With a potential United Methodist split still up in the air, an increasing number of U.S. churches already are heading for the exits.
At least five congregations of varying views on LGBTQ inclusion are now in talks to cut ties with The United Methodist Church — often at great expense.
In Maine, three congregations have overwhelmingly voted to leave the denomination they see as discriminatory toward LGBTQ people. The congregations — HopeGateWay, Tuttle Road and Chebeague Island — are now hammering out the disaffiliation details with the New England Conference.
“Some of us felt we could not be part of an organization that was so hurtful to LGBTQ folks,” said Gloria Brown, a member of the Chebeague Island congregation for more than 30 years.
In Houston, the nearly 300-member Bering Memorial Church voted April 18 by 95% to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church in solidarity with its LGBTQ members. The church, which has already reached a financial agreement with the Texas Conference, plans to join the United Church of Christ on June 2.
“Bering is a deeply Methodist church that has been deeply engaged in its entire history with Methodist service and witness,” said the Rev. Diane McGehee, senior pastor of the 173-year-old congregation. “This is a huge loss, but it’s an opportunity for Bering to finally live out its mission.”
Meanwhile, on the more traditionalist side of the spectrum, Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois — the largest congregation in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference — also has voted to leave. Church and conference leaders have a mediation session scheduled for April 22 to try to reach a settlement for departure.
The Rev. Shane Bishop, the church’s senior pastor, has been a leader with the advocacy group Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has worked to bolster church bans on same-sex weddings and noncelibate gay clergy. The pastor said he could not comment at this time because the church is in negotiations.
The congregation already has taken the step of reincorporating as an independent church.
These departures follow decades of denominational debate over homosexuality and defiance over church prohibitions, culminating in the contentious 2019 special General Conference. By a 438-384 margin, the United Methodist global legislative assembly reinforced the clergy and marriage restrictions as chargeable offenses and upheld the statement that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
But that relatively narrow vote did not end the conflict, and now The United Methodist Church faces multiple proposals to divide along theological lines.
No plan for denomination-wide separation can go into effect without the approval of General Conference. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed General Conference twice, with the international meeting now scheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis.
In the meantime, some churches are not waiting for General Conference to act.
A United Methodist News review of U.S. annual conference reports and publicly available journals found that altogether, the 54 conferences — church regional bodies — approved at least 51 disaffiliations in 2020.
That is still far fewer than the 305 church closures approved last year because the congregations were no longer sustainable. The number of disaffiliations also is only a tiny fraction of the more than 31,000 United Methodist churches nationwide.
The denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration, which collects United Methodist data, expects to release official totals later this year. Wespath Benefits and Investments, the denomination’s pension agency, also is closely monitoring trends in departures to ensure clergy pension liabilities are met.
“Disaffiliation numbers are still very small, and there has not been any negative overall impact on sustainability of the plans,” said Martin Bauer, the agency’s senior managing director of benefits plans.
Exiting The United Methodist Church is not as simple as taking a congregational vote. For centuries, the denomination has maintained a trust clause, which states that churches hold property in trust for the entire denomination.
To depart with property, most churches have used one of two provisions in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book. Both require churches to pay hefty financial obligations to their conference ranging from more than $100,000 to millions of dollars depending on the church’s size. Both also give annual conferences final approval over whether a church can leave.
One provision deals with churches that are closing as United Methodist congregations and allows them to purchase the property and assets as they move forward. The other, added by the special 2019 General Conference, allows churches to disaffiliate for “reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality if they meet certain criteria.
The Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, just upheld that new provision, but churches already have been using it since it first passed two years ago.
Under either provision, the disaffiliation process is time-consuming, stressful and expensive for churches and their conferences alike. Conferences are on the hook for such expenses as pension liabilities, equitable compensation of clergy and apportionments — shares of church giving — that support regional, national and international ministries.
The New England Conference also must consider planting new churches in areas where the Maine departures will remove the United Methodist presence, said the Rev. Karen L. Munson, the superintendent whose district encompasses all three churches.
“We continue to hold all of the members, those who voted for and those who voted against, in our prayers and will walk with them to the end of one road and the start of the next,” she said.
Bishop Scott J. Jones, who leads the Texas Conference, called the Bering Memorial congregation’s decision to disaffiliate “regrettable yet understandable given the decades of controversy about human sexuality.”
“We recognize that the congregation feels called to serve in ways that are not permitted by the United Methodist Church,” he said in a statement. “As Bering moves into a new denominational relationship, we wish them well.”
Before this year, the majority of disaffiliating churches have been on the traditional side of the theological spectrum. Most have left citing weariness with the debate or a lack of enforcement of the denomination’s bans related to homosexuality.
However, as the experiences in Maine and Texas show, an increasing number of progressive churches also are starting to use the disaffiliation provision passed in 2019.
The Bering Memorial and the Maine churches will join three other like-minded churches that already have left — Asbury Memorial in Savannah, Georgia; Grandview in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and the Maine congregation New Brackett Church on Peaks Island. Most of the congregations have been networking with each other.
Other New England churches also are weighing disaffiliation but do not plan to bring resolutions to this year’s annual conference. Two Maine churches — West Scarborough and Epiphany — have discontinued or suspended indefinitely any consideration of leaving.
The New England Conference has long sought the elimination of the LGBTQ restrictions. In 2016, conference voters supported a “non-conformity” resolution declaring the conference would not abide by the prohibitions.
Nevertheless, New England pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings or are openly gay still could face reprisals from outside the conference.
She said she has heard from gay couples who, when they think about their wedding days, feel fear about what could happen to the pastor who officiated. “That’s not the way it should be,” she said.
The New England Conference requires all churches contemplating disaffiliation to go through a discernment process of at least eight months. Each of the Maine churches, which began the discernment process in 2019, also had at least four meetings with church members and members of their community.
“This process has really brought our congregation together,” said the Rev. Linda Brewster, the pastor of Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland, Maine. Still, she said the vote to leave has not been without grief, especially for lifelong United Methodists.
One of the grieving is Bishop S. Clifton Ives, a Maine native who has made HopeGateWay his church home in retirement. He noted that the church, formerly Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, served as the “mother of Methodism in Maine,” helping to birth the Maine churches now disaffiliating.
As a bishop, Ives has no vote in the congregation or at General Conference. He said he has appreciated the full inclusion of HopeGateWay, which feeds his spirit, but he has taken a temporary leave of absence as the church negotiates its terms of departure.
“All my efforts now turn to praying for and working within the Council of Bishops for a better outcome at the 2022 General Conference,” he said.
Ophelia Hu Kinney is a HopeGateWay member as well as communications director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an advocacy group for LGBTQ equality within the denomination. She sees both leaving and staying as legitimate pathways toward change.
For her church, she said, the vote to depart came after long discussions with LGBTQ and young people.
“I think a lot of what they wanted to know: Is this a safe place for me to worship?” she said. “That’s what we had to respond to.”
Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
Like what you're reading? Support the ministry of UM News! Your support ensures the latest denominational news, dynamic stories and informative articles will continue to connect our global community. Make a tax-deductible donation at ResourceUMC.org/GiveUMCom.