Friends of the Alabama-West Florida Conference,
Happy New Year. As we journey together through Epiphany, I pray God will reveal to you a sense of peace and clarity in 2023.
In early November, I shared with you that the Commission on the General Conference announced that the 2024 United Methodist General Conference will be held April 23 – May 3, 2024, at Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. This much-anticipated gathering will be an important time for the future of The United Methodist Church. I would ask that you begin to pray for this important event in the life of Methodism.
As I have shared on many occasions, I am asking churches in the Alabama-West Florida Conference to consider postponing any vote regarding separation from The United Methodist Church until after the 2024 General Conference. In these times of misinformation, assumptions, and fear mongering, we will have factual information following the 2024 General Conference to make prayerful and strategic decisions. Knowing that the disaffiliation procedure outlined in paragraph 2553 of The Book of Discipline sunsets on 12/31/23, the leadership of our annual conference is working diligently to provide an exit option that extends beyond this deadline. With that in mind, I am grateful to share the following information with you as we move forward together in a new year of mission and ministry:
1. At a special-called meeting on October 16, 2022, the members of the Alabama-West Florida Conference Board of Trustees adopted a resolution to allow local churches within the Alabama-West Florida Conference to exit the denomination under paragraph 2549 of The Book of Discipline after the sunset of paragraph 2553 on 12/31/23. The resolution reads, in part:
After the expiration of the provisions of ¶2553, the current Disaffiliation Policy and any other applicable Disaffiliation Policies and Procedures approved by the Trustees, the Trustees will utilize the provisions of ¶2549 which vest the Trustees with the power to administer the disposition of property of a closed church, along with a process, terms and conditions similar to ¶2553, and consistent with policies and procedures approved by the Annual Conference and/or the Trustees as a policy for local churches that desire to leave the Denomination; and it is FURTHER RESOLVED that a local church shall have a limited right to exit the denomination pursuant to the new policy authorized by this Resolution upon a vote of a two-thirds majority of the professing members of the local church present at the properly convened church conference, which shall become effective upon expiration of ¶2553 and extend no later than the first day of the 2025 Annual Conference; and it is FURTHER RESOLVED that any agreement that may be required as a result of the adoption of this Resolution or any policies resulting therefrom shall require approval by a majority vote of the Annual Conference.
2. At their meeting on December 8, 2022, the members of the Alabama-West Florida Cabinet agreed to present a motion to the regularly scheduled annual conference meeting June 11-14, 2023, to give annual conference support and authority to the Board of Trustees resolution mentioned above. If adopted by the annual conference, this motion would create an annual conference policy pertinent to paragraph 2549.2.4.c. that gives direction to the Conference Board of Trustees regarding local churches seeking to exit after the 2024 General Conference. The cabinet motion is as follows:
"If a local church within the bounds of the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference requests by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference to exit the denomination between January 1, 2024, and March 15, 2025, pursuant to the Resolution of the Board of Trustees of Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference adopted on October 6, 2022, then the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church directs the Board of Trustees to dispose of all the real and personal, tangible and intangible property of the exiting local church by conveying all the real and personal, tangible and intangible property to the exiting local church upon the exiting local church paying any unpaid apportionments since January 1, 2019, as well as an additional 12 months apportionments, and paying a withdrawal liability in an amount equal to its pro rata share of any aggregate unfunded pension and post-retirement medical obligations to the annual conference."
Several have asked whether the Annual Conference Trustees and Cabinet have the authority to do this work and fear a rule of law being sent to the United Methodist Judicial Council with the potential to overturn these decisions. In 1992, the General Conference voted to add language around disposing of property in paragraph 2549 of The Book of Discipline, and annual conferences have used this paragraph on several occasions for churches to depart the denomination under a variety of terms since then. Let’s stop living in fear and go forward in faith. As stated in the resolution, these matters must be confirmed by the Alabama-West Florida Conference. At the end of the day, property decisions ratified by the annual conference are final.
3. Finally, I am announcing today that there will be a called special session of The Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference on Saturday, August 24, 2024, for the Alabama-West Florida Conference to consider any decision that could be afforded or required of us following the 2024 General Conference. We will use the regular June session of our 2024 Annual Conference to give information for prayerful decisions to be made at the called special session on August 24, 2024. Additionally, this special session will provide annual conference ratification for local churches that feel they need to exit the denomination after the 2024 General Conference under the terms outlined in the Board of Trustees resolution. This special session is in addition to the two previously announced sessions on May 7, 2023, and November 12, 2023.
While all of this information may sound technical and deeply detailed, I hope the spirit of our work is clear: we are seeking to do all we can to allow churches to remain a part of The United Methodist Church until after the work of the 2024 General Conference is complete. I would ask that you would join me in prayer that decisions made at the 2024 General Conference will provide us opportunities that will unify our work and give options for all of us to make conference decisions that glorify and magnify God’s work in this corner of the world called the Alabama-West Florida Conference. Again, I believe that congregations can only make their best decisions when all the information is on the table. We are seeking to do all we can to give everyone this opportunity.
I am grateful to each of you for the many ways you live into our mission of making disciples. Our Kingdom work can be difficult, at times, but through our United Methodist connection we can rely on one another to bring light in the darkness.
During these days, I would ask you to join me in praying what the early church prayed in Acts Chapter 4: 29-31.
“And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power, may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
I am encouraged by the 31st verse, “After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.”
When is the last time you prayed for boldness in the name of Jesus? For it is possible following the 2024 General Conference the Alabama-West Florida Conference will be unified in ways that we have not seen in our lifetime. I see a vision of the United Methodist Church flourishing in ways that will make some churches that previously disaffiliated want to rejoin us. We will gladly welcome them back. May God bless you and your ministry in 2023.
Bishop David W. Graves
Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church