The Crucial Connectional Trust Clause

May 06, 2019

Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with United Methodist polity knows that it is fundamentally connectional, not congregational. And most know that a central feature of connectionalism is that United Methodist clergy itinerate. All candidates for ordination in The United Methodist Church learn at the outset that they will be duty bound to “offer [themselves] without reserve to be appointed and to serve as the appointive authority may determine.” The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church (“Discipline”) ¶ 335(c)(1).

What many may not appreciate, however, is the central role the Discipline’s “trust clauses,” as embodied in Discipline ¶¶ 2501-2503, have played in reinforcing the denomination’s connectional character. It has been so from the beginning. Soon after John Wesley built the first Methodist “preaching-house” in 1739, George Whitefield admonished Wesley for having drawn up a deed that allowed the local trustees to hire the preacher. “Do you consider what you do?” Whitefield asked. “If the trustees are to name the preachers, they may exclude even you from preaching in the house you have built. Pray let this deed be immediately cancelled.”[1] Wesley agreed, and subsequent deeds for all Methodist preaching houses provided that “none beside [Wesley himself] had any right to appoint the preachers in them.” [2]

Methodism in America readily adopted Wesley’s practice of requiring the inclusion of trust provisions in local church deeds. The precise terms of a “deed of settlement” were first published in the Discipline approved by the 1796 General Conference. The key language provided that the local trustees would hold the church’s property “forever in trust, . . . for the use of members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America, . . . and in further trust and confidence that [the trustees] shall at all times, forever hereafter, permit such ministers and preachers, belonging to the said Church, . . . and none others, to preach and expound God's Holy Word therein.” [3] 

The first restriction mentioned in this Model Deed — “for the use of members of the Methodist Episcopal Church” — indicates that by 1796 the rationale for the trust clause was not merely to protect the bishop’s appointive power but to ensure as well that local church properties would “remain unalienated from their original purpose.” [4] As one author explained this emerging emphasis, “the settling of a chapel on . . . the conference plan” simply means “that the chapel shall not be the private property of the trustees,” and that if the trustees should ever “be inclined to give the occupation of the chapel to some other party of professors of religion, they shall not have power to do so.” [5]

In due course the United States Supreme Court held that trust provisions of the sort included in the Discipline are adequate to prevent church property from being diverted away from its original purpose, even if that is the will of the majority of the local church members. In 1871, the Court explained that “it seems hardly to admit of a rational doubt that . . . an association of individuals may dedicate property by way of trust to the purpose of sustaining, supporting, and propagating definite religious doctrines or principles,” and “it would seem also to be the obvious duty of the court . . . to see that the property so dedicated is not diverted from the trust which is thus attached to its use.” [6] More than a century later, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that conclusion, holding that a connectional denomination’s governing documents “can be made to recite an express trust in favor of the denominational church” and that “civil courts will be bound to give effect to the result indicated by the parties, provided it is embodied in some legally cognizable form.” [7]

The recognized legal enforceability of the Discipline’s trust clauses undoubtedly explains why several so-called “disaffiliation” petitions were presented for consideration during the recent special session of the General Conference, which was otherwise devoted to reconsidering the Discipline’s provisions regarding human sexuality. Believing that the outcome of the special session would inevitably impel some congregations and pastors to decide to withdraw from the denomination as a matter of conscience, the “exit petition” advocates urged the General Conference to “approve a gracious and equitable process for exit which can be used by any congregation desiring to do so.” [8] Without such legislation, local church members might still seek to withdraw from the denomination, but they would be obliged to leave behind the local church property, which would remain subject to the trust in the denomination as a whole. Others argued that the limited time available during the special session should be focused on legislative proposals that promised to keep the denomination unified, rather than on constructing exit ramps that made it easier to break apart. [9]

In the end, the General Conference voted to adopt time-limited disaffiliation provisions that would become ¶ 2553 into the Discipline. [10] Pursuant to those provisions:

1. A congregation may “disaffiliate” only “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 as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the [subsequent] actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues.”

2. Any congregation’s exit from the denomination must “be complete prior to December 31, 2023,” at which point ¶ 2553 will expire.

3. The disaffiliation must be approved by two-thirds of the professing members present and voting at a duly called churchconference.

4. Any disaffiliating church must satisfy the following obligations prior to disaffiliation:

a. Pay any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months prior to disaffiliation.
b. Pay an additional 12 months of apportionments.
c. Pay the local church’s pro rata share of its annual conference’s aggregate unfunded pension obligations.

(All debts, loans, and liabilities owed to any other parties must also be fully satisfied, or else assigned and transferred to the congregation’s new corporate entity, prior to disaffiliation.)

5. Once the annual conference has received all funds owed, and provided that there are no other outstanding liabilities or claims against The United Methodist Church, the annual conference shall release any claims it may have under the Discipline’s various trust provisions, with the result that the “disaffiliating local church shall have the right to retain its real and personal, tangible and intangible property.”

Many expected the Judicial Council to invalidate these provisions during its just-completed Spring Session. After all, they were drawn from Petition No. 90066, which had already been declared unconstitutional in Decision No. 1377 because it failed to require annual conference approval of the local church’s disaffiliation. Emphasizing that the Constitution reserves to the annual conferences the right to vote on all matters that “have not been delegated to the General Conference,” Discipline ¶ 33, the Judicial Council reasoned that the General Conference could not unilaterally authorize local churches to terminate their relationships with annual conferences without giving the annual conferences any opportunity to vote on whether to approve the disaffiliation.

In its more recent Decision No. 1379, however, the Judicial Council modified its analysis and concluded that new ¶ 2553 survives constitutional challenge. In essence, the Judicial Council continued to insist that the annual conference must approve the withdrawal of one of its own congregations, but the Council determined that this requirement was already embedded in Discipline ¶ 2529.1(b)(3), which explicitly provides that a local church “cannot sever its connectional relationship to The United Methodist Church without the consent of the annual conference.”

Dedicated United Methodists may have conflicting views on the wisdom of the General Conference’s decision to provide a limited opportunity for congregations to exit the denomination while retaining the local church assets. What cannot be doubted, however, is that the efficacy and enforceability of John Wesley’s historic trust clause remains intact. Indeed, the Disaffiliation Agreement mandated by new ¶ 2553 must include provisions in which the departing congregation explicitly affirms the “validity and applicability of [the trust provisions set forth in] ¶ 2501, notwithstanding the release of property therefrom.” In essence, the execution of the disaffiliation agreement by the Annual Conference trustees, coupled with the vote of the annual conference to ratify the transaction, serves the same purpose as the “written acknowledged consent of the proper district superintendent representing The United Methodist Church” when a local church sells its property to a third party. Discipline ¶ 2542. Given in exchange for the valuable consideration mandated by new ¶ 2553, it “constitute[s] a release and discharge of the real property so sold and conveyed from the trust clause or clauses” that, all parties are bound to acknowledge, have previously attached to the property.


[1] John Wesley, “The Case of Birstall House (1783),” quoted inJohn Leo Topolewski, “Mr. Wesley’s Trust Clause: Methodism in the Vernacular,” Methodist History, 37:3 (April 1999) (“Topolewski”), 144 (italics are Wesley’s).

[2] John Wesley, “The Case of Birstall House (1783),” quoted inTopolewski at 144.

[3] The [1796] Doctrines and Discipline of The Methodist Episcopal Church in America (Philadelphia: Henry Tuckniss Parry Hall, 1798), 173.

[4] Johnathan Crowther, A Portraiture of Methodism (London: Richard Edwards, 1815) (“Crowther”), 307 (emphasis added).

[5] Id.

[6] Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 723 (1871).

[7] Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 606 (1979).

[8] See “Letter to All 2019 General Conference Delegates,” Sept. 17, 2018, accessible at https://um-gracious-exit.com/blog/https://www.umnews.org/en/news/letter-urges-gc2019-to-prioritize-exit-plan.

[9] See Heather Hahn, “Group Urges GC2019 to Defer Exit Plan,” United Methodist News Service (Feb. 7, 2019), accessible at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/group-urges-gc2019-to-defer-exit-plans.

[10] Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Feb. 27, 2019), 523.

By Thomas Starnes