What is “The Trust Clause” — and What Does it Mean?

By May 16, 2019

When you hear a reference in the conversations about the future of our denomination to something called “The Trust Clause,” do you, like most people, nod knowingly as if you understood what they’re talking about? You know it has something to do with church property, but what?

The Trust Clause has been around for a long time in the Methodist movement. It goes back to 1750 when John Wesley first crafted it for three early Methodist meeting houses in England. After several revisions, the Trust Clause as we know it today was passed at the 1796 General Conference under the leadership of Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke. The Trust Clause is contained in all the deeds of all the churches in the denomination.

Simply put, the Trust Clause states that the local church owns the property in trust for the annual conference. If the property ceases to be used as a United Methodist Church, then it reverts to the annual conference of which that church is a part.

The reason that the Trust Clause is part of the current conversations about the future of the denomination is the question of what happens to the property if a church leaves the denomination. In the absence of following a prescribed procedure to allow the church to exit and take its property, the property stays with the annual conference.

Because of the Trust Clause, the question on many minds since the called session of the General Conference has been, If our church decides to become part of some new expression of Methodism, will we be able to keep our property? The straightforward and simple answer to that question is YES.

The affirmative answer to that question came from a recent ruling of the Judicial Council, the highest church court. In its April meeting the Judicial Council ruled on the constitutionality of the so-called “gracious exit” plan that was passed at the called session of the General Conference in February. In that decision, the Judicial Council modified an earlier decision and upheld legislation that simplifies the process for churches to leave the United Methodist denomination with their property.

With this decision, the Judicial Council ruled that any General Conference legislation permitting such an exit must meet three minimum requirements:

  • Approval of the disaffiliation resolution by a two-thirds majority of the professing members of the local church present and voting at the church conference.
  • Establishment of the terms and conditions, including the effective date, of the agreement between the annual conference and the exiting local church by the conference board of trustees in accordance with applicable church law and civil laws.
  • Ratification of the disaffiliation agreement by a simple majority of the members of the annual conference present and voting.

Bishops confer over the issue of whether the legislative committee can refer items to the denomination’s Judicial Council for review during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Clockwise from lower left are Bishops Thomas Bickerton, John Schol, David Bard, Julius C. Trimble and Cynthia Fierro Harvey. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

While this “gracious exit” legislation takes effect immediately, Dr. Bruster emphasizes that it is extremely important to remember that our church has no immediate plans for disaffiliation. “Disaffiliation is not in my vocabulary,” he says. “We’re not going to disaffiliate and become an independent church. We are Methodists and Methodists are connectional. If we cease to be UNITED Methodists, we will be affiliated with some new expression of Methodism. This legislation opens up more avenues for new Methodist expressions without the conflicts and legal challenges we have seen in other denominations.”

While important, deep, and thoughtful conversations are taking place across the denomination where clergy, bishops, and laity are imagining together what a new expression of Methodism could look like for 21st Century, nothing official has yet emerged.

“This is a thoughtful process we are engaged in, and meanwhile we will continue to fulfill our mission to Love God, Serve People, and Transform Lives through our mission and our ministries,” Dr. Bruster emphasizes. “We are staying true to the priorities set in our Focus First strategic planning process, including creating facilities that serve our mission; making sure everyone has opportunity to join a life-giving Grace group, providing a spiritual home for youth in Fort Worth, and becoming a church whose diversity reflects the Kingdom of God.”

Dr. Bruster, you may remember, will be part of an upcoming meeting in Kansas City May 20 – 22 to which clergy leaders and lay leaders from every annual conference in the United States have been invited to discuss what our way forward could look like. Watch for details about information sessions led by Dr. Bruster regarding the outcomes and insights from this meeting following his return.

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Organization: The Church as Connection (from umc.org)

Terms: General Conference, Jurisdictional Conferences, Central Conferences, Annual Conferences, Districts, Charge Conferences and Local Churches

United Methodist leaders often speak of the denomination as “the connection.” This concept has been central to Methodism from its beginning.

The United Methodist structure and organization began as a means of accomplishing the mission of spreading scriptural holiness. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, recognized the need for an organized system of communication and accountability and developed what he called the “connexion,” a network of classes, societies, and annual conferences.

Today, our denomination continues to be organized in a “connectional” system, which “enables us to carry out our mission in unity and strength” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 701). Every local church is linked to an interconnected network of organizations that join together in mission and ministry, allowing us to accomplish far more than any one local church or person could alone.

Within the connectional structure of The United Methodist Church, conferences provide the primary groupings of people and churches for discernment and decision-making. Wesley described Christian conferencing as a spiritual discipline through which God’s grace may be revealed. At every level of the connection, church leaders and members come together in conversation, or conferencing, to discuss important issues and discover God’s will for the church. The word, conference, thus refers to both the assembly and organization of people as well as the process of discerning God’s call together.

General Conference

As the primary legislative body, General Conference is the only entity with the authority to speak on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church. The General Conference meets every four years to consider the business and mission of the church. An equal number of lay and clergy delegates are elected from United Methodist conferences around the world to decide matters of policy and procedure for the denomination. Learn more.

Jurisdictional Conferences

There are five geographic jurisdictions, or regions, in the United States, which are comprised of eight to 15 annual conferences each. Learn more.

Central Conferences

In Africa, Europe and the Philippines, there are seven geographical regions, called central conferences, each of which is comprised of annual conferences and divided into several episcopal areas. Learn more.

Annual Conferences

The annual conference is a geographical entity, an organizational body (made up of elected lay and clergy members), and a yearly meeting. It is the fundamental body of the church (Book of Discipline, ¶ 11). Learn more.


Each local church is part of a district, which is an administrative grouping of churches in a geographic area. Learn more.

Charge Conferences and Local Churches

As the visible presence of the body of Christ, the local church is the place where members grow in faith and discipleship, putting their faith into action through ministry in the world. Learn more.

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Constitutional Structure (from umc.org)

Terms: General Conference, Council of Bishops, Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church does not have a central headquarters or a single executive leader. Duties are divided among bodies that include the General Conference, the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council. Each of these entities is required by our Constitution, a foundational document, to be part of our structure, and plays a significant role in the life of the church.

General Conference

The General Conference, the primary legislative body of The United Methodist Church, is the only body that speaks officially for the church. Meeting once every four years to determine legislation affecting connectional matters, it is composed of no fewer than 600 and no more than 1,000 delegates.

Working within the boundaries of the Church Constitution and General Rules, the General Conference defines and fixes the conditions, privileges and duties of church membership; the powers and duties of elders, deacons, diaconal ministers and local pastors; and the powers and duties of annual conferences, missionary conferences, charge conferences and congregational meetings. It authorizes the organization, promotion and administrative work of the church. The General Conference also defines the powers and duties of the episcopacy, authorizes the official hymnal and book of worship, provides a judicial system and procedures, initiates and directs all connectional enterprises of the church and enacts other legislation for the operation of the church. Learn more.

Council of Bishops

The Council of Bishops gives general oversight of the ministry and mission of the church and spiritual leadership to the entire church connection. Composed of all active and retired bishops, the council meets as a group at least once a year.

Bishops are elected by Jurisdictional Conferences and assigned to a particular area, made up of one or more annual conferences. Each bishop provides oversight of the ministry and mission of annual conferences in his or her area and appoints all clergy to their places of service.

Through its Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, the council builds and maintains ties with other Christian denominations as well as other faith groups. Learn more.

Judicial Council

As the denomination’s highest judicial body or “court,” the Judicial Council’s nine members, made up of laity and clergy, are elected by the General Conference and normally meet twice a year to consider whether actions of the various church bodies adhere to the constitution and follow the rules outlined in the Book of Discipline.

Their cases are generally referred to them by action of the Council of Bishops, the annual conferences or the General Conference. According to the Constitution, decisions of the Judicial Council are final (Paragraph 57, Article III). Learn more.

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UMC.org Glossary

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