Understanding the Trust Clause
Local churches, however, use real property— buildings and land— for their bases of operation. Federal, state, and local laws require this property to be “owned” by some legal entity.
From the time John Wesley began establishing Methodist congregations on the American continent (late 1700’s), Methodist-chartered congregations purchasing property have been required in their deeds of purchase to include a “trust clause,” which commits the building to the grantee’s (denomination’s) ends and purposes. Similar expectations have long been imposed on former Evangelical United Brethren congregations. Such trust clauses serve important ends in our life together, but can become a source of conflict and hard feelings when not understood by folks in local churches.
What is at stake?• A Wesleyan Church: The trust clause ensures that the Wesleyan spirit and intentions of founding saints are protected. It guarantees that what our ancestors planted as Methodist, Evangelical, or United Brethren Churches will continue through the years to be infused and invigorated with Wesleyan DNA.
• A United Church: The trust clause links our local churches with other United Methodist local churches in a connectional network called, “The United Methodist Church.” We believe that many united are stronger and more resourceful than one alone.
• A Global Church: The trust clause helps us remember there is a world beyond the four walls of our buildings. Our connection calls us beyond parochial interests of local community into global mission and ministry.
• A Forgiving Church: The trust clause motivates United Methodists to practice compassion, forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation in the midst of conflict. Breaking up in The United Methodist Church is definitely hard to do. Our founders designed it to be that way.
• An Itinerant Ministry: The trust clause enables The United Methodist Church to send pastors who are mentored and equipped by the denomination to serve local United Methodist congregations. This helps ensure consistency, constancy, and quality of pastoral leadership.
• A Prophetic Pastoral Leadership: The trust clause frees pastors to be leaders instead of employees of the congregation, subject to the congregation’s (or a few powerful persons’) whims, moods, and agendas. Pastors are appointed and moved in a systematic and prayerful way by the Bishop according to the missional needs of congregations and the annual conference and the varied gifts of pastors.
What are the legal implications?• The title to United Methodist local church property is held by the local church, but held in trust for the whole United Methodist Church. Property is administered by local church trustees and subject to certain Disciplinary checks and balances.
• Although The United Methodist Church is a connectional system, it is not an “entity” possessing legal capacities and attributes.
The United Methodist Church does not and cannot hold title to property (¶139). An annual conference, however, may hold title to property just as local churches do.
• Bishops, superintendents, pastors, or members of local congregations (including trustees) do not own title to United Methodist local church property.
• The absence of a trust clause does not exclude a United Methodist local church from its connectional responsibilities or legal relationship to The United Methodist Church. The use of the name, customs, or polity of The United Methodist Church, or acceptance of appointed pastors, is sufficient to legally demonstrate a United Methodist identity. (¶2503.6)
• If a local church decides to discontinue its life as a faith community, The Discipline permits the local church trustees to carry out the recommendations of the charge conference regarding the disposal of property (¶ 2548.2) if the property matters are handled before actual dissolution.
• If a church abandons 1) the United Methodist relationship or 2) the property itself, The Discipline places decisions about disposition of property in the hands of Conference Trustees.
(From the pamphlet, Whose Church Is It Anyway? The pamphlet can be found and downloaded on the IGRC website at: www.igrc.org/cabinetresources)