The most-attended church and another large congregation in the Mississippi Conference have each taken the first steps toward leaving the United Methodist connection.
Lead pastors of both churches expressed frustration with the denomination’s intensifying homosexuality debate, calling it a “distraction” from ministry.
Parishioners at The Orchard, which denominational data lists as the 16th highest in U.S. worship, voted almost unanimously to begin the process of peaceful withdrawal. The tally at the Tupelo church was 1,025 in favor of withdrawal, 2 against and 4 abstentions.
The vote at Getwell Road United Methodist Church in Southaven, a Memphis suburb, was 782 for separation, 19 against and 7 unsure.
The Orchard has an average weekly worship attendance of about 2,700, and Getwell Road has a worship attendance of about 800. Both churches completed voting on Feb. 5.
However, Mississippi Area Bishop James Swanson Sr. doesn’t consider the votes binding and holds out hope the congregations will remain part of the connection.
“We are hopeful in the midst of this discernment that we can continue to talk and come to a point where we can stay connected together and walk together,” the bishop told United Methodist News Service. “That is my hope and my prayer.”
The Rev. Bryan Collier, the pastor who founded The Orchard in 1998, said his congregation thinks “we can reach even more people for Christ if we weren’t distracted by this argument.”
The Rev. Bill Beavers, senior pastor of Getwell Road United Methodist Church for 16 years, agrees.
He said the church’s leadership “has long expressed a desire to be able to withdraw from engaging in the distractions and move forward with ministry.”
“The large churches are among the most influential agents of our connection,” said Wilson, whose list for the past two years has included The Orchard.
“While some may think our current issues will be decided from the top, we cannot discount the enormous effect that lay people, living at the grass-roots level, have in making decisions about the future of the denomination.”
Both Mississippi congregations began discernment in the fall after the bishop talked to pastors about developments in the wider denomination, urging them to share the information with their congregations.
“I wanted to be transparent with them so they in turn could be transparent with their congregations,” Swanson said. “I wanted them to serve as a source of correct information so they could deflect rumors and misinformation that’s out there.”
Under church law, the denomination bans clergy from officiating at same-gender unions and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing" gay clergy. However, disagreement has intensified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals have gained more public acceptance, and more United Methodists have defied the bans.
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, in May authorized the bishops to form a commission to bridge the divide just a day after rumors of a potential split reached a fever pitch. The Commission on a Way Forward held its first meeting in January.
Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses states in the Western United States, elected and consecrated Bishop Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian, last summer. The Judicial Council, the denomination's top court, plans in April to take up a petition related to her election.
Collier and Beavers said they believe any ruling will only create more distractions for their congregations. Beavers, a reserve delegate at General Conference 2016, was disappointed the lawmaking assembly appeared indecisive.
“Last fall we began to discuss and prepare ourselves within our leadership for what direction we would have to take if/when a denominational split should occur,” Beavers said. “We wanted to be pro-active and prepared.”
Collier is on the leadership council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a new evangelical group that has urged the Way Forward Commission to find a way to uphold current church teachings on sexuality or prepare for a denominational split.
The Orchard and at least 77 other United Methodist congregations are affiliated with the association, which doesn’t require member congregations to be United Methodist.
Collier said his church’s vote is in no way a comment on or expression of what’s happening at the association. “This is not even a decision we are encouraging other churches to make,” he said.
The Rev. Jeff Greenway, a leader and main spokesperson for the association, stressed that the two congregations acted independently of the association, and the group still holds hope for the work of the Way Forward Commission. Two of the association’s leaders are on the commission.
“We continue to believe that those of us committed to the historic doctrine and discipline of The United Methodist Church are better off acting together and in connection with each other,” Greenway said in a statement. He is also lead pastor of Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio.
He told UMNS he is not aware of any other churches considering leaving.
No central United Methodist body keeps track of how many congregations disaffiliate from the denomination. Annual conferences each year report church closures to the General Council on Finance and Administration. Those numbers include disaffiliations, but most are churches closing because they no longer are viable.
Conference communicators, for the most part, say they have not heard of any other churches leaving or considering departure in the months since General Conference. A Kansas new church start voted to sever ties in 2016 but remained on cordial terms with the Great Plains Conference.
The Rev. Joseph Harris, assistant to the bishop and communications director in the Oklahoma Conference, said some congregations in his area are questioning what the future of the denomination will be.
Swanson said, in his experience as a bishop since 2004, “there are always churches that want to leave the denomination.” In many cases, the congregation’s unhappiness has nothing to do with the homosexuality debate. Even when it comes to debating the status of LGBTQ individuals in the church, his conference’s view isn’t clear cut.
“Contrary to what most people think about the Mississippi Annual Conference, I have people on both sides of this issue,” the bishop said.
At this point, Swanson said he is not aware of any other Mississippi congregations considering withdrawal.
In The United Methodist Church, breaking up is not necessarily hard to do, but it does require negotiation between the church and conference.
The Mississippi Conference can claim the property used by both congregations under the trust clause of the Book of Discipline, the church law book. The clause, which dates to 1797, states that local church properties are held “in trust” for the denomination, even if the congregation’s name is on the title.
In some cases, a departing church reaches a property settlement with the conference. In 2015, Wesley Church of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, paid the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference $100,000 for church buildings and land, along with an additional $58,000 in other conference obligations.
Sometimes, church property disputes end up in civil courts, which have a long track record of upholding the denomination’s trust clause. The Illinois Great Rivers Conference filed a lawsuit in 2015 seeking to keep property now used by breakaway congregation, Ohio Chapel. That lawsuit is ongoing.
Nobody in Mississippi is talking about litigation at this point, and both Collier and Beavers spoke of hopes for a peaceful and amicable process.
As separation discussions get under way, Swanson said he hopes to be both a good administrator of church resources and pastor to the congregations and their pastors. He is working alongside district superintendents in these talks.
“We’re trying to say to the congregation, ‘We love you,’” the bishop said. “This is a family quarrel, a family dispute. We don’t believe it’s worth separating over.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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