Church court: Conferences can’t exit unilaterally

By Heather Hahn for UM News

U.S. annual conferences have no authority under current church law to withdraw from The United Methodist Church, the denomination’s top court ruled.

“There is no basis in Church law for any annual conference to adopt stopgap policies, pass resolutions, take a vote, or act unilaterally for the purpose of removing itself from The United Methodist Church,” the Judicial Council ruled in Decision 1444.

The church court said only General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — can set the process and conditions for these regional church bodies to leave the United Methodist connection.

But as of now, General Conference has not established such a process for annual conferences within the U.S.

“Absent General Conference legislation, any vote and actions taken by an annual conference to separate are unconstitutional, null and void, and of no legal force or effect,” the Judicial Council said.

The church court released the ruling May 10 as U.S. annual conferences are about to begin their season of yearly meetings.

Judicial Council member Beth Capen issued a separate opinion that concurs in part and dissents in part. Capen concurred with the ultimate holding but approached the issue differently.

The United Methodist constitution describes an annual conference as “the basic body” of the denomination. Each consists of multiple congregations and other ministries such as camps and college groups in a geographical area. The United Methodist Church has 53 annual conferences in the U.S., and 80 spread across Africa, Europe and the Philippines. A bishop presides at each annual conference.

Decision 1444 responds to questions brought by the United Methodist Council of Bishops about U.S. annual conferences. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, has a lengthy process for conferences outside the United States to become autonomous.

The bishops are dealing with a splintering in the denomination. After years of intensifying internal disputes around the status of LGBTQ people, the coming General Conference faces proposals for some kind of denominational separation including the disaffiliation of annual conferences. However, not one of these separation proposals has received a General Conference vote.

Complications from the pandemic have caused three postponements of the international legislative assembly, from May 2020 to now 2024. With the third postponement, some theological conservatives decided to stop waiting for General Conference action and instead launched a breakaway denomination — the Global Methodist Church — on May 1.

But with no General Conference-approved separation plan in effect, the bishops asked whether U.S. annual conferences can leave under current church law.

As the Judicial Council notes, resolutions already have been filed in at least two U.S. annual conferences — Northwest Texas and South Georgia — seeking their disaffiliation. The Northwest Texas Annual Conference, which encompasses the Texas Panhandle, held a nonbinding vote last year signaling its aspirations to leave The United Methodist Church and join the Global Methodist Church.

The Judicial Council rejected arguments made in some briefs that an annual conference should be able to set its own rules for departure. Without enabling legislation passed by General Conference, the church court said, an annual conference disaffiliation “is contrary to Church law.”

Annual conferences elect General Conference delegates, deal with matters related to clergy ordination, manage church discipline and, in the U.S., serve as pension plan sponsors for their clergy members. Annual conferences also are responsible for handling the disaffiliations of individual United Methodist congregations.

They are part of The United Methodist Church’s connectional form of church governance and any separation has “serious ramifications” for both the departing annual conference and beyond its boundaries, the Judicial Council said.

“The question of annual conference withdrawal from The United Methodist Church is a connectional matter and requires a churchwide legislative solution primarily because General Conference has ‘full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional,’” the church court said, quoting the United Methodist constitution.

Church law already spells out how an annual conference “outside the United States” can become “an autonomous Methodist, affiliated autonomous Methodist or affiliated united church.”

The bishops asked if this process, in the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 572, can be viewed “as minimum standards” for any annual conference disaffiliation. The Judicial Council said “no” since the paragraph only applies to conferences outside the United States. “There is no parallel provision or process for U.S. annual conferences,” the church court said.

In Decision 1444, the Judicial Council also expanded on part of one of the court’s earlier rulings. Decision 1366, from 2018, repeatedly came up in briefs arguing that conferences should be able to set their own rules for exits.

The Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference also referenced Decision 1366 in a resolution to leave The United Methodist Church for the Global Methodist Church — a move that now has led to another item on the Judicial Council docket.

In that earlier ruling, the church court was reviewing the constitutionality of proposed legislation going to the special 2019 General Conference. The decision said a proposal that set up a procedure for annual conferences to become self-governing was in line with the denomination’s constitution.

“An annual conference has the right to vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church,” Decision 1366 said. “This reserved right, however, is not absolute but must be counterbalanced by the General Conference’s power to ‘define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences.’”

However, the particular proposal under review in Decision 1366 never became church law. It was part of a longer petition that died in committee at the 2019 General Conference.

In short, General Conference has not approved any legislation that provides a process for U.S. annual conferences to exit The United Methodist Church.

“While an annual conference has the reserved right to vote on disaffiliation, the General Conference must first enact enabling legislation to establish the right to withdraw but has not done so for U.S. conferences,” the Judicial Council said in Decision 1444.

“Decision 1366 cannot be construed as creating a self-executing right for an annual conference to separate because the Judicial Council has no legislative authority.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Directory for Clergy Retreat Centers

United Methodist camps and retreat centers across the country continually strive to provide intentional, sacred spaces where the faithful can find rest and rejuvenation. The leaders of these ministries see the heavyweight that our local church leaders have been carrying, especially over these past two years. In response, they have come together to create a resource for you to share with the clergy in your Annual Conference. The Clergy Retreat Directory is a list of UM sites across the connection that offer free or reduced-cost retreat space for United Methodist clergy.

ARUMC COVID Update – May 3, 2022

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a new metric called “COVID-19 Community Levels,” which is designed to “help communities decide what prevention steps to take based on the latest data.” These levels are a three-tier system (either low, medium, or high) that are selected based on criteria including hospital bed usage and new COVID-19 case rates.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arkansas Conference has provided guidelines based on similar metrics. However, with the development of these new CDC guidelines, the Conference will now be recommending the usage of the “COVID-19 County Check” tool provided by the CDC that allows a person to quickly find their county’s “COVID-19 Community Level” and relevant guidelines from the CDC based on that level.

This tool has been embedded on the Conference’s COVID-19 Response page at arumc.org/covid19 and takes the place of the Conference’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

The Conference continues to recommend following all CDC guidelines as applicable to your church’s situation. If you have any questions, please contact Amy Ezell at amy.ezell@arumc.org.

It’s Time for Camp!

It’s Time for Camp!

Colleen Holt

contributing writer

With Arkansas being called The Natural State, it’s only natural that the Arkansas United Methodist Church would offer opportunities for members of the faith community to spend time outdoors and grow closer to God.

There are four United Methodist camps and retreats in the state: Shoal Creek, Bear Creek, Mount Eagle Retreat Center, and Camp Tanako.

According to online information from Discipleship Ministries, “Christian camps and retreats invite persons and groups to sacred settings typically within the natural world where the creation can speak to their hearts of God. In tandem with the Holy Spirit, [camps] will give guests and participants unparalleled opportunities to focus on the deeper meaning of their lives by inviting them away from normal routine and distraction. These intentional times apart are a catalyst for new possibilities that embody the Church’s mission to nurture Christian discipleship and to engage persons in the transformation of the world through love and justice.”

For those closely tied to camping ministries in Arkansas, it is truly convincing that what is offered at their facilities can help others grow in their walk with God.

Katelyn Hiatt, executive director at Mount Eagle Retreat Center in southwest Stone County, said, “One of my favorite parts about camping and retreat ministries is hearing and experiencing God meeting people right where they are, no matter how they come to this place, whether they are broken, tired, lost, joyful, or at peace. God meets them, and this setting is prime for people letting go of their day-to-day and opening to God meeting them right here.”

Renee Henson, a trustee at Shoal Creek Camp in New Blaine (Logan County), couldn’t agree more. “There are so many special things about camping ministry that it is hard to pinpoint one thing. Being at camp has a tremendous impact on lives – whether you are an elementary school student, a youth or an adult, camp changes lives in ways no other ministry can,” she said.

Those who visit the camps quickly see that relationships are built through fun, study and just being together. “Relationships are built at camp that form life-long friendships and sometimes even marriage,” Renee said. “Playing outside, swimming, arts and crafts, bible stories, campfires, and sleeping in a cabin creates experiences like no other. After playing all day, campers are tired, and without television, phones, or video games to distract your mind, hearts are more open to hearing and experiencing God.”

Kayla Hardage, executive director of Camp Tanako, has special memories of her time spent at the camp during her formative years. “Having grown up coming to camp here, and working on Summer Staff, 15 years ago, I most look forward to the sunrises in the chapel or nightly worship around the fire pit on the lake. I often tell people that you do not have to be Methodist or even Christian to come to camp at Tanako, just come and be present. This place will work its magic!”

Shoal Creek

This summer Shoal Creek will celebrate 63 years of ministry. Located on 22 acres, the camp offers “a place for people of all ages to unplug from the world and build relationships with others and with God.”

“We have eight cabins that sleep 12, a cook’s cabin, a nurse’s cabin, two pavilions, a community hall and kitchen, and a pool,” Renee said. “Over the last several years we have improved camp by adding heat/air to five cabins, building bathrooms to the chow hall, adding a nine-hole disc golf course, a sand volleyball pit, a nine square in the air, and a Gaga pit. These are in addition to traditional camp activities of horseshoes, corn hole, swimming, kickball field, and a giant tree swing.”

Shoal Creek, called “a hidden gem that offers an affordable place for churches and ministries of all sizes,” obtained American Camping Association Accreditation in 2019. “This was a huge undertaking for a small camp that is mostly run by volunteers and a part-time caretaker,” said Renee.

“I am most proud of Shoal Creek because we have been able to keep our ministry as our first priority and I believe that’s why Shoal Creek is still in the camping ministry. We have been able to hire a summer intern the last five summers to help groups with their ministry at camp. This has been a great way to help a young person grow in their faith journey while providing a service to others.”

For more information, call (479) 438-1429 or visit the website at shoalcreekcamp.com or Facebook page at www.facebook.com/shoalcreekcamp.

Mount Eagle

Mount Eagle is a year-round retreat center that sits atop a mountain surrounded on three sides by the Middle Fork of the Little Red River. Located on about 1,000 acres, offerings include program resources for family and personal renewal and spiritual growth. All facilities are available to churches, small groups, families, and individuals for use when conference events are not taking place. Mount Eagle is also open to other not-for-profit groups and has been known to be the site for beautiful wedding ceremonies and receptions.

Mount Eagle will offer or host spiritual retreats, family getaways, mental and physical renewal trips, and everything in between. “Our goal is to help you have the most amazing retreat for you or your group. We offer miles of hiking trails, several fire pits, a volleyball court, river access, multiple places for personal and group worship, and amazing views of nature,” according to the website at mounteagle.org.

“Mount Eagle is a very special place for many people, it has been a place where people have been rejuvenated. People have experienced the comforting presence and peace of God. This place is also simply put, a place to rest. You cannot talk to many people without them mentioning the views. You walk onto the porch of our oldest lodge (Kaetzell) you will find yourself in awe of God’s wonder and beauty as you look out over the Little Red River,” said Katelyn.

For more information about Mount Eagle Retreat Center, visit www.mounteagle.org.

Camp Tanako

Camp Tanako, located in Hot Springs on Lake Catherine, has been a tradition of the United Methodist Church in Arkansas since 1948. The Mission at Camp Tanako is to welcome children, youth, and adults to a place set apart where they can grow in their faith by experiencing God through nature and time spent in community and respond to the call of the Holy Spirit.

“We are in the forever business, in that relationships built with Christ in this place give peace to folks throughout their life. We take pride in the joy we see in both children and adults, as they enter our space. Adults relive their childhood here and children are given the opportunity to try new experiences. Camp is a place where the pressures of daily life are lifted and each individual person has the opportunity to be present with themselves, something we all need to do more often,” said Kayla.

The summer of 2022 is chock full of activities at Camp Tanako, including a special camp called “Tanako To-go” for a children’s ministry to come to camp for the day. Reservations for this can be made by calling 501-262-2600 or emailing tanako@tanako.org.

“We are gearing up for Summer Camp 2022. We have hired 30 summer staff, including a few international students. We will offer nine weeks of programming this summer with day camp, overnight camp, and ‘Tanako To-go.’ Registration is live on Tanako.org/camps for day camp and overnight camp,” Kayla said. “Our curriculum this summer is ‘What’s in a Name’ by InsideOut, an Ecumenical community that writes summer camp curriculum. This summer we will look into how names have great power. Some hold special meanings and some come with expectations. In a lifetime, we may give new meaning to our name or take a new name. Along the journey, we discover who we are and how God equips us to care for others.”

For more information about Camp Tanako, visit their website at tanako.org or Facebook at www.facebook.com/camptanako.

Bear Creek Camp

Bear Creek Camp is a year-round camp and retreat facility located in the St. Francis National Forest, on Bear Creek Lake. Located seven miles from Marianna in eastern Arkansas, Bear Creek offers facilities, services, and programs for a variety of groups such as church, community, professional, civic, and school. This camp has been used for many years with Ozark Mission Project summer camps and has hosted numerous workshops and retreats. For more information, email Glenn Hicks, director, at glenn.hicks@arumc.org.