MOBILE — The United Methodist Church's (UMC) Alabama-West Florida Conference (AWFC) elected to approve a rule clarification by its Board of Trustees which would prevent over 200 disaffiliating clergies from receiving retirement benefits. 

The UMC is currently undergoing a significant division as traditional churches are pursuing disaffiliation in light of a growing faction of progressive Methodists pressuring the church to change its Book of Discipline, which sets forth the law and doctrine for UMC churches. 

Since December, over 500 Methodist churches have left the UMC in Alabama alone.

"High levels of attention have been given to the topic that has now been called to your attention," said AWFC Insurance Committee chair Lucas Tribble at Tuesday night's session of the AWFC's annual conference held in Mobile at the University of South Alabama. "The primary question that the insurance committee focused on is who is the fiduciary responsibility of the Board of Pensions and Health benefits of the (AWFC) of the [UMC]?"

Tribble argued that the AWFC's fiduciary responsibility is not to retirees who are no longer members. He said several conference leaders met with an attorney to discuss the legality of the clarification, who suggested that the AWFC is not required by law to continue supplying benefits. 

Some delegates stood up and spoke against the rule clarification.

Another lay delegate from Montgomery suggested this rule clarification could impact 272 clergies of disaffiliated churches. 

"The retired clergy at age 70, 80, 90, they cannot go out on the street," he said.

Longtime minister John Ed Mathison claimed to personally know a disaffiliated clergy member who has cancer and will now lose treatment because of the new clarification. He said that he didn't think people who have already disaffiliated were informed that this might happen and used the conference's approximately $7 million surplus as justification to continue support.

AWFC Treasurer Suzanne Jones confirmed the conference has a surplus and went into detail about its finances. The surplus is at least in part due to disaffiliation payments made by churches that have already voted to leave the conference.

However, Rev. Allison Posell, chair of the AWFC's Board of Pension and Health Benefits, said pastors considering disaffiliation who contacted the conference about questions pertaining to pensions should have been instructed to contact the Health Benefits office.

"I don't have names because that's kept confidential in that office," Posell said. "But I do know… that information was passed that there would be no guarantee that they would be able to keep post-retirement medical coverage."

"My momma taught me a few things about theology," began lay delegate Mark Bethea of Shalimar United Methodist in Shalimar, Fla. "What she taught me was that two wrongs don't make a right. You may think you've been wronged by these people who have left. You may have been hurt by that, but two wrongs do not make a right. My momma taught me that you can have everything in life that you want if you help enough other people get what they want. I built my business on that. I believe that it works. I know that it works. Said another way, you can treat other people like you want to be treated. Would you want to be treated like this?"

Other delegates spoke in favor of the clarification, reiterating Tribble's point about fiduciary duty and suggesting that the conference put the surplus to other uses, such as supporting new churches and expanding benefits for the clergy who decided to stay in the denomination. 

After delegates spoke, Posell made a summary statement and claimed that though she couldn't offer specifics due to confidentiality, "some of the names of clergy that have been discussed around this issue, the information has not been fully true."

Following Posell's statement, AWFC Bishop David Graves brought the motion to a vote. Delegates voted to accept the rule clarification 258 to 88. 

"I'm very disappointed in the vote tonight," Bethea told 1819 News following the vote. "I don't think it represents our church well. Certainly, that's just my opinion. It's very hurtful. I think it's hurtful to the body, and I think it's hurtful to the people."

"Taking retirement benefits away from the clergy who faithfully served our churches for 40-plus years who have disaffiliated reveals the depths of how low the new power structure in the Alabama West Florida conference will sink to," said Rev. John Blount. "It might be legal, but it is cruel and goes against the most basic understanding of justice and righteousness. Our clergy and lay delegates who voted for this should be ashamed. This is very sad."

Blount is the senior pastor at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Panama City, Fla.

1819 News reached out to Tribble for comment and did not receive a response.

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