Glide, Divided

A holiday “hostile takeover” threatens Glide, as the United Methodist Church files a lawsuit seeking to control the nonprofit’s property and assets.

Terry Harpo fires up the crowd at a rally in support of Glide Memorial Church, June 21, 2018. Kevin Hume

At the storied Tenderloin church and nonprofit Glide, the holidays are a busy time. More than 10,000 toys are handed out to needy kids, people line up by the thousands for grocery-bag giveaways, and House of Prime Rib kicks over nearly 5,000 pounds of carved beef for the annual Christmas Eve Prime Rib Luncheon for those who cannot otherwise afford a meal that day.

But for some involved in the church and foundation, this year’s Glide holiday season will go down in history as one not quite so holly and jolly. The United Methodist Church (UMC) sued the Glide Foundation last week in San Francisco Superior Court, seeking a legal order to control all of Glide’s assets, including its properties at Ellis and Taylor streets. This isn’t a tiny request; Glide has an estimated $40 million in assets. 

“Due to the Glide Foundation’s blatant violation of the trust clauses that govern the life of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, we have been forced to file a lawsuit against the Glide Foundation,” Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the United Methodist Church said in a release. “Please know that we do so with heavy hearts.”

Carcaño heads the UMC’s California-Nevada Annual Conference (CNAC), a governance body that oversees nearly 400 Methodist churches in the northern California and Nevada region.

When the bishop stripped Glide of its clergy in June, she complained the church lacked a traditional Methodist focus.

“The great majority of the participants at Glide’s Sunday Celebrations claim other faiths, such as Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Wiccan,” Carcaño said in an email to pastors at the time. But that’s not all. The bishop has employed an evolving set of rationales to criticize Glide in the months since the dispute became public. In August, she told KALW that “there is corruption in the Glide leadership, starting at the top with, unfortunately, Reverend Cecil Williams.”

Williams, the trailblazing pastor who transformed Glide into a radically inclusive, gospel-singing congregation in the mid-1960s, remains on the Glide board of trustees despite retiring in 2000. His vision of providing free meals, shelter, and health-care services is still Glide’s primary mission.

The Glide Foundation is the nonprofit that owns and operates Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. Glide benefits from an unusual arrangement wherein the entire property was deeded to them by philanthropist Lizzie Glide in the late 1920s, providing more philosophical and financial flexibility than most Methodist churches.

But their work will be difficult if the Methodist Church takes control of Glide.

“We are deeply concerned that the CNAC and Bishop Carcaño are willing to jeopardize the important work we do in what appears to be an attempted hostile takeover,” Glide Foundation CEO Karen Hanrahan says. Glide went so far as to remove Bishop Carcaño from its board of trustees this summer, and deleted any reference to the Methodist Church in its bylaws.

This did not eliminate the threat of Glide losing the building it occupies at 330 Ellis St.

SF Weekly obtained a copy of the 1929 deed to that building, a legacy document peppered with old-timey dialect that is not consistent with modern contract language. But the deed is clear that early-20th-century cattle industry heiress Lizzie Glide did “hereby give, grant, deed and convey” that building and piece of land to the Board of Trustees of the Glide Foundation.

“My great-great-grandmother Lizzie Glide felt a strong call to serve others with compassion when she founded Glide almost 90 years ago,” Mary Glide says in a statement. “As a Methodist, I believe Lizzie would be proud of the inclusive, loving work we’re doing today, and saddened by the actions of the CNAC.”

The regional Methodist conference cites an even older document to exert that they are the true owners of Glide. The Methodist Book of Discipline, first published in 1784, contains a section called the Methodist Church Trust Clause which states that anything owned by a Methodist church actually belongs to the congregation’s leadership.

“All properties of United Methodist local churches and other United Methodist agencies and institutions are held, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination,” the clause says. That’s the precedent that CNAC is using in their lawsuit to exercise control over Glide’s building, budget, and operations.

“The Glide Foundation chose to pursue illegal and unauthorized action in an effort to sever Lizzie Glide’s Trust and Glide Memorial United Methodist Church from the Methodist Church,” CNAC alleges in the lawsuit. “In its shameful attempt to disaffiliate from the Methodist Church, the Glide Foundation breached its solemn, irrevocable promises to honor Ms. Glide’s wishes.”

But the CNAC may have motives other than merely enforcing church doctrine. Like most mainline Protestant churches, the United Methodist Church is suffering a decades-long membership decline. With that comes a steep decrease in donations, which church leadership describes as an economic crisis.

“By 2030, the denomination in the United States will either have found a way to turn around, meaning it is growing, or its turnaround in the United States is not possible,” Methodist economist Donald R. House Sr. told the church’s Finance and Administration board when they proposed their most recent four-year budget.

In contrast, Glide is in exceptionally healthy financial shape, and it remains one of the best-attended Methodist churches in the country. A 2017 audit by the independent accounting firm Armanino found that Glide took in nearly $20 million in contributions that year alone, a powerhouse sum for a single, individual church.

And Glide spent the majority of that on services for those in need. The audit showed Glide spent more than $5 million on free meals; nearly $3 million on family, youth, and childcare services; and additional millions on other humanitarian services like its health and harm-reduction program.

The Glide Foundation insists that charitable spending won’t stop this holiday season, despite the lawsuit.

“We are ready and well-prepared to meet this legal challenge,” Glide Foundation board chairperson Kaye Foster told the congregation at this Sunday’s service. “We are proceeding with all of our plans and programs as scheduled and do not anticipate disruption in our day-to-day operations, especially during this holiday time when we are serving up love and joy to thousands of San Franciscans.”

Both sides are scheduled to appear in court in May, when the courts will decide the spirit of the law.

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