The Trust Clause in the Church Law
The United Methodist Church has a trust clause requirement that dates back to the days of John Wesley. The Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States formally adopted the “model deed” in 1797. In current church law, the basic principles are set forth in paragraph 2501 of the Book of Discipline.
All properties of United Methodist local churches and other United Methodist agencies and institutions are held, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination, and ownership and usage of church property is subject to the Discipline. This trust requirement is an essential element of the historic polity of The United Methodist Church or its predecessor denominations or communions and has been a part of the Discipline since 1797. It reflects the connectional structure of the Church by ensuring that the property will be used solely for purposes consonant with the mission of the entire denomination as set forth in the Discipline. The trust requirement is thus a fundamental expression of United Methodism whereby local churches and other agencies and institutions within the denomination are both held accountable to and benefit from their connection with the entire worldwide Church.
The specific language of the trust clause currently required in a local church deed is found in paragraph 2503.
In trust, that said premises shall be used, kept and maintained as a place of divine worship of the United Methodist ministry and members of the United Methodist Church; subject to the Discipline, usage and ministerial appointments of said Church, as from time to time authorized and declared by the General Conference and by the annual conference within whose bounds the said premises are situated. This provision is solely for the grantee, and the grantor reserves no right or interest in said premises.
Even if the church deed lacks this specific provision, the Discipline asserts that the trust provisions apply if a congregation used the name, customs or polity of the denomination or accepted the bishop’s pastoral appointments.
The Purpose of the Trust Clause
While most property disputes center around which organization holds legal ownership, United Methodist scholar Thomas Oden argues that the trust clause originally had a different purpose.
The trust clause was not devised to protect the Conference as such, but the doctrinal standards. The trust clause guarantees the right to use property only to those who are guardians of its established doctrinal standards.
According to Oden, Methodist polity was originally designed to insure that every Methodist church adhered to Methodist teaching and practice. The conference would guarantee that with its power to ordain and appoint preachers. In other words, Wesley, in England, and Asbury, in the United States, envisioned what we today might call a franchise. Just as you should know what to expect when you walk into any McDonald’s or Chick-Fil-A, so you should know what to expect when you walk into any United Methodist Church.
The Trust Clause Today
The legal counsel for the General Council on Finance and Administration makes this very point in its Trust Clause Brochure. From the brochure:
But as Wesley realized early on, there must be some way to enforce continued faithfulness to these values. In essence, this is what the trust clause does. The trust clause reaches beyond church law and imposes a civil law requirement that church property only be used for purposes consistent with these principles. Thus, long ago, when the circuit rider rode into town he could be assured there would be a place for him to preach. It also guaranteed the local congregation that they would be served by a circuit rider representing the common mission of the Church. Today, we as United Methodists can go into any one of our more than 48,000 local churches in the United States and around the world and find a community of faith that shares these principles.
(Oh, and since the GCFA chose to copy protect the PDF that it posted on its public website, I should mention that I assert “fair use” rights in quoting from it in order to comment on this matter of public interest.)
The idea that you can “go into any one of our more than 48,000 churches” and have any idea what to expect is amusing, to say the least. As an extension minister without a regular pulpit, I have visited a lot of United Methodist churches over the years. To return to the franchise metaphor, I not only didn’t know how the church would cook and serve my hamburger, I didn’t even know if beef would be on the menu.
The “principles” which the GCFA say the trust clause protects are connectionalism, itinerancy and mission. Like the trust clause, connectional structures and itinerancy are polity, a means without an end. The mission of church “to make disciples of Jesus Christ” is an end, but not one that is unique to United Methodism. There is no mention of doctrine or practice in the GCFA’s description of the trust clause. The polity protects the polity. In the Army, we frequently refer to a situation like this as a “self-licking ice cream cone.”
In any case, civil courts in the United States are highly unlikely to base their decisions on property disputes based on doctrinal arguments. Most courts follow what are usually labeled “neutral principles of law” which usually favor the parent organization in hierarchical denominations. There have been a few cases, however, in which courts have used “neutral principles” to rule in favor of breakaway congregations.
Ways Out of the United Methodist Church
As the GCFA mentions, a trust creates a legal obligation in civil law. If a local church desires to leave the United Methodist connection, they can’t just leave because they want to. Neither can the bishop or the district superintendent just say, “Good bye and good luck.” The trust that was created in law must be dissolved in law.
I am not a lawyer, so take this for what it’s worth, but the Book of Discipline does appear to offer some legal means by which the church may authorize the transfer of property and dissolve the trust relationship.
¶ 2529 1.b)(3) says that a charge conference “cannot sever its connectional relationship to The United Methodist Church without the consent of the annual conference.” While this seems to imply that the annual conference might consent to severing the connectional relationship with a congregation, I’ve looked through the Discipline in vain for the provision describing how that would take place.
Additionally, paragraph 2548 has provisions for deeding property to churches created by the merger of congregations from two different denominations (per paragraph 2547) and to other “evangelical” denominations.
Paragraph 208 describes several different kinds of interdenominational church unions.
(a) a federated church, in which one congregation is related to two or more denominations, with persons choosing to hold membership in one or the other of the denominations; (b) a union church, in which a congregation with one unified membership roll is related to two or more denominations; (c) a merged church, in which two or more congregations of different denominations form one congregation that relates to only one of the constituent denominations; (d) a yoked parish , in which congregations of different denominations share a pastor.
When paragraph 2547 describes the process for interdenominational mergers, then, it’s describing a situation in which the resulting church either relates solely to the United Methodist Church or no longer relates to the United Methodist Church at all. It then adds the following:
4. The provisions of ¶ 2503 [requiring a trust clause] shall be included in the plan of merger where applicable [presumably, when the resulting congregation is United Methodist].
6. Where property is involved, the provisions of ¶ 2548 [authorizing conditional transfer of the deed] obtain.
Paragraph 2548 not only applies to interdenominational mergers, it has broader application as well.
¶ 2548. Deeding Church Property to Federated Churches or Other Evangelical Denominations—
1. With the consent of the presiding bishop and of a majority of the district superintendents and of the district board of church location and building and at the request of the charge conference or of a meeting of the membership of the church, where required by local law, and in accordance with the said law, the annual conference may instruct and direct the board of trustees of a local church to deed church property to a federated church.
2. With the consent of the presiding bishop and of a majority of the district superintendents and of the district board of church location and building and at the request of the charge conference or of a meeting of the membership of the local church, where required by local law, and in accordance with said law, the annual conference may instruct and direct the board of trustees of a local church to deed church property to one of the other denominations represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission or to another evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement, provided that such agreement shall have been committed to writing and signed and approved by the duly qualified and authorized representatives of both parties concerned.
The meaning of “evangelical” and “denomination” in paragraph 2548 are left undefined. For those who are wondering, a “comity” is a courtesy. If it chose to do so, it appears to me that the annual conference could find a means of using paragraphs 2547 and/or 2548 to transfer property to congregations who wish to leave, either as a legal merger between the existing United Methodist Congregation and a newly formed breakaway congregation or as a transfer to an evangelical denomination. Admittedly, these provisions were not created for this purpose, but it seems to me that they might function in this way nonetheless. If the annual conference can give away property to another denomination or to a merged church, I don’t see in principle why it could not also surrender its rights under the trust to a dissenting congregation, even if the new church is a denomination of one.
Finally there are provisions in paragraph 2549 for abandoned property, which is how most conferences are going to treat property owned by congregations that no longer submit themselves to the Book of Discipline.
3. Abandonment—When a local church property is no longer used, kept, or maintained by its membership as a place of divine worship, the property shall be considered abandoned, and when a local church no longer serves the purpose for which it was organized and incorporated (¶¶ 201 – 204 ), with the consent of the presiding bishop, a majority of the district superintendents, and of the district board of church location and building, the annual conference trustees may assume control of the real and personal, tangible and intangible property. If circumstances make immediate action necessary, the conference trustees should give first option to the other denominations represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission. The conference trustees may proceed to sell or lease said property, retain the proceeds in an interest-bearing account, and recommend the disposition of the proceeds in keeping with annual conference policy.
Under these circumstances, the annual conference can sell or lease the property as it sees fit. Conceivably, it could sell or lease the property to the dissenters under terms that both parties found acceptable. Under a lease agreement, for example, the annual conference could allow the dissenting congregation to stay on the property for a reasonable transition period. Or, I suppose, it could sell the property for anything between a dollar and fair market value, depending on what the annual conference approved. There are restrictions in sub-paragraph 7 on how the proceeds of any sale must be used in urban areas, but there is nothing that I can find that requires the property to be sold or leased at any particular value. I find, by the way, the practice of excluding the departing congregation from the list of potential buyers to be remarkably petty and sub-Christian.
Defending the Trust
My hope is that the Christian leaders will always act like Christians, even where there are irreconcilable differences between groups. In part, that means looking out for the other party’s interests as well as your own.
The annual conference, of course, has more to think about than the needs of the departing congregation. Even if the vast majority of a congregation and its leadership declare themselves to be a new and independent church, the annual conference must still protect those who wish to remain United Methodist. If the loyal remnant is large enough to function as a church, the conference should continue to recognize these members as constituents of the existing congregation and help them to reorganize themselves with new leadership. If the remaining congregation is large enough to use the existing property, it’s theirs to use. If the remaining congregation is too small to use the existing property, the conference should probably allow it to sell the land (perhaps to the departing congregation) and use the proceeds to purchase something more appropriate. If the loyal remnant is too small to function as a church, the conference might still sell the property and use the proceeds to support new church development in the same community.
For more general thoughts on disputes between denominations and their former congregations regarding property rights, see my thoughts here.