Editor’s note: This article was updated with new information about disaffiliations on June 16.
Carolyn Moore assumed that her Evans, Georgia, church would be one of the congregations disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church (UMC). Across the country, as of June 16, more than 5,800 churches have separated along the lines of the deep fissures in the denomination: LGBT acceptance and Methodist authority structures.
But for a long time, Mosaic UMC looked like it was going to get stuck in the UMC.
Moore, Mosaic’s lead pastor, waited for directions on the process from the North Georgia Annual Conference, the regional UMC body, which had told churches they could send notice of their intent to disaffiliate starting on January 1, 2023. But the conference paused the disaffiliation process before it began.
North Georgia leaders sent an email to pastors in December 2022 saying they had concerns that local churches had relied on “misleading, defamatory, and false statements and materials” to make their decision to leave and join a new Methodist denomination, the Global Methodist Church, calling the discourse “antithetical to the concept of a gracious exit.”
Moore said she made “a hundred phone calls in the weeks after that email, hoping for some conversation partner who might help us make a way through,” but nobody in conference leadership would step up.
To date, about 20 percent of the approximately 30,000 Methodist congregations in the US have disaffiliated under the conditions set out by the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2553. But there are hundreds more, like Mosaic, whose members want to leave but can’t.
The decision to pause the process for churches in the North Georgia Annual Conference didn’t just delay the timeline; it meant they could lose any chance to disaffiliate, a formal process that allows churches to keep their property. The denomination’s addition to its Book of Discipline permitting disaffiliation “over issues related to human sexuality” sunsets at the end of 2023. And since one step in the leaving process is the annual conference approving a church’s departure, churches need to hold their disaffiliation votes before the annual conference meets.
Some annual conferences are adding extra meetings to their schedules to process all the disaffiliating churches. Others are less charitable. In March, the North Carolina Conference announced that it was closing Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church of Wilmington ahead of the congregation’s vote to disaffiliate. Conference leadership said in a statement that the decision came after “careful consideration and prayerful discernment.” But church members were blindsided by the announcement that their 170-year-old congregation would cease to exist.
“Fifth Avenue never asked for, agreed to, or wanted the closure, nor were its members ever given a chance to participate in the decision to close the church down,” member Justin Pope said in a statement.
Even when a congregation can work through the process, they can end up in a place of deep ambiguity. Tri-Lakes UMC, in Monument, Colorado, is in this sort of wilderness season.
The congregation voted on whether to disaffiliate from the UMC. Though 56 percent of the congregation elected to leave, the church did not reach the two-thirds threshold needed for the vote to pass.
A small pro-disaffiliation group, about a tenth of those who voted, has left to plant a conservative church in a nearby town. Pastor Bob Kaylor suspects that many of the 175 who voted to disaffiliate will follow. He has encouraged Tri-Lakes members to stick around and see what happens next at the church. But he’s leaving too. In May, after 13 years at Tri-Lakes, he took a position at a church that has voted to disaffiliate.
Each choice presents challenges, he said.
Staying in the UMC is “going to be challenging financially, and in terms of people and resources. I pray for them and hope they are able to sustain and thrive in the vision they have for the future,” Kaylor said. “It will be challenging for those who leave, too. Getting connected to a new church, starting a new church—those are hard. People carry their grief and scars.”
Scott Field sees pro-disaffiliation churches taking any exit route they can find. The Northern Illinois leader of the Wesleyan Covenant Association is working with 14 churches in his region. Only one has been able to complete all the requirements for disafilliation.
The other 13 churches might not make it out, because either the vote will be too close or the costs too high. Paragraph 2553 says separating churches need to pay unfunded pension liabilities. A conference’s boards of trustees may also require disaffiliating congregations pay a third or even half of the value of a church’s assets and property.
When a congregation doesn’t have the votes to disaffiliate, Field said, conservative members might leave and start new congregations. Sometimes the conservative members of several congregations will band together to start a new church.
In other situations, conservatives will join other local congregations. Field calls these the “meandering Methodists,” leaving out the side door.
For the churches in Northern Illinois trying and failing to navigate the disaffiliation process, “stuck” doesn’t convey the deep frustration they feel.
“They feel like the system is rigged against them, their leaders are corrupt, and the conference just wants their money,” Field said.
Left with no other options, churches in North Georgia filed suit against the conference on March 30 as a way to bring conference leadership to the negotiating table.
David Gibbs filed on behalf of 186 churches in North Georgia. He has also represented churches in litigation against the UMC in Florida and North Carolina, though those cases have both been dismissed.
Judge George Wright, in his ruling dismissing the case that 71 Florida churches filed against the Florida Annual Conference, acknowledged that the plaintiffs might have a legitimate case, but under Florida law the civil courts do not have jurisdiction to adjudicate church governance issues.
In his videoconferences with the churches he represents, Gibbs hears frustration and hurt from members who cannot understand why their annual conferences are making the process so difficult.
“They could let these churches leave for nothing if they wanted to,” he said.
Despite the frustration, disaffiliating pastors want to see the UMC pursue vibrant, God-glorifying ministry, even when they will not be part of it.
Stephen Sparks, pastor of Maples Memorial UMC in Olive Branch, Mississippi, feels called to align with the Global Methodist Church. More than half of the members of Maples likewise believed that the church should not be in the UMC, but the movement to disaffiliate failed by about 20 votes.
Some members of Maples voted to stay because they did not see a theological reason to leave; others felt loyal to the denomination they have always called home. And Sparks believes some were put off by the nearly $600,000 disaffiliation price tag calculated by the annual conference.
Like Kaylor in Colorado, Sparks will leave his UMC congregation and find a place to serve in the GMC. But he maintains hope for Maples UMC and the denomination at large.
“This is an opportunity for realignment for both the Global Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church to be who they are called to be and do great ministry,” he said. “There are people on the other side theologically that I dearly love, and we are great friends, and the only thing that will change is I will have to work harder to see them.”
Moore’s frustration with the North Georgia Annual Conference is compounded by her personal relationships with people in leadership, whom she believes to be good people.
“These are followers of Jesus,” she said. “They are not the enemy. We just have this disagreement about the future of the UMC, and it has put us in a place that none of us hoped to be in.”
As the deadline for disaffiliating drew nearer, there was a looming possibility that Mosaic Church will remain where it has been—stuck in a denomination, with no way out.
Finally, a Georgia judge ruled that the UMC cannot just press “pause” on the disaffiliation process. In fact, Cobb County Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Schuster ruled, the North Georgia Conference “has an affirmative duty” to assist any church wishing to exit.
On June 13, Mosaic Church held a congregational vote: 95 percent said they wanted to leave the UMC.
Megan Fowler is a writer in Pennsylvania.
Correction: Paragraph 2553 does not require disaffiliating congregations to pay a set percentange of church assets and property value. A conference’s board of trustees may set those requirements.
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