(RNS) — The United Methodist Judicial Council ruled Tuesday (April 25) that clergy will not automatically lose their credentials if their churches leave the denomination.
The decision comes as the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States continues to splinter over the ordination and marriage of its LGBTQ members.
According to the latest tally by United Methodist News Service, nearly 2,500 congregations have disaffiliated from the denomination since 2019. That’s when United Methodists’ General Conference created a disaffiliation plan for churches wishing to leave the denomination for “reasons of conscience” regarding its stance on sexuality.
The disaffiliation plan allows churches to leave with their buildings and other real property as long as they have made their “apportionments” — a form of tithe to the denomination — and have met their payments to the clergy pension fund. The plan allows regional annual conferences, as United Methodists’ geographic districts are known, to add their own further requirements for disaffiliation.
But according to the Judicial Council, the Wisconsin Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church went too far in forcing ministers serving disaffiliating congregations to take one of three options: part with their congregations and remain in the United Methodist Church, retire or surrender their credentials as ministers.
Wisconsin Bishop Hee-Soo Jung had decided that if a church disaffiliates from the United Methodist Church, and its pastor chooses to leave with the congregation, that pastor “is deemed to have withdrawn from the UMC and has surrendered his or her credentials.”
The denomination’s top court disagreed, saying clergy maintain their credentials unless action is brought against them — generally meaning a formal complaint has been filed accusing them of violating church law, according to United Methodist News Service.
The Judicial Council’s decision reads in part, “Clergy who withdraw from their annual conference membership by written request or by simply leaving their appointment have not surrendered their credentials unless action is taken against them.”
In other decisions released Tuesday, the Judicial Council ruled that the Book of Discipline does not require churches to state their “reasons of conscience” in order to disaffiliate but that conferences are free to add that requirement.
Where it is stated, Decision 1480 reads in part, “It will be unlawful for an annual conference to ratify a local church disaffiliation for any reason other than those specified.”
Those decisions come as the Judicial Council continues to move through its fall docket.
In recent months, the Judicial Council has also ruled that the General Conference meeting scheduled for 2024 should be considered the postponed 2020 General Conference.
That means delegates elected to serve at 2020’s meeting of the denomination’s decision-making body will serve at the meeting scheduled for 2024. The 2020 meeting was postponed three times for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The court also ruled — again — that an annual conference in the United States cannot unilaterally leave the United Methodist Church. Congregations must decide individually if they wish to disaffiliate from the denomination.