- The largest United Methodist conference in the U.S. has put a hold on allowing congregations to disaffiliate from the denomination.
- In a statement, conference leaders said they arrived at the decision because so much misinformation was being spread that they couldn’t trust the validity of congregational votes.
- With the denomination’s disaffiliation law set to expire at the end of the year, the decision has been met with both celebration and consternation.
- Meanwhile, at least two conferences are already exploring other ways for handling church exits.
Citing widespread “defamatory” misinformation, the North Georgia Annual Conference leadership has suspended the process for its congregations to exit The United Methodist Church.
“As a result of the misleading, defamatory, and false statements and materials shared with local church members,” leaders of the United Methodist regional body announced in a Dec. 28 statement that they “do not have confidence in the validity” of upcoming church disaffiliation votes.
The leaders said, for that reason, the conference “will not accept disaffiliation requests at this time nor will the conference board of trustees negotiate disaffiliation agreements.”
Instead, leaders said, the conference would revisit the disaffiliation process after the next General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly now scheduled for April 23-May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The leaders said the wait would allow churches to gain real — rather than inaccurate or hypothetical — information about the denomination’s future.
The announcement was signed by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, the conference’s appointive cabinet and its board of trustees.
The North Georgia decision — which caught many in the conference by surprise — marks a dramatic turn in the denomination’s slow-motion separation after decades of intensifying debates over LGBTQ inclusion.
The conference, which covers most of the northern half of the state including the growing Atlanta area, is the largest such regional body in the U.S. with more than 320,000 members and multiple megachurches. Just as Georgia has become a battleground state in U.S. politics, the state’s most populous conference has long been a battleground in church politics as well.
Not surprisingly, some Georgians reacted to the conference leadership’s decision with relief while others reacted with outrage.
The move comes after months of what a number of church leaders decry as false, negative rhetoric about the future United Methodist Church from backers of a breakaway conservative denomination that launched in May. Members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the traditionalist advocacy group that organized the new Global Methodist Church, dispute claims of dishonesty.
The conference’s halt also comes as the clock is ticking on a church law that allows U.S. congregations to leave with property if they meet certain conditions.
Among those requirements is at least a two-thirds vote for disaffiliation by the congregation and majority approval by its annual conference, which consists of voting members from multiple congregations. The church law, Paragraph 2553 in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, is set to expire at year’s end — months before the coming General Conference.
Already, U.S. annual conferences have approved the disaffiliations of more than 2,000 congregations since the church law took effect in 2019. That total, representing less than 7% of U.S. United Methodist churches, includes 71 church disaffiliations that the North Georgia Annual Conference approved this past June.
The North Georgia Annual Conference initially expected to take up more disaffiliation resolutions again this June. The conference called for churches considering withdrawal to have a months-long discernment process and wait until January or February to start scheduling any congregational votes.
Now any such disaffiliation votes are on indefinite hold.
Over the past several months, a number of churches in discernment have hosted presentations by speakers arguing for why congregations should go or stay.
Jeff Jernigan, a United Methodist layman and General Conference delegate long active in the denomination’s traditionalist movement, has been among those speaking at churches making a case for disaffiliation. He told United Methodist News that so far two churches where he was scheduled to speak have now cancelled his events.
Jernigan said he sees this move as preventing holy conferencing and as disenfranchising traditionalist churches.
“The impact is going to be the very thing we’ve tried to avoid for this whole time ... this horrible witness of Christians suing each other in secular court,” he predicted.
Devin Gordon, a lay United Methodist who has been making presentations about why churches should stay in the fold, has a different take.
“I am excited that we can finally focus on mission and ministry at our church and stop impairing our witness to others,” he said.
At the same time, he said, he was saddened that the conference felt it needed to take this action. “But the fear-mongering got so bad that the conference felt that that they had to make a decision,” he said.
Both Gordon and Jernigan and their families are members of McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church in Powder Springs, Georgia, which had been engaged in the disaffiliation discernment process and is still considering next steps.
Jernigan said he is hoping that cooler heads will prevail and the conference leadership will soon revisit its hold on church exits now that North Georgia has a new bishop.
The conference leadership released its announcement the last week of Haupert-Johnson’s tenure in the conference. On Jan. 1, she began leading the Virginia Conference, and newly elected Bishop Robin Dease now leads North Georgia. In its announcement, the North Georgia Conference leadership said Dease was kept in the loop on the decision.
The North Georgia Conference announcement includes a lengthy question-and-answer section about the reasoning behind blocking disaffiliation. One answer lists 11 examples of what the conference identifies as some “of the most pervasive misinformation” being spread through social media, videos and PowerPoint presentations that champion disaffiliation.
No one disputes that for decades the denomination has debated same-sex marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. The denomination’s Book of Discipline currently prohibits both, though those bans have faced increasing defiance in parts of the U.S. and Europe. A subsequent General Conference could change the bans.
The North Georgia Conference takes particular issue with statements that go beyond the homosexuality debate to say The United Methodist Church is abandoning basic tenets of the Christian faith such as the resurrection and divinity of Christ. These doctrines are found in the denomination’s Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, and are not up for debate.
One of the most widespread examples of misinformation the conference identifies is the statement that has appeared on multiple church websites: “The UMC’s theological impasse is rooted in our differing beliefs regarding the authority of the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible, its impact on how we live out our faith, and the Lordship of Jesus.”
Dan Parr, president of the North Georgia Wesleyan Covenant Association chapter, said that the statement is true and reflects a sincere theological disagreement. Saying so, he said, should not be considered defamatory.
“Our position is and has been that beliefs and practices in the UMC have changed without changing the Book of Discipline,” he said by email. “We have never said that ‘all United Methodists’ or ‘all bishops’ believe x, y or z.”
Randy Hardy, who has been encouraging people to stay United Methodist, said he doesn’t think there is as much a “theological impasse” as some of the “leave UMC” advocates have described. Hardy, who is also a McEachern United Methodist Church member, is the author of “The Matter at Hand — A United Methodist’s Laity Perspective About What’s Really Going On.”
“It’s certainly true that all followers of Christ don’t always agree with every theological interpretation of others,” he said, “but that’s OK because it’s also true that Scripture speaks into each of our lives differently on purpose, by God’s own design.”
The Rev. Dalton Rushing, senior pastor of Decatur First United Methodist Church and General Conference delegate, said that because of the misinformation, the conference didn’t have much of a choice but to call a halt.
“My hope is that this decision gives everyone a chance to pause and reflect on where God is leading us,” he said. “I also hope that the pause gives churches in North Georgia the chance to focus less on denominational politics and more on evangelism.”
The North Georgia Conference did not have a firm number on how many churches were considering disaffiliation when the announcement came down.
First United Methodist Church in LaGrange was among the churches in the discernment process.
Page Estes, the congregation’s director of stewardship and development, said the church is still digesting the news and hopes more information will be forthcoming.
“We’re going to continue following our mission to make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world at the corner of Broad and Trinity streets in LaGrange, Georgia, now, just like we have been for almost 200 years,” she said. “We’re committed to that mission.”
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