Megachurch weighs leaving denomination

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The largest predominantly African-American United Methodist church is spending the month of July in discussion, prayer and fasting about leaving the denomination.

One of the largest churches in the denomination, Windsor Village United Methodist Church of Houston is listed at 18,042 members in the 2017 Texas Conference Journal.

“We’re working through it,” said Floyd LeBlanc, chair of the staff parish relations committee. “We’re praying and seeking wisdom and discernment from God for his preferred path for this congregation.”

The United Methodist Church will have a special General Conference in February 2019 to try to deal with longstanding divisions over the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, and LeBlanc said Windsor Village is weighing whether to remain under the stressful circumstances.

He said the church could not be summed up as traditionalist or progressive but is wary of getting distracted by denominational struggles.

“The primary issue from our perspective is the turmoil that The United Methodist Church is undergoing,” LeBlanc said. “It is evident to us that things will not be the same within the denomination on a going-forward basis. …. We’re trying to keep the focus on Christ and winning souls for Christ.”

Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones said he has met with the church’s leadership.

“I’m very sad that they are raising this issue,” he said. “I think it is premature for them to be talking about it. I am praying alongside of them and my prayers are focused on them strengthening their ties to The United Methodist Church.”

Jones added: “They’ve been a powerful ministry partner for over 30 years in the Texas Conference and the city of Houston.”

Windsor Village’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, made national news in March when a federal grand jury indicted him for wire fraud and money laundering in connection with bond sales. Caldwell, who continues to lead the church while awaiting trial, has strongly maintained his innocence.

LeBlanc said internal discussions about whether to leave the denomination have occurred intermittently at Windsor Village for years and that the pastor’s legal troubles have no bearing on the decision.

“The path the pastor is advocating is that we seek God’s guidance,” LeBlanc said. He added that church members will make the decision together.

Caldwell did not return a call requesting comment.

Jones described Caldwell as a “powerful ministry partner in the denomination” and emphasized that he’s presumed innocent until proven guilty.

But, he added: “Rev. Caldwell is under federal indictment. He faces a trial. Leaving The United Methodist Church makes it easier for him to resolve his legal issues.”

Asked to elaborate, Jones said, “A pastor who is convicted of a crime has an accountability issue in the conference he belongs to. Exactly how that would be resolved is uncertain. That’s a complication that would be part of his situation.”

A Q&A on the Windsor Village website notes that the church, if it leaves, would be free from about $1.2 million in annual apportionment obligations.

LeBlanc described the apportionment question as “secondary.” Windsor Village paid 19 percent of its apportionments in 2016, according to the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration.

Jones said the church has in the last 10 years paid between one percent and 59 percent, and for many years paid in full.

Under Caldwell’s leadership, beginning in 1982, Windsor Village grew from tiny to the denomination’s largest church in membership. The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, reports larger membership now, but Windsor Village is a close rival and remains one of the denomination’s top worship attendance churches.

Windsor Village has long been a major force in social outreach and economic development in its part of Houston.

Most of the church campus, including the 183,000-square foot Kingdom Builders’ Community Center, is under 501c3 ownership, LeBlanc said.

But he said the church’s 6000 Heatherbrook Drive location, home to some Saturday night and Sunday services, is owned by the Texas Conference. The Q&A notes that the church could lose access to that site.

Jones described the Heatherbrook site as owned by Windsor Village but held in trust for the Texas Conference. He confirmed that the Kingdom Builders’ Center is owned by a 501c3.

Windsor Village says in its Q&A that if it leaves The United Methodist Church it would not join another denomination, would plan to keep “Methodist” in its name and would leave its internal governing structure intact.

The Q&A matter-of-factly describes the denomination as “splitting” and speaks of “split plans” to be considered at the special General Conference. But the denomination has held together for decades despite tensions and bishops have recommended a “One Church” plan aimed at preserving unity while allowing local churches and conference more freedom regarding same-sex unions and ordination of gay clergy.

Jones said, “I’m telling many people, not just Windsor Village, that The United Methodist Church is seeking a way forward and that the talk about separation is premature.”

Windsor Village is not alone in its restiveness. A Mississippi Conference church has lately been trying to leave the denomination with its property, and two large Mississippi churches, The Orchard in Tupelo and Getwell Road in Southaven, left in 2017, after reaching a settlement with the conference.

Some in the denomination are arguing that the special General Conference should approve a “gracious exit” plan for churches.

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News Service. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, 

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The Orchard, which denominational data lists as the 16th highest in worship attendance in the U.S., and another large congregation, Getwell Road United Methodist Church, have each begun steps to leave the denomination. Photo courtesy of The Orchard

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