Author: Rev. Dr. Mark Holland, Executive Director, Mainstream UMC
The Liberia Annual Conference just voted to forward the Protocol onto General Conference with two terrible amendments. The first amendment would randomly divvy up $120 million of restricted funds. The second amendment would lower the threshold for annual conferences to vote to leave the UMC with a simple majority. These amendments sabotage the negotiated Protocol and risk the whole deal falling apart.
The Liberia Annual Conference is closely aligned with US Traditionalists and these amendments are exactly what is in their Indianapolis Plan and are exactly what they wanted during negotiations. Traditionalists wanted to dissolve the denomination, so everyone must leave and start something new. They wanted more money and they wanted a lower threshold for annual conferences to leave. Centrists and progressives pushed back at the negotiating table and the Protocol—as written—represents the compromise that has been reached. If these amendments from Liberia are passed, essentially the Protocol is dead, as it will have reverted back to the Indianapolis Plan. The deal will be off, the division will rage on, and we are likely headed to court. All in the name of Jesus.
Here are 5 problems with the Liberia amendments.
1) Lowering the voting threshold only helps US Traditionalists.
The current Protocol requires a 57% majority for an annual conference to leave the UMC. That is a compromise between the 50% the Traditionalists wanted and the 66% the Centrists/Progressives wanted. Liberia proposes going back to 50%. Liberia certainly has no need for changing the percentage. They voted 725-0 for this most recent legislation and they voted unanimously on all five constitutional amendments in 2017. Mercy, even Jesus had to go looking for the 1% of his sheep that voted against the flock! The Liberian brand of democracy is not dependent on 50%, 57%, 66%, or even 90%. But the voting in the United States will be much closer, which is why this percentage was the LAST item agreed to in negotiations. Since the voting threshold only affects the US, this amendment from Liberia looks like the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) is just using surrogates to circumvent the negotiations. The pressure is on the US Traditionalists to show this is not true.
2) The $120 million of “liquid cash” does not exist.
Despite what the Liberian document states, there are not $120,000,000 in “liquid cash” reserves in the UMC. This number, likely pulled directly out of a Good News article, includes items like the General Board of Global Ministries designated assets for Missionary Pension and Health. The UM General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) states clearly, “Income from donor-restricted endowments that is restricted for specific purposes or for time is not available for general expenditure.” Practically speaking, the $27 million already in the Protocol is a fair amount for those who wish to leave the denomination and honors restricted funds for those who remain.
One of the greatest benefits of the Protocol is it keeps us out of court to settle financial issues. Reports show that the Episcopalian church in the US has spent tens of millions of dollars in court to divide up tens of millions of dollars in assets. Digging more resources out of General Agencies would deeply damage their mission and no doubt trigger years of litigation. The Protocol—as written—resolves these financial and legal issues. The proposal from Liberia would be a disaster.
3) Even if there were $120 million, Liberia’s plan is far from “Equitable and Proportionate.”
Liberia resolves, “that the $120m liquid cash of the UMC be divided evenly between the five Jurisdictions in America and the seven Central Conferences outside of America to support ministries outside of America.” First, all five US jurisdictions have a super majority of delegates who are centrist and progressive; none are leaving the UMC and none want to divide up these assets. Second, the plan for money for the central conferences is remarkable. Northern Europe and Eurasia reports 9,200 members. Their ten-million-dollar share is over $1,000 per member! The Congo Central Conference has almost three million members. Their ten-million-dollar share would be about $3.34 per member. This is neither “equitable” nor “proportionate.”
4) This looks like a (another?) cash-grab.
In terms of background, Liberia is ground zero for the Africa Initiative. This is the African political arm of the WCA, Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). These four groups fund annual gatherings in Africa and hold gatherings prior to General Conference to shore up their political agenda. They have another such gathering planned prior to GC 2020 that features an all-expense paid trip to Asbury Seminary—a non-United Methodist institution that favors their political and theological agenda.
For a recent story on the proposed amendments to the Protocol, UM News interviewed Liberian General Conference delegate Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah. Dr. Kulah is the West Africa Central Conference Coordinator of the UM Africa Initiative and the dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Liberia (a ministry funded by all of us). He is a frequent speaker at WCA events and a regular speaker on the floor of General Conference. Dr. Kulah made a motion on the floor of GC 2016, successfully doubling the fund for Central Conference theological education from $5 million to $10 million—a fund that directly benefits the organization that pays his salary.
It is no surprise to see Dr. Kulah now calling for more money by amending the Protocol. According to the GCFA, the Liberia Annual Conference contributed $22,131 in apportionments in 2019. They have now asked for $10,000,000 cash to divide up between the four annual conferences in their central conference. That puts the Liberia Annual Conference in line for a $2.5 million windfall. Essentially, they are demanding the church pay them 113 years of their apportionments to leave. And, no one is asking them to leave. They are welcome to stay in the UMC—an invitation Dr. Kulah calls “colonial.”
5) The Protocol cannot be amended.
The hard reality is that the Protocol cannot be amended without risking the whole deal being lost. No, the process was not perfect and no, there were not enough people at the table. And yes, this deal is problematic for all sides. Nevertheless, we have a document unanimously supported by the groups that fought bitterly over the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan a year ago. We have a document that gives everyone a chance to move on with a blessing and without a lawsuit.
Mainstream UMC is committed to the Protocol and will argue against amendments, even amendments we might prefer, like raising the voting threshold to 66% or reducing the payout to zero. We agreed to the terms in good faith and we will stand behind them. We are also prepared to walk away from the Protocol if it is amended in favor of the Traditional side. There was give and take on both sides. I pray we can vote it through—as is.
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Here is a link to the Protocol: https://www.gracethroughseparation.com/legislation
Recent article about Liberia Annual Conference: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/liberians-want-changes-in-separation-plan
Good News Magazine’s Tom Lambrecht on Money: http://tomlambrecht.goodnewsmag.org/wheres-the-money/
See the note on page 16 of the GCFA report: https://www.gcfa.org/media/1780/general-board-of-global-ministries-12-31-17-financials.pdf
Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah advocates for doubling apportionments for Central Conference Theological Education. https://www.umnews.org/en/news/theological-education-fund-wins-big
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