Court rules on exiting clergy and churches

April 27, 2023 | by Heather Hahn

Court rules on exiting clergy and churches

Clergy who leave The United Methodist Church do not surrender their clergy credentials unless they are facing some other disciplinary action, the denomination’s top court ruled.

“Clergy who withdraw from their annual conference membership by written request or by simply leaving their appointment have not surrendered their credentials unless action is taken against them,” the Judicial Council said in Decision 1482.

The decision was among five rulings the church court released April 25 that deal with church disaffiliations.

For more than 200 years, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained that church property is held in trust for the entire denomination.

However, under Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline, U.S. congregations have a limited right to exit the denomination with property if they meet certain financial and procedural obligations. The church law — passed by the 2019 General Conference after decades of intensifying debate over same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy — expires at the end of this year. 

Among the provision’s requirements is that the disaffiliation receives at least a two-thirds vote by the congregation and majority approval by the congregation’s annual conference — a regional body with voting members from multiple churches.

So far, 2,469 congregations have cleared the necessary hurdles under Paragraph 2553 to withdraw. That represents the departure of about 8% of The United Methodist Church’s U.S. congregations since the church law took effect in 2019.

Paragraph 2553 allows annual conferences to add requirements for disaffiliation that are not inconsistent with the provision, and the Judicial Council has previously upheld various conference additions.

However, the Judicial Council said the Wisconsin Conference went too far when it added as part of disaffiliation that a church’s pastor must notify the district superintendent in writing of the pastor’s intention to remain in The United Methodist Church, retire or surrender credentials in order to continue to lead the local church after disaffiliation.

“An annual conference cannot condition disaffiliation of a local church on any such statement by clergy, especially one which incorrectly states that withdrawal or surrender of conference membership is a surrender of credentials,” the Judicial Council said.

At heart, Decision 1482 deals with the distinction between a clergyperson’s conference membership and their credentials.

United Methodist clergy are not members of congregations but of their conferences. Paragraph 360 of the Book of Discipline allows clergy in good standing to withdraw from their conference membership and transfer to another denomination.

Clergy typically lose their credentials only under complaint of violating church law or if they are a provisional member who has withdrawn from or been discontinued in the ordination process.

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Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or