“Gracious exit” is a term has been around since the early days of the Commission on A Way Forward (CoWF). What started as a discussion about what was best for churches who could not remain in the connection after this General Conference has become synonymous with an easy way for a church to leave the UMC. “Gracious exit” is a seductive prospect to churches who want to leave the denomination for any reason. However, it should not be so easy for a church to leave the denomination.
This entire conversation has been framed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and Good News. Various people have written articles on websites of both organizations pushing for an easy out. And, I have recently seen a letter written by the WCA to some delegates urging them to support the exit discussion before any plan is considered. (The WCA appears to be busy forming a new church at the moment. Maybe that is why exit is such a priority).
The conversation around “exit” has been framed for one purpose: some conservatives want out. They are tired of arguments, of holding different values, of holding different theological beliefs, and of protests, and they have no desire to remain in connection. These leaders claim that they are pushing for an exit so that progressives can leave. They often frame it in terms of an amicable divorce. Intentionally or not, they are missing the point: LGBTQ-affirming United Methodists do not want to leave the UMC. If we wanted to leave, we would no longer be a vital part of our Church.
Capitalizing on high tensions, opponents of LGBTQ justice have been marginally successful with their schismatic effort to recruit churches (moderate, progressive, and conservative) to support an easy exit.
I hear on a fairly regular basis from those who wonder if we should pass exit legislation first, thinking that some conservative delegates will leave the General Conference or abstain from voting because they will have accomplished their objective. Or, I hear from advocates for LGBTQ inclusion who want a more consistent exit process if we are to be pushed out of the Church.
Neither scenario would advance the mission of the Church to which we are entrusted or the safety and dignity of LGBTQ people in the Church. Delegates are unlikely to leave the General Conference early. Alternatively, no one can push us out unless we allow them to do so.
Friends, there are multiple plans and/or single petitions before the General Conference that relate to exit. They have different parameters around congregational votes, effective time period (one-time deal or permanent), pension fees, unpaid apportionments, repayment of grants and loans, congregational debt, withdrawal fees, etc. Some suggest sources of funds to pay for the impact of exits that would negatively impact United Methodist mission on the global stage. Others don’t seem to address the cost at all. Few of us can accurately articulate the impact on the general Church of a significant exit. Even fewer of us can articulate the impact on clergy retirement of a clergy person in a church that votes to leave its Annual Conference.
It’s time to hit the STOP button. “Gracious” exit is a plan for schism, and we can expect the dissolution of the Church to begin if we make exit our first focus at General Conference. We have been through an anxiety-ridden last few months, and we are not serving the best interests of United Methodists in our global connection, its tradition, and its mission if we address anything other than the way forward as a first order of business. Exit is not a way forward.
This General Conference will be emotional and chaotic. This is a unique moment in the life of our church, and it may call for a one-time exit process before it is over, but this General Conference is neither the time nor the place to make decisions that could impact the financial stability of The UMC and/or the retirement value of the pensions of clergy. Such a decision needs to come after a recommendation from those skilled in financial planning who review the impacts of potential legislation on clergy and on the Church.
I will close by reiterating that it should be hard for a church to leave the denomination. Our mission – the work apportioned to this Church – requires our cooperation. Exit was never meant to be as cavalier as the plans before us make it out to be. For that reason, The United Methodist Church relies on a trust clause. Now is not the time to talk about exit. Remind delegates from your AC: now is the time to find a way forward together and to do the work of the Church.