- The Northwest Texas Conference has been especially hit hard by disaffiliations.
- The Rev. Margie McNeir led the effort to start a new United Methodist church in Amarillo, Texas, which was at risk of having no church in the denomination.
- Amarillo United Methodist Church was chartered on June 4.
The Rev. Margie McNeir couldn’t abide the very real prospect that her adopted hometown of Amarillo, Texas, with a population of about 200,000, would be without a United Methodist church.
So she decided to start one. At age 82.
“God has a sense of humor about retirement,” said McNeir, now 83.
The fruit of her labor, with others, was the June 4 chartering of Amarillo United Methodist Church.
It’s a ray of sunshine for the struggling Northwest Texas Conference, hard hit by disaffiliations. And it’s an answered prayer for Teresa Hoard and other faithful United Methodists of Amarillo.
“Love it, love it, love it,” said Hoard, who joined the leadership team McNeir pulled together for the church plant. “We’re a congregation. And we’re growing.”
The United Methodist Church’s long internal struggle over how accepting to be of homosexuality led its top legislative body to create a way for U.S. churches to leave the denomination with their property. Congregations must vote by two-thirds to depart, must meet certain financial obligations and must receive the majority approval of their conference.
The provision was approved at the 2019 General Conference and expires at the end of this year.
More than 4,800 churches — about 16% of U.S. churches since the church law took effect — have left so far, and more are lined up to go. Most are traditionalist churches whose frustrations with the denomination include what they consider lax enforcement of restrictions against same-sex weddings and ordination of noncelibate gay clergy. Many have aligned with the new, traditionalist Global Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church’s Northwest Texas Conference, which includes Amarillo, has long been a traditionalist stronghold. The conference passed a nonbinding resolution indicating its intent to join the Global Methodist Church in 2021. No other conference has taken a similar step, and no other conference has had such a high percentage of churches leave.
Last December, 145 of its 196 churches were approved for disaffiliation by a special annual conference session. As of July 1, due to further disaffiliations and a small number of closures, the Northwest Texas Conference will be down to 36 churches, a conference official said.
All eight of the previously established United Methodist churches in Amarillo have either disaffiliated or have voted to do so and await final steps.
That reality prompted McNeir to become a church planter.
“Selfishly, I chose to do it,” she said from the pulpit at a worship service before the chartering of Amarillo United Methodist Church. “Because I was determined that we would not be in Amarillo — my husband and I — without a home church.”
McNeir would seem an unlikely leader — and not just because of her age.
For one thing, she’s a clergy member of the North Texas Conference, having entered Dallas’ Perkins School of Theology at age 40, and going on to two lengthy appointments at Dallas-area churches.
McNeir retired for the first time in 2002, and she and her husband, Ridge McNeir, moved to Amarillo in 2014 to be close to their son, a physician.
“He inherited us in our old age,” she said, laughing.
The McNeirs began attending Amarillo’s historic Polk Street United Methodist Church, and in 2017 Margie McNeir became its executive pastor. She retired again in 2022.
When it became clear that Polk Street would join the other United Methodist churches of Amarillo in voting to disaffiliate — Polk Street did so Jan. 29, by a 75% margin — McNeir got busy.
With the blessing of Northwest Texas Conference officials, she pulled together an informational meeting on Feb. 19. Eighty-five people attended from various disaffiliating churches.
“From that number, we knew there was enough interest to begin working toward a United Methodist church in Amarillo,” McNeir said.
By March, McNeir had a group meeting for worship at The Craig, a senior living community in Amarillo. She took the lead with preaching, backed up by the Rev. Lane Boyd, a retired United Methodist pastor whose appointments had included Polk Street.
He speaks to the emotions he and others have felt at seeing that church disaffiliate.
“There’s a sadness about that, a grief, a loss,” he said. “Still, there’s joy about the Lord’s doing a new thing.”
Indeed, the new group of United Methodists in Amarillo began with about 50 in worship and soon outgrew The Craig’s chapel. Since Palm Sunday, they’ve been meeting at Amarillo’s St. Luke Presbyterian Church. The United Methodist service is at 9 a.m., and the Presbyterians worship at 11.
McNeir early on assembled a leadership team, chaired by Gary Pitner. For him, staying United Methodist honors his family’s Methodist background, but also the denomination’s efforts in health care, children’s homes, youth camps and more.
“I have so much deep respect for the work done historically through the United Methodist connection,” he said.
Hoard, another leadership team member, spoke of wonderful experiences her family had as longtime Polk Street members, but also of wanting to remain United Methodist and live out with the new group the denomination’s saying “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”
That includes affirming LGBTQ people.
“We don’t want anyone not to feel welcome here,” she said.
The new group’s weekly attendance — including 85 on Easter — and its organizational strength persuaded conference officials that it was ready to move beyond worshipping community status.
So on June 4, at St. Luke Presbyterian, the Amarillo United Methodist Church was chartered.
McNeir offered the welcome and pastoral prayer at the worship service. Bishop James (Jimmy) Nunn, who oversees the Northwest Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma Indian Missionary conferences, preached.
“We’re not chartering this for us,” he said of Amarillo United Methodist. “We’re not chartering it for The United Methodist Church. We’re chartering it for the community and the world.”
Attendance for the worship service was 135, filling all but the front row of the sanctuary. Afterwards, most everyone moved on to the fellowship hall for the chartering conference and a Cracker Barrel-catered lunch.
The Rev. Felicia Hopkins, district superintendent, noted how quickly chartering had been achieved and how many things had fallen into place.
“The next time somebody asks you about a miracle,” she told the chartering conference, “I want you to tell them the story of Amarillo United Methodist Church.”
Hopkins also joked about being on the receiving end of McNeir’s work.
“I’ll be laying in the bed at 10:30 at night, and I’ll get a text from Margie,” she said.
The new church has been appointed a pastor — the Rev. Robert Burke, who had been serving Stratford (Texas) United Methodist Church, which chose to disaffiliate. He doesn’t start until later this month but came for the June 4 service and conference.
“I’m thrilled,” he said of his new appointment.
Much uncertainty awaits the Northwest Texas Conference, and with such a dramatic loss of churches, its identity as a separate conference is in doubt. Nunn said the South Central Jurisdictional Conference will eventually make conference boundary decisions.
“The work of God through The United Methodist Church is going to continue in this region, and that’s what’s important,” he told UM News.
Several new worshipping communities have popped up around the conference in recent months, including one that meets in an apartment complex activities room in Dalhart, Texas, and another that gathers in a funeral home in Clyde, Texas.
The role model so far is Amarillo United Methodist Church, and many credit McNeir.
“She just has no quit,” said Wes Reeves, who has moved from Polk Street to the new church, strongly wanting to remain United Methodist. “Someone would have eventually done this, but I think she was the catalyst for doing it so quickly – and doing it right.”
Boyd, McNeir’s clergy helper with the church start, went further.
“I compare her to Esther in the Bible. `For such a time as this’ she has been among us and given us stellar leadership.”
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