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Bishop meets with church as part of disaffiliation process

Times Observer photo by Josh Cotton Western Pa. Conference Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi speaks with a standing-room-only crowd of United Methodists during a recent meeting at First United Methodist Church. The meeting is an early step in a disaffiliation process that could see United Methodist churches leaving the denomination.

Emotions were high in a standing-room-only meeting held recently at First United Methodist Church.

The meeting was a step in the process of disaffiliation for United Methodist churches, part of a broad schism on numerous issues.

Reports were that over 25 churches in the Kane District — including many in Warren County — were represented in the meeting with UMC Western Pa. Conference Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi

“We are all Methodist,” District Superintendent Sang Choi said.

Moore-Koikoi opened discussions by noting her “theology of difference,” citing Paul and Barnabas’ split where they “went different ways but not separate ways.”

She said that differences can be used to divide — or multiply — the church’s ministry.

A litany of issues are at the heart of the division from abuse of power to lack of accountability to issues surrounding homosexuality.

According to the denomination, “homosexuality was first openly debated at General Conference in 1972, four years after the formation of the United Methodist Church, resulting in the addition of first statement on homosexuality. While affirming belief that persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth who need the ministry and guidance of the church, the statement added that the church ‘does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.'”

That provides space for a distinction between orientation and practice/behavior.

Moore-Koikoi further clarified that the church’s position on homosexuality is “not something that is essential to our faith,” like a statement such as “Jesus is Lord” would be.

“There’s a lot of information out there that is not correct,” she said about the denomination and its future.

In UMC tradition, issues not essential can be changed by denominational process.

A disaffiliation process was approved by the denomination’s General Conference in 2019 that shuts the door to disaffiliate on Dec. 31, 2023.

While the disaffiliation language seems to have been written with progressive churches in mind given the church’s stance on the issue, Moore-Koikoi explained that the disaffiliation language could apply if a congregation says that a position on homosexuality is essential.

Disaffiliation will be a several stop process.

First, churches have to express an interest in more information, which leads to the second step.

From there, each church has to hold a conference, and the decision to disaffiliate requires a two-third majority of the members present. A committee is then established at the church-level to negotiate terms with the denomination — how and when, specifically, the church will pay the costs of disaffiliation.

Once those terms are hammered out, a second church conference is held to vote to affirm the agreement. A final ratification of the disaffiliation agreement is then required by the denomination’s General Conference next June.

That means local churches don’t have until the end of 2023 to take the steps needed to disaffiliate. To some degree, time is of the essence.

As the second step in a larger process, it’s unclear how many UMC churches in the county will disaffiliate.

A letter provided to the Times Observer noted that the First United Methodist Church council voted 21-0 with one abstention to enter the “exploratory phase” that set the stage for the recent meeting.

The move to leave will cost the churches.

Paragraph 2553 says that each church will have to pay their share to the denomination, called an apportionment, both for the year prior to the disaffiliation as well as an additional one-year share.

Property assets are also a thorny problem because of the denomination’s “trust clause.” All the property is in the name of the denomination, held in trust for the ministry of the church. It’s a policy that dates to the 1700s.

Moore-Koikoi said that churches would be required to pay 20% of the tax-assessed value of its property or 2% of assets identified in a statistical report if determining a tax-assessed value is not available.

Churches looking to leave would also be responsible for their share of unfunded pension liabilities. The status of endowments would depend entirely upon the language of the individual endowment.

Moore-Koikoi took questions from the audience, insisting that they focus on the process and not on broader issues underlying disaffiliation.

Those questions were wide ranging from potential inconsistency on payment requirements across the country to issues with the pension fund.

A question that made reference to broader issues of disagreement — abuse of power, control and not following leadership — received substantial applause.

One question highlighted that traditional UMC churches are being penalized in the process.

Moore-Koikoi acknowledged that the policy was written for more progressive churches but stressed that “every congregation has a choice to make.”

The meeting got testy at times with Moore-Koikoi having to remind attendees that “we’re going to respect one another. We’re Christians, folks.”

As far as a deadline, she said the local process would need to be completed two or three weeks before the annual conference next June. She said that process could be completed as quickly as the end of the year.

She added that the financial numbers involved were presented to pastors participating in the meeting.

“You all have to discern,” she stressed. “I trust that you will be faithful in pursuing truth” and that, if faithful, “God’s going to bless it.”

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