Q: What is disaffiliation?
A “disaffiliation'' process was adopted by the 2019 special session of the General Conference. Under Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline, a church has “a limited right,” to disaffiliate for “reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality.” The disaffiliation process gives a local church the right to leave and take their real estate and property with them.
Q: Does the South Georgia Conference have its own disaffiliation policy?
Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline allows an annual conference to develop terms in addition to those listed. At the 2019 South Georgia Annual Conference clergy and lay members voted - not on whether to have a disaffiliation plan - but on the terms and conditions of the plan specific to the South Georgia Annual Conference, including a separate policy on pension liability for churches that choose to leave. Our Conference Board of Trustees agreed to follow the policy approved by the Annual Conference. Read the full policy: Disaffiliation Policy.
Q: What is the purpose of the disaffiliation policy?
The South Georgia Conference disaffiliation policy sets out a framework to be followed when a significant number of members of a congregation express a desire to leave the South Georgia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, pursuant to the provisions of paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. It is the intent of this policy that when a congregation chooses to leave the Annual Conference, it be allowed to do so in as amicable a manner as possible. At the same time, the policy provides a way to ascertain that disaffiliation is the will of the majority of the church members, and not of just a few.
Q: When was the disaffiliation policy approved?
The disaffiliation policy was approved at the 2019 Annual Conference Session.
Q: What guidance is offered to churches who have made the decision to disaffiliate?
The disaffiliation policy calls for District Superintendents to guide churches through the process of disaffiliation. Details are found in section 4 of the disaffiliation policy. The process seeks to be as fair as possible, releasing the trust clause, and releasing the property and buildings to the local church. The local church is only assessed for pension liability and apportionments through the next Annual Conference session. District Superintendents provide guidance to local churches throughout the process.
Q: What is the process for disaffiliation?
The process for disaffiliation is as follows:
If a church is considering whether or not disaffiliation is in it’s best interest, the pastor or church lay leaders should notify the District Superintendent. The Superintendent shall hold an informal meeting with church leaders hearing their concerns, sharing the steps of the disaffiliation policy, and providing for ongoing dialogue.
If after consideration of the matter the church council of a local church determines that the church wishes to consider disaffiliation, it shall notify its District Superintendent.
The District Superintendent shall call a church conference under ¶ 248 of the Book of Discipline for the sole purpose of deciding whether to disaffiliate. Such church conference shall be held within 120 days after the district superintendent calls for the church conference. The call and conduct of the church conference shall be governed by ¶¶ 246-247. In addition, special attention shall be made to give broad notice to the full, professing membership of the local church regarding the time and place of a church conference called for this purpose and to use all means necessary, including electronic communication where possible, to communicate.
The decision to disaffiliate must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.
Q: What does the disaffiliation agreement include?
The local church must enter into a standard disaffiliation agreement with the annual conference, which includes at least the following:
Payment of any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months prior to the effective date of disaffiliation PLUS an additional equal amount representing 12 months of future apportionments.
The local church shall pay its appointed clergy’s compensation and benefits through the date on which its disaffiliation is effective.
A disaffiliating local church shall have the right to retain its real and personal, tangible and intangible, property. All transfers of property shall be made prior to disaffiliation. All costs for transfer of title or other legal work, including any costs or fees incurred by the Annual Conference in connection with the disaffiliation, shall be borne by the disaffiliating local church.
A disaffiliating local church shall satisfy all other debts, loans, and liabilities, or assign and transfer them to its new entity, prior to disaffiliation.
All payments hereunder shall be made prior to the effective date of departure.
Q: What if there are members of the disaffiliating church who wish to remain part of The United Methodist Church and/or the South Georgia Conference?
The Annual Conference also recognizes a responsibility to members of a local church who want to remain part of the Annual Conference, even if they are in the minority of their congregation. In the event of disaffiliation by a local church, those members wishing to remain a part of The United Methodist Church shall have their membership transferred to another United Methodist Church or shall join the church of their choice (see ¶¶229, 2549.2.4).
Q: Does the Annual Conference have to approve a local church’s disaffiliation?
Yes. The Annual Conference shall vote whether to ratify any disaffiliation agreement at the next session of the Annual Conference following execution of such agreement. Ratification of such agreement shall require the approval by a simple majority of the members of the annual conference present and voting. No disaffiliation shall be effective until ratified by the Annual Conference. In addition, the Conference Board of Trustees must approve a local church’s disaffiliation.
Q: What is the deadline for disaffiliation?
Under the provisions of the current policy, a local church shall have a limited right to exit the denomination to be complete prior to December 31, 2023. The right expires on December 31, 2023, and the provisions of this policy and ¶2553 of the Book of Discipline shall not be used after that date.
Q: Is there a way the December 31, 2023 expiration date can be extended?
¶2553 of the Book of Discipline can only be extended by the General Conference. Should the paragraph expire, enforcement of the Trust Clause will return to the Conference Board of Trustees. The South Georgia Conference Trustees have adopted a resolution stating that after Dec, 21, 2023, they will continue to operate under the basic terms of the Conference Disaffiliation policy for an additional year. They will report their intention to the 2022 South Georgia Annual Conference.
Q: If my church wants to disaffiliate this year are we bound by the April 1 deadline in the disaffiliation policy?No. Bishop Graves has called a special session of the Annual Conference for August 20, 2022. The purpose of the special session is to vote on any matters related to local church disaffiliations within the South Georgia Annual Conference. This gives everyone the space to do what they need to do without feeling like they are missing a window of opportunity. A revised timeline for disaffiliating at the August session will be voted on at Annual Conference in June. Churches can also follow the steps outlined in the policy to disaffiliate at the regular sessions of Annual Conference in June 2023 and June 2024. The Annual Conference also has the capability to approve additional options if it deems necessary.
Q: Why does South Georgia have a pension liability plan?
The 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church passed provisions whereby an Annual Conference must charge a departing local church a portion of the overall pension liability of the Annual Conference. The General Conference left it up to Annual Conferences to determine how that share should be calculated. In response, the Conference Board of Pensions of the South Georgia Annual Conference developed a Pension Liability Policy, which was approved at the 2019 Annual Conference Session. No payment is due from any church that remains in the South Georgia Conference; this policy only applies to churches that choose to disaffiliate under the provisions passed by the General Conference and our South Georgia Conference. Read the full policy: Pension Liability Policy
Q: Are there any videos I can watch to help explain disaffiliation?
The following videos were presented at the 2019 Annual Conference Session:
Q: Can clergy disaffiliate?
Clergy who no longer desire to serve within the ministry of The United Methodist Church may terminate their membership by withdrawing to unite with another denomination, withdrawing from the ministerial office, or retiring. Each step has different protocols. Clergy should discuss their options with the District Superintendent, Director of Ministerial Services, or Director of Administrative Services.
Q: If the church chooses to disaffiliate does the pastor have to withdraw?
Churches and pastors must make separate decisions. Pastors who are serving a church who is disaffiliating may seek another appointment within the South Georgia Conference.
Q: Can our Annual Conference withdraw from the UMC instead of local churches disaffiliating?
It is unclear if the Book of Discipline has any provisions allowing such a withdrawal. The Council of Bishops has requested a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on this issue. We are awaiting the Judicial Council’s response.
Q: Can pension liability be transferred to a new denomination?
The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is a proposal for restructuring and separation of The United Methodist Church as we know it today. The Protocol includes an option for the transfer of pension liability to a new denomination. However, because General Conference has not met, no legislation has been voted on nor enacted. A new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, has announced their launch effective May 1, 2022. No details have yet been released regarding the Global Methodist Church and pension liability.
Q: Why does a disaffiliating church have to pay a share of “pension liability”?
The United Methodist Church’s various iterations of pension plans are extremely complex. The key to understanding the withdrawal liability is to recognize that since 1982, The United Methodist Church has maintained some form of “defined benefit” for its clergy. In a defined benefit plan, the employer promises to pay a set amount to a retiree for the rest of the retiree’s life, and in some cases, for the rest of a spouse's life. Those plans are administered by Wespath Benefits & Investments, but they are funded by annual conferences and local churches.
Because no one can predict how long clergy and spouses will live, or how the various markets will perform, Wespath is never absolutely certain they have enough assets to fund those payments for as long as necessary. Like everyone in the pension industry, they use actuarial valuations that assume a certain lifespan and certain returns obtained on funds already received to determine if funds are sufficient. If those returns do not meet the assumptions or if clergy live longer than expected, Wespath will be forced to turn to annual conferences to contribute more to the plans to meet the obligations to retirees. Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline has Wespath and the Conference calculate the “liability” to retirees assuming only returns that can be obtained in “fixed income” or highly secure investments. When that method is utilized, the funds providing the defined benefits do not have enough to pay out everything that will be owed to retirees. South Georgia’s share of the shortfall is over $48 million. To calculate the withdrawal liability, the Conference multiplies that amount by the local church’s current apportionment decimal. This calculation is done because if the Conference owed a future contribution, local churches in the Conference would be the source of funding. This happened in 2010, when we had to put $650,000 into our MPP fund to cover market shortfalls during the 2008-09 market collapse.
Q: What does the Conference do with disaffiliation payments?
With respect to the pension withdrawal liability, the Office of Administrative Services deposits the money in a fund at Wespath invested similarly to the various defined benefit plans. The Conference Board of Pensions will utilize that fund first should additional contributions be charged to the conference in the future.
With respect to the apportionments received, the Conference collects the previous twelve month’s askings, minus any apportionments already paid during that time. For the next 12 months the Conference assess one more year of the current year’s askings. Half of that is held in reserves to be used the next year when apportionments come due. In this way, departing churches do not overly burden those churches choosing to remain in the Annual Conference.
Finally, any outstanding benefits debt for unpaid health insurance or pension bills must be paid. Churches may not leave debt to the Conference behind when departing.
FAQs on pensions and disaffiliations from Wespath
GLENVIEW, Ill. — Wespath Benefits and Investments, the United Methodist pension agency, has released answers to frequently asked questions related to church disaffiliations and the potential departure of annual conferences. Bottom line: Wespath says both departing churches and conferences still would have pension liabilities under policies passed by the 2019 special General Conference.