Members of two Mississippi congregations led by the same pastor have chosen to leave The United Methodist Church.
At First United Methodist Church in Louisville, Mississippi, 175 people present voted to withdraw their membership from the denomination, six voted to remain and one was undecided. All 22 people gathered at nearby Bevill Hill United Methodist Church voted to leave.
The congregations’ vote on March 25, Palm Sunday, follows two large Mississippi Conference churches — The Orchard in Tupelo and Getwell Road in Southaven — exiting the denomination in 2017.
In all four cases, lead pastors expressed growing frustration with The United Methodist Church’s ongoing debate around how accepting the church should be of homosexuality.
“We feel like the direction of the church and the ability of the church to deal with the issues that it’s facing has deteriorated over a long period of time,” said the Rev. Mike Childs, the pastor of the two Louisville congregations. The churches are about 95 miles northeast of Jackson.
Childs said the votes' timing at the start of Holy Week was not intended as any kind of statement. It was set by the conference so five conference officials could attend.
The votes only mark the beginning of a process that could lead to the congregations’ departure.
“Both churches are still continued as United Methodist churches of the Mississippi Annual Conference with the Rev. Mike Childs as their appointed pastor,” said the conference’s Bishop James E. Swanson Sr. in a statement to the conference.
“Neither church has officially been closed as a United Methodist church,” the bishop added. “The results of those called church conferences only begin the process of discerning the viability of the churches and their future with The United Methodist Church.”
Swanson declined to elaborate on the statement.
The Mississippi Conference can claim the property used by the congregations under the trust clause of the Book of Discipline, the church policy 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.
Sometimes church property disputes end up in civil courts, which have a long track record of upholding the denomination’s trust clause. Sometimes conferences and churches reach a settlement.
Under settlements reached with the Mississippi Conference last year, both The Orchard and Getwell Road congregations left with their property in exchange for each paying a full year’s apportionments — the giving requested to support conference and district ministries.
According to the 2017 Mississippi Conference journal, The Orchard had incurred $4.5 million in property debt and Getwell Road $3.7 million in property debt. In both cases, appraisals put the sales value of the property at significantly lower than the debt.
Speaking of The Orchard property, the journal said “accepting the liability on the property while trying to organize a new church in that location would cause a severe financial hardship on the conference.”
Childs said his churches — which also have debt — will negotiate with the conference on a settlement to keep their property. “We will negotiate in good faith and believe they will as well,” he said.
However, conferences should be leery of letting churches go too easily, said the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr. A former pastor in Mississippi, he is now a senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and professor of church leadership at United Methodist Wesley Theological Seminary. Weems wrote about the trust clause last year in the essay “What’s at Stake when Schism is an Option?”
“The burden should be on those who choose to leave,” Weems told United Methodist News Service. “People have been free to join or leave all along. It’s that you shouldn’t leave and take the church with you.”
Weems said it is especially hard to see the departure of a church like First United Methodist in Louisville, which he said has a long history of raising up pastors for the conference.
He also observed that what’s happening in Mississippi does not appear to be happening in other conferences at this time.
The Mississippi departures come amid intensifying debate around how the denomination ministers with LGBTQ individuals.
At present, the denomination’s Book of Discipline says that while all people are of sacred worth, the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book bans the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and the blessing of same-gender unions. However, some individual pastors and conferences publicly defy those policies.
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, in 2016 authorized the bishops to form a commission to help them bridge the divide just a day after rumors of a potential split reached a fever pitch. The bishops have called a special General Conference in 2019 to take up legislation they are submitting based on the commission’s recommendations.
Childs was a delegate to the 2016 General Conference and could have returned in 2019. The lead pastors of Getwell Road and The Orchard were reserve delegates, meaning they had a potential vote whenever other members of their delegation were unable to do so.
Now, none of those pastors will be at the special General Conference. With the March 25 vote, Childs said he has surrendered his place in the Mississippi delegation.
“It doesn’t matter what General Conference passes because the progressive side will ignore it,” Childs said. “When there is not the will to enforce the Discipline by those who are charged to do it, there is little alternative for us.”
Childs said he has confidence in Bishop Swanson to enforce the Discipline but not in most other bishops.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an unofficial advocacy group, has been pressing bishops to strictly enforce church laws related to homosexuality. Childs is not a member of the group, but he said some members of his congregations are.
He added that he also is dissatisfied with the two options for the church’s future that the bishops currently are considering bringing to General Conference.
“Both of the options, which the bishops indicated that they plan to submit, make a place under The United Methodist Church umbrella for LGBT practice, ordination and weddings,” he said. “We just believe that violates Scripture. Given these realities our vote on the matter was quite predictable.”
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.