Judge strips Naperville Korean Church of assets amid property dispute with United Methodist Church

A Korean Methodist church in Naperville has been stripped of its property and bank account while it engages in a legal battle for the assets with the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Since last May, Naperville Korean Church members have been involved in a property dispute that arose after they tried to break off from the state body following a disagreement over LGBTQ-related policies — and decided to take with them what they maintain are their rightful belongings, including buildings.

But last week, as the matter continues in court, DuPage County Judge Anne Hayes granted a preliminary injunction restoring possession of disputed property to the conference.

For more than a decade, Naperville Korean Church (NKC) — previously the Naperville Korean United Methodist Church — offered worship and prayer services from the property at 2403 W. Diehl Road. The congregation also had a parsonage at 2690 Bonita Court in Lisle.

For months, however, those properties have been a point of contention between NKC and the conference, with the latter arguing the congregation could either pay for them or return them. The properties, according to the conference, are held in trust for the larger denomination.

Instead of complying, NKC seized control of the properties and refused to relinquish possession.

When repeated requests from the conference failed to be addressed, the conference in October filed a complaint against NKC in DuPage County Circuit Court. The matter has been in litigation since.

Part of a larger rift

NKC’s rift with the Northern Illinois Conference is a microcosm of a larger schism within the UMC.

In recent years, United Methodist congregations across the country have been splintering off over disagreements on the role of LGBTQ+ people in the denomination.

Officially, the UMC still officially bans same-sex marriage and the ordination of any “self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” But progressive Methodist churches and regional governing bodies in the U.S. increasingly have been defying these rules. The UMC now has a number of openly gay clergy and two openly gay bishops.

Because of the deep conflict over LGBTQ-related policies, Methodist leaders in 2019 opened a five-year window for U.S. congregations to leave as long as they followed a set disaffiliation process. During that window, which sunsetted in December, a quarter of the U.S. Methodist congregations received permission to disaffiliate.

A vast majority were conservative-leaning churches, responding to what they saw as the United Methodists’ failure to enforce their own rules.

NKC requested disaffiliation in late 2022, court filings show.

The issue for NKC was primarily that of LGBTQ+ clergy, according to Angela Im, the attorney who represents the congregation in its dispute with the Northern Illinois Conference.

From late 2022 through spring 2023, the conference worked with NKC towards disaffiliation, according to its October complaint. But by May 2023, the process had broke down, NKC unilaterally parted ways and took hold of long-held property.

Im says it was a matter of NKC keeping property to which it had devoted resources for over a decade.

‘A real sense of pride’

The seeds for NKC were sown in 2008, when two local United Methodist congregations merged to become Naperville Korean United Methodist Church, according to court filings.

In 2011, NKC entered into a loan agreement with the United Methodist Development Fund to build a new church building at 2430 W. Diehl Road. The loan, per filings, amounted to $1.5 million, which NKC agreed to repay, with interest, over a 20-year period. The Northern Illinois Conference was the guarantor of the loan.

Five months later, the congregation acquired its Lisle parsonage.

Early on, owning its own church property was the congregation’s dream, Im said.

“It was just a real sense of pride of being able to have a church that was built by the Korean community, for the Korean community,” she said.

It was a “sanctuary,” especially for congregants that came from an immigrant background seeking a sense of familiarity, Im added. To that end, NKC is fighting for community as much as it is for property in its conference dispute, she said.

The conference alleges in its complaint that it tried to resolve differences amicably but that the congregation acted unlawfully.

Disaffiliation to dispute

Requirements of the UMC’s temporary disaffiliation process were enumerated in an addendum to its Book of Discipline, which dictates church law and doctrine.

The addendum also addressed transferring church property. It said a disaffiliation church had the right to retain property but that it would have to bear the transfer costs.

In April 2023, NKC voted to disaffiliate from the UMC, per the conference’s complaint. Meanwhile, NKC needed to pay for title transfer and outstanding liabilities and the parties negotiated a price, the complaint states.

However, NKC could not raise the necessary funds, the complaint alleges, and abandoned the disaffiliation process.

In May 2023, the conference sent representatives to NKC to assume control of assets. But upon arrival, representatives were denied access to properties and ultimately left, the complaint said. That left NKC in unlawful possession of the properties, according to the suit.

Im was present when conference representatives arrived to assume control, she said.

“There was a group of people, myself included, who were out there, who asked them to please leave,” she said.

Im’s parents are congregants of NKC, she said. The personal ties brought her onto the case, even though she has not practiced law in recent years, Im said.

Ahead of NKC’s encounter with conference representatives, Im said she notified Naperville police because she was concerned about what might happen.

City officials declined to comment on the matter.

“This was really about the fact that the chapel was not the place to forcibly resolve this issue,” Im said. “If we have a legal disagreement about who has legal title to the property, that should be resolved in court.”

Litigation ensues

The conference’s complaint alleges that per terms listed in the UMC’s Book of Discipline, which it deems as the “governing document” between itself and NKC, it has vested ownership of the congregation’s properties and bank account.

Central to the body’s claim is the book expressly imposes a trust on all property held by a local church for the benefit of the UMC, according to the complaint.

In turn, all written legal documents for properties held by local churches include a trust clause — including the deeds that conveyed property to NKC, court filings show. The implication of that clause, according to the UMC, is that if a congregation chooses to or can no longer function as part of the UMC, it forfeits all property ownership rights.

“We believe our United Methodist Book of Discipline is clear in what we call our trust clause,” conference spokeswoman Victoria Rebeck said, adding that “it’s been like a couple hundred years that this has been a part of Methodism.”

Yet a December motion to dismiss the conference’s complaint argues that “no trust cognizable under Illinois law was created by the trust clause.”

Beyond that, NKC “never agreed to be subject to (the Book of Discipline),” the motion says.

“I have seen nothing to show that (NKC) made any kind of a legal commitment with respect to the Book of Discipline or to the United Methodist Church,” Im said.

The conference counters that until its split, the NKC held itself as being part of the UMC, including “United Methodist Church” in its original name, using UMC branding, participating in conference/UMC activities and being led by UMC-appointed pastors, the complaint says.

“Every church is part of the fabric of the United Methodist Church,” Rebeck said. “So usually, a church cannot unilaterally decide (that it doesn’t) want to be a part of this anymore.”

Injunction and exit

After the injunction was granted last week, Im advised her clients to not step foot on church property or the parsonage, she said.

NKC, she said, is no longer operating as a church.

Meanwhile, others have taken its place, according to Rebeck.

During NKC’s falling out with the conference, there was a group of local congregants who, not wanting to leave the UMC, had been meeting on their own elsewhere under a UMC-appointed pastor, Rebeck said.

That group returned to West Diehl church property last Sunday for a service, she said.

Rebeck confirmed that as part of assuming NKC assets, the conference also will be assuming responsibility for the congregation’s mortgage payments for church property and any other debts.

The conference will work with individuals who might need to retrieve personal property from turned over buildings, she said.

NKC, which only exists as a legal entity now, Im said, still wants to “fight to regain the property as a resource for the Korean community,” while former NKC members are “trying to figure out what they do from here.”

The next hearing in the lawsuit is set for May 15, according to online court records.

Im said NKC is planning to start a GoFundMe campaign for a legal defense fund.

“I don’t have the litigation experience and the expertise,” she said. “We really need volunteer attorneys to step up and help us.”

The Associated Press contributed.