Glide Memorial Church,” Francisco Gonzalez

July 15, 2018; San Francisco Chronicle

In San Francisco, a high-profile faith-based nonprofit is in a battle with its parent organization, the United Methodist Church, over a combination of differing belief systems and control over assets.

The nonprofit in question is Glide, an 89-year-old politically progressive congregation that also provides a variety of funded services to the public. It appears that Glide wants out of the relationship before it gets pillaged for its assets, something that has reportedly happened to other UMC-related congregations (see below). Following a move by UMC in June that stripped the church of both of its pastors—here’s a video of the congregation’s reaction to that move—Glide revealed it has stripped any mention of UMC from its revised articles of incorporation and has removed the bishop’s seat from its board.

The organization can surely stand on its own; it has solid funding, a number of high-powered executives on its board, and 12,995 church members—more than any other Methodist congregation in California. The relationship between the church and the congregation started to fray with the installation of a new bishop who tried to evict  pastor Cecil Williams from the position he had held for 55 years for “egregious disregard for church rules.” Williams remains as an active part of the congregation. Now UMC is complaining that Glide refuses to formally share its financials with them, unlike other congregations, and, of course, because it is a faith institution, Glide has no responsibility to share them with the public either, though it is certainly unusual to receive so much in public support and have no reporting requirements.

But Glide’s new CEO, Karen Hanrahan, says finances are not the issue:

Hanrahan disputed criticisms about Glide’s transparency. She said that as a member of Glide’s board, regional Bishop Minerva Carcaño has received a full accounting of the nonprofit’s finances, which Hanrahan described as rigorously managed. Following months of internal discussion and in an effort to be more transparent, Glide has decided to begin submitting financial information to the Internal Revenue Service starting next year, Hanrahan said.

“I want people to know we’re not hiding anything,” she said. “Glide’s financial management is very strong.”

So, what is the issue? In part, it may be political; the whole church is in an internal war over same-sex marriages. Glide has a long history of supporting them, and the new bishop brings a more conservative outlook. But, there’s also the matter of money. It seems that founding documents placed some of Glide’s assets in a trust for the UMC, enabling the denomination to make a claim on Glide’s valuable real estate near downtown San Francisco as well as millions of dollars raised by the congregation.

Trust agreements like these have been used by UMC to tear congregations from assets they have built over the years.

St. Luke’s Church in Fresno was ordered to forfeit its property in 2002 after it broke with the UMC over a disagreement about same-sex marriage. Its land and building were later awarded to the congregation after an appeal to a higher court. Similar feuds recently unfolded in Mississippi and West Virginia.

“The denomination says, ‘If you want to leave, you can walk out the door, but everything you own, everything your members donated, everything their parents donated, is mine now,’” said Daniel Dalton, a land-use attorney who represents Glide. “It’s really about money, and if it’s a valuable piece of property, the denomination is going to push back.”

This is not the only local case; this one is perhaps even closer to home, with its combination of church and service organization:

In 2014, the UMC sued an affordable housing group, Jones Memorial Homes, that was affiliated with a long-standing Fillmore district church. The UMC argued that the denomination had been illegally excluded from the nonprofit’s membership, and it tried to claim some rights over Jones Memorial Homes’ $50 million in equity and land.

The court, however, found that the nonprofit was clearly independent from the church. The case was dismissed in 2016 for statute of limitations reasons. It still had a sweeping impact on the congregation, which saw its membership plummet during the legal battle.

Glide has plans to try to separate the nonprofit formally from its own church— presumably to protect its assets by making a clear distinction between the church and other activities—and potentially from UMC as well. It’s also declared it will begin this year to report its finances to the IRS on a Form 990 return. But those are the legalities. Going back to the meeting where the announcement was made that the pastors had been reassigned:

Poet Janice Mirikitani, Williams’ wife and co-founder of the modern-day Glide, then rose to speak, and there was no trouble hearing her. She recalled that when she and her husband took over the church, some members left, “but thousands more walked in.”

“We’ve been hit by trains before, but guess what?” she said. “We have a choice to get off the damn track and take control of our lives, take control of this church.”

Finally, the crowd was on board with a speaker, standing and clapping.

“The church is not a denomination,” she continued. “The church is the people.”

—Ruth McCambridge