Disaffiliation: What About the Rural Church?

Photo by Eric Smart on Pexels.com

As the United Methodist Church has fully entered the annual conference session season, much of the talk has been about churches choosing to disaffiliate from the UMC. While there are exceptions such as Mt. Bethel in the North Georgia Annual Conference, many of the churches choosing to leave under Paragraph 2553 of the current Book of Discipline are small and/or rural. In the decade that I’ve been serving as a United Methodist pastor, almost all of my appointments have been to small rural churches, so I have seen first-hand the challenges these congregations face. Many are in areas that have been in decline for years, and can not even afford to pay a full-time salary for a pastor without going on a charge (for non-UM folks: This means they team up with other congregations to form a circuit, whereby they share a pastor and expenses such as salary and housing). Because of these factors and more, I am greatly concerned that these congregations will be the most harmed by this mess.

And, frankly, I don’t believe many of the people in these congregations fully understand what they are getting into by going independent or joining a fledgling denomination.

I’ve heard from several colleagues who have shared stories that only add to my concern. One such story came from a now-former DS who was meeting with a congregation that had indicated they would like to discern disaffiliation and the possibility of becoming independent. This congregation was receiving salary support through equitable compensation funds provided by their conference so that they could afford a full-time pastor. My friend indicated that they were not only surprised to learn that they would no longer receive these funds but that they would not receive a newly appointed pastor from their annual conference when their then-current pastor left. Somehow, they assumed they would continue to receive conference support after disaffiliation.

I wish I was making this up.

I heard another colleague tell of their bishop having a conversation with leaders from a denomination that was wishing to disaffiliate. This is a congregation that had been around for approximately 150 years. The bishop reminded them that one of the reasons they had likely survived for so long was receiving an estimated 70 appointed clergy during that time and the fact that United Methodist clergy must be held accountable for actions they take which are detrimental to the church. By being independent, they would not have such safeguards and likely have a difficult time hiring their own pastor due to their remote location.

Yet another former DS related a story of a congregation within his annual conference that was choosing to fight the trust clause in court and “they have spent more money on legal fees than if they had simply gone through the disaffiliation process.” Whoever is giving them advice clearly does not have their best interests in mind, but because they have refused to cooperate with the annual conference to reach a settlement, they are incurring debt at a fast rate that will possibly endanger their future viability.

I truly do not believe that many of these congregations and clergy who are choosing to disaffiliate fully understand what will happen once they sever their relationship with their annual conference. My fear is that once they realize the gravity of their decision, it will be too late and the harm will have been irrevocably done. For me, this is not preserving an institution. Expressing my concerns is about doing my part to educate people on this issue that should not be taken lightly and begun flippantly. This is about doing what I can to minimize the harm done to these precious bodies of saints who deserve the best support and pastoral leadership they can possibly have.

And let me add that most of the decisions and policies made by the breakoff denomination seem to be best suited for large churches in suburban areas. There is very little that I’ve seen that has been done with rural congregations in mind. Within the Global Methodist Church, congregations will be mostly responsible for finding clergy from a list of available clergy provided by their GMC annual conference. The congregation and clergyperson will have to reach an agreement on salary, etc. that will have to be approved by the bishop and cabinet. However, that congregation will not receive a clergyperson under appointment, at least not in the way the UMC currently appoints pastors. If a congregation can’t find a clergyperson willing to serve their congregation, it seems they will not receive much, if any, assistance from the annual conference beyond providing a list. Clergy will not be sent to an appointment under the GMC system. It’s nothing more than a call system with a few more hoops to jump through.

Rural churches, hear me: If you decide to disaffiliate at this point, you will quickly find out that you will be on your own in every way imaginable. You will have to find your own clergy, which will be a huge challenge given that many rural and/or small churches simply can not pay enough for a full-time pastor on their own and are in areas where many people simply do not want to relocate to (and let me be very clear: This is NOT a reflection on my current appointment if any of my people see this. This is simply a fact for many rural and small congregations). While you certainly won’t have to pay apportionments or submit yearly reports anymore, you will find out that benefits such as conference-provided health insurance for your pastor will be an expense you will have to provide on your own; you also will no longer be covered under conference liability and property insurance, which also tends to be very expensive for churches. Many of the other safety nets you currently have – such as assistance with compensation to afford a full-time pastor – will be gone.

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence, not without a bunch of manure being spread.

I’m certain some people are going to bristle at what I have to say and that’s their prerogative. However, I believe that a lot of this has not been said, and it’s been to the detriment of people who make up small and rural congregations who may want to float the idea of disaffiliation. Consent is either informed or it is invalid. Again, my hope is that no more harm comes to any of our churches for any reason.

One of my concerns has always been that the rural church be represented and cared for in the same way as larger suburban and urban churches. From the floor of annual conference this year, I advocated for as much when we had an opportunity to codify diversity on our delegations to general and jurisdictional conferences, one of those means of diversity being congregation size and setting (the measure ultimately failed, unfortunately). I said that the rural church is largely not being well represented currently and it’s not. But know that the rural church won’t be represented at all by leaving for the new denomination on the block.

It’s not time to leave.