The purchase and use of United Methodist Church members’ names and addresses by the Institute on Religion & Democracy has come under fire in the denomination’s North Texas Annual (regional) Conference.
The conference passed a resolution Tuesday, June 3, at its annual meeting, demanding IRD cease using names and addresses that it bought from the now-defunct UMR Communications Inc., which did printing for many area United Methodist churches.
Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, this week obtained a temporary restraining order against IRD’s use of the names and addresses.
Mark Tooley, president of IRD and a United Methodist, said in a statement:
"We are in communication with Christ UMC Plano and hope for a resolution satisfactory to both sides in the coming days. IRD purchased the UMR list in good faith because we are interested in reaching as many United Methodists as possible with information about the renewal and reform of The United Methodist Church."
IRD is a Washington, D.C.,-based conservative Christian group committed to monitoring and reforming what it sees as the liberal trajectory of mainline Protestant denominations.
The Rev. Jack Soper, pastor of Arapaho United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas, and author of the resolution, said many members of his congregation and other North Texas Conference churches got a letter from IRD in May.
The envelope carried the headline “Help Keep Renegade Bishop from Wrecking United Methodism,” and the letter criticized retired Bishop Melvin Talbert for officiating at a same-sex union in defiance of church law. The letter also appealed for funds for IRD.
“What I got from a number of people was, ‘Who got my contact information?’” Soper said.
The Rev. Don Underwood, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, said he sought an injunction with the district court based in Collin County, Texas, because he too had complaints from members.
Some members complained about the letter’s contents, but more wanted to know how IRD had gotten their name and address.
“Our primary concern was the security issue around the proprietary information, that being our membership rolls,” Underwood said. “We guard that information very carefully.”
UMR Communications was a Dallas-based nonprofit that published The United Methodist Reporter and did printing and mailing for churches and other nonprofits, including many North Texas Conference churches.
Though a United Methodist Reporter website continues under new ownership, UMR Communications closed last year for financial reasons, ending its contract printing work for churches and the print edition of United Methodist Reporter.
Alan Heath, who was president/chief executive officer of UMR Communications, confirmed that he heard from IRD, asking about the possibility of purchasing a mailing list, on May 16, 2013, the day the company announced it would be ceasing operations.
He said he agreed to sell a list of roughly 160,000 names for $50 per thousand, or $8,000.
“It did not seem prudent to turn down any opportunity to bring much-needed revenue to the company that would help us meet obligations to our employees, vendors and customers,” Heath said in a prepared statement.
Heath added that he made the decision on his own, without consulting the nonprofit company's board, since the board had authorized him to liquidate assets.
“In the heat of the moment, I did not consider that the information might not actually belong to UMR Communications, but rather the individual churches and conferences that had contracted with us to produce individualized editions of The United Methodist Reporter or independent newspaper editions,” Heath said in the statement.
“I now realize that the information was proprietary to the particular churches and conferences that provided it to UMR Communications to print and distribute their newspaper editions.”
Heath said he heard from an IRD official again last July, asking him to confirm that IRD owned the list.
“I immediately responded that they did not own the list and only paid to use it,” Heath said his statement. “I never intended or anticipated that the IRD would sell the information or otherwise make it available to third parties.”
Christ United Methodist Church’s request for a temporary restraining order alleges that IRD has shared the list with another organization.
“We know they have already sold this information to someone else,” Soper said during discussion of the resolution Tuesday.
Soper’s resolution was introduced, discussed and approved by a show of hands, just before the end of the conference’s annual meeting. It was amended to apply to any other groups that might have purchased a mailing list from UMR Communications, though Heath said he dealt only with IRD.
The resolution demands that IRD, “to whatever extent possible,” return to local churches the contact information.
Among those speaking for the resolution was Charles Harrison, a partner in CircuitWriter Media, the company that has continued the United Methodist Reporter online site. Harrison said he and his partners never had access to the UMR Communications database of names and addresses but had received many complaints about the IRD letter.
Tooley said in his statement that IRD "is committed to what is legal and ethical. Nobody is placed on our permanent mailing list unless requested, and requests to be deleted are always honored as quickly as possible."