clergy went a long way towards changing hearts and changing minds. This is the track-record often held up in defense of the Trust Clause. “see? It helped solve racism and sexism!” Except – racism and sexism are still rampant problems in our churches. I’m not actually sure the success rate of the Trust Clause is as bullet-proof as we might believe. Think about this - is that really the history we want to hold up as the GOOD example? “Do the right thing, or else we will steal your building” seems like a poor witness to the transformative nature of the Holy Spirit. And I think history has proven that it is not as effective at changing hearts as we might assume. Using a political crow bar to wrench your way into victory seems a poor substitute for actually engaging congregation’s concerns and dealing with the core of an issue. Perhaps this is why, even though the Trust Clause’s victories over racism and sexism happened decades ago, our congregations remain segregated and many women in ministry still experience significant push back from the congregations. Strong arming change through political influence or structural rules is not the best method. The trust clause has not helped as much as we think it did. When I was in seminary, years and years ago (okay, not that many years ago) - we had a visit from a Pastor in one of my classes. An ordained Pastor of one of the local congregations – he came in to speak about the issue of LGBTQ inclusion as the lead Pastor of a well known inclusive church that had been resisting the denomination’s policies on sexual integrity. One thing that stuck out to me from his visit is how absolutely exhausted he seemed to be. He had been fighting the good fight for decades, and while his church was doing well – he was tired. One of my classmates asked him, “Do you think there will be a split?” After a long pause and a very deep sigh the man responded, “We have already split. If it wasn’t for the buildings and the money – there is nothing holding us together.” Is that what the Trust clause was meant to be? What started as an effort to encourage and enforce doctrinal unity has become a structural rubber-band, binding us together. It is stretching thinner and thinner – and it is time to let it go. Even in the Post-Separation UMC, I believe the best foot forward into the future is to dissolve the Trust Clause as quickly as possible. I think many in leadership will be pleasantly surprised. I don’t think there will be a mass exodus, like so many fear. I think most of us WANT to work together. We WANT to be united in mission, and not just in legal framework. It’s the difference between being yoked together by shackles and walking next to one another in true unity of purpose. There should be a shift in question. Rather than asking, “what policies can we vote into place to force cooperation and unity?” We should be asking, “what missional strategies and goals can we put in place so people WANT to cooperate and be a part of what we are doing in the world?” If the Southern Baptist Convention can figure this out – even with all their squabbles and disagreements – I believe the Methodist church, both the PSUMC and the GMC iterations, can accomplish this goal as well. It’s time for the Trust Clause to die and after the funeral may all our denominations find a better, healthier form of unity.