The United Methodist Church is in transition. At the 2020 General Conference there will be discussions about several proposals for the restructuring, separation, or dissolution of the United Methodist Church. These proposals have brought concerns about property, assets, and the trust clause to the forefront of discussions. We want to help United Methodists across the connection stay informed and have a full understanding of our current policies as they pray and prepare for GC 2020.
1. What is the Trust Clause?
The United Methodist Church is governed by the Book of Discipline, which includes rules on how to become a member, how to ordain our pastors, how to organize the Church, and many other things. One of the rules in the Book of Discipline is that the legal documents (the “deeds”) demonstrating ownership of local church property must contain certain language called the “trust clause.” Essentially, the Trust Clause states that the local church owns the property, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination. The principal reason for this Trust Clause is to ensure that United Methodist local church property will continue to be used for United Methodist Church purposes.
2. What does it mean that the local church owns the property, in trust, for the denomination?
The basic idea is that the local church owns the property, but the property can only be used for certain purposes of benefit to the entire denomination. Specifically, the Trust Clause requires that the property “[b]e 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.
3. What is the history of our Trust Clause?
The history of our Trust Clause can be traced all the way back to John Wesley. In 1750, John Wesley requested three eminent lawyers to craft deeds for three Methodist preaching houses in England. These were to serve as models for all future deeds for the Methodists. Over the years, these deeds were revised several times and in 1796, under the leadership of Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, a “model deed” was adopted by the General Conference for the Methodists in America. The Trust Clause as we know it today first appeared in our Book of Discipline in 1797.
4. What is the purpose of our Trust Clause?
The answer to this question goes to the heart of what it means to be united. Obviously some things have changed since Wesley’s time many of the core principles that initially motivated the development of the Trust Clause are still important today, like connectionalism.
Connectionalism is the principle that local churches in our denomination do not “stand alone” but are “connected” together. In contrast to purely congregational churches with local autonomy, United Methodist churches are part of a larger organizational and governing structure consisting of districts, annual conferences, and the General Conference. The ministers of each conference share a mutual covenant of mission to the whole Church. Moreover, United Methodist churches are connected through the other shared principles, discussed below.
5. What restrictions does the Trust Clause impose on our church property?
Aside from the general responsibility to maintain and protect the property, the Book of Discipline sets forth detailed procedures a church must follow prior to taking most major actions affecting its property. For example, the district superintendent must consent to any sale, lease, mortgage, or extensive renovation of church property. This consent by the district superintendent reflects the denomination’s shared interest (through the Trust Clause) in the future of the church property.
6. Were there any changes made to the Trust Clause as a result of the Special Called GC of 2019?
Legislation was passed at the special-called General Conference of 2019 that affects the Trust Clause in the Book of Discipline (¶ 2553). Disaffiliation of a Local Church Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality was added to the 2016 Book of Discipline which provides a path for disaffiliation “because of the current deep conflict within The United Methodist Church around issues of human sexuality.” Local churches “… shall have a limited right, under the provisions of this paragraph, to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
The process for disaffiliation is laid out in the subparagraphs of ¶ 2553, including the rights of a local church “to retain its real and personal, tangible and intangible property.” Once the disaffiliation process has been properly completed, “the applicable annual conference shall release any claims that it may have under ¶ 2501 and other paragraphs of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, commonly referred to as the trust clause.”
7. I’ve heard people in my church say it isn’t right for the denomination to have such control over our property through the Trust Clause. They say it isn’t fair because it was our contributions that built this church and paid for its upkeep. Therefore, it should be our church. How should I respond to these statements as a faithful United Methodist?
You could start by telling them they are right – it is their church! And as United Methodists, because of the Trust Clause, they can say the same thing about every other United Methodist church. You could also say it wasn’t just their contributions that built and sustained the church, but also possibly the contributions of generations of people before them who contributed with the purpose and hope that the church continues to be United Methodist in the future. You could then tell them their financial support of the church is just one side of a covenant. The United Methodist Church also made a covenant to supply and supervise ministers, provide financial and other aid to the church if needed, develop Sunday school materials and hymnals, and many other things.
But, again, the most important point is that no United Methodist church stands alone. Each United Methodist church is part of a larger connection of shared purpose and mission that has been in existence for hundreds of years. And this connection is at the core of what it means to be United Methodist. You and your church are part of something much larger than yourselves – something you can be proud of as Methodism reaches the world over to make disciples for Jesus Christ.