Indiana megachurch leaves denomination

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A view of the Granger, Ind., campus of Granger Community Church, which has left The United Methodist Church. It has been one of the denomination’s largest and best-attended churches, but leaders wanted to control who would be the next pastor. Photo courtesy of Granger Community Church.
A view of the Granger, Ind., campus of Granger Community Church, which has left The United Methodist Church. It has been one of the denomination’s largest and best-attended churches, but leaders wanted to control who would be the next pastor. Photo courtesy of Granger Community Church.
Granger Community Church, a 3,300-member congregation in north central Indiana, has left The United Methodist Church after agreeing to pay the Indiana Conference about $2.6 million.

The conference confirmed the departure in a July 13 statement, describing negotiations as “governed by mutual respect and a prayerful commitment to spread the love of Jesus Christ.”

The church’s administrative council chair, Barry Hall, said a key reason for leaving was to retain control over who would succeed the Rev. Mark Beeson, Granger Community’s founding pastor and leader for more than three decades.

“We knew GCC would need a new leader and wanted to choose our own leader, not have one appointed to us,” Hall said during a July 5 worship service.

Hall, too, described amicable negotiations, saying “God’s hand was evident in all our discussions.”

The conference’s statement addressed some of the specifics of Granger Community’s departure.

The Rev. Mark Beeson is now pastor emeritus of Granger Community Church, with campuses in Granger and Elkhart, Ind. In 1986, Beeson and his wife, Sheila, started the church in their living room with just a few other people. Under Mark Beeson, the church would become one of the largest in The United Methodist Church, but it has left the denomination after reaching an agreement with the Indiana Conference. Photo courtesy of Granger Community Church.
The Rev. Mark Beeson is now pastor emeritus of Granger Community Church, with campuses in Granger and Elkhart, Ind. In 1986, Beeson and his wife, Sheila, started the church in their living room with just a few other people. Under Mark Beeson, the church would become one of the largest in The United Methodist Church, but it has left the denomination after reaching an agreement with the Indiana Conference. Photo courtesy of Granger Community Church.
“Because Granger Community Church, like all United Methodist churches, held its property in trust for the benefit of the entire United Methodist denomination, the parties had significant negotiations leading up to this resolution,” the statement said.

The agreement did not involve a disaffiliation under the new Paragraph 2553 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. That paragraph, added by the special 2019 General Conference, allows churches to disaffiliate “over issues related to human sexuality.”

Instead, the departure was under another disciplinary paragraph that allows the closure of Granger Community as a United Methodist church. The conference then reached a $2.6 million purchase agreement with Granger Community, as a local unaffiliated congregation, for the assets.
 
“Of that, an estimated $524,000 will be deposited at Wespath (the denomination’s pension agency) for Granger’s portion of unfunded pension liabilities, and another $617,000 will be deposited in the conference’s retiree health subsidy fund at Wespath as Granger’s pro rata fair share,” the conference statement said. “The remaining funds represent two years of unpaid net tithes (apportionments) from Granger.”

Founded in 1986 by Beeson, his wife, Sheila, and a handful of others in the Beesons’ living room, Granger Community grew to become one of the denomination’s megachurches in membership, with even more impressive statistics in average worship attendance.

Granger Community ranked 10th among United Methodist churches in the U.S. in attendance, according to 2018 statistics kept by the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration.

The church has campuses in the Granger and Elkhart communities of north central Indiana and draws many to worship services and small group meetings who are not on the membership rolls.
 
Beeson, a Foundation for Evangelism Distinguished Evangelist award-winner in 2013, continued to lead Granger Community until last December.
 
He has openly shared about having pancreatic cancer and officially retired from The United Methodist Church on July 1. He remains pastor emeritus at Granger Community.

Church leaders have named the Rev. Ted Bryant, who has held various staff positions, as Beeson’s successor.
The Elkhart, Ind., campus is a second site for Granger Community Church. The church has been one of The United Methodist Church’s largest, but recently reached an agreement to leave the denomination. Photo courtesy of Granger Community Church.
The Elkhart, Ind., campus is a second site for Granger Community Church. The church has been one of The United Methodist Church’s largest, but recently reached an agreement to leave the denomination. Photo courtesy of Granger Community Church.
The United Methodist Church has had longstanding, intensifying conflict over how inclusive to be of LGBTQ people, and the coming General Conference faces multiple proposed separation plans, including one negotiated with help from a professional mediator. General Conference is now pushed back to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neither Granger nor the Indiana Conference referenced the separation possibility or denominational politics in addressing Granger’s decision to leave.

Granger Community has for years steered a somewhat independent course for a church within a connectional denomination, including paying a low percentage of apportionments.
 

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But the Rev. Kent Millard, president of United Theological Seminary and former pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, said Beeson and Granger Community helped United Methodist churches and others across the state years ago by undertaking an expensive legal battle to protect church property tax exemptions.
 
“I appreciated it, and I’ve told Mark (Beeson) that over and over,” he said.

Millard also credited Granger Community, under Beeson, as a pioneer in contemporary worship and in creating innovative, appealing Sunday school programs.

He said Beeson’s picture-painting style of preaching helped attract people who had little if any church background.

“He has a passion for spreading the good news of God’s amazing grace for all people,” Millard said. “The church began to grow under his inspiring leadership.”

The conference’s statement expressed gratitude, including from Indiana Conference Bishop Julius Trimble, for Granger Community’s “many ministries that have shaped many communities” and for Beeson’s “faithful service” over the years.

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Heather Hahn of UM News contributed. Contact Hodges 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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