by Chris Ritter

Less than a year ago United Methodist separation was at a standstill awaiting an August 2022 General Conference and approval of a large-scale Separation Protocol. On March 3, 2022 everything shifted. Citing COVID-related concerns, the General Commission on General Conference delayed convening the only body empowered to speak for the UMC… until 2024. This move was interpreted by traditionalists on and off the commission as a mercenary sabotage of the gracious Feinberg Protocol. An end to traditionalists’ patience was punctuated with the announced launch of the Global Methodist Church that same day. A new disaffiliation paragraph passed in the last minutes of GC2019 (and afterward mostly ignored) became overnight the most important piece of Methodist legislation in a generation.

Leaving under the Protocol would have meant (1) a denomination-wide separation process would ensue, (2) break-away denominations would be officially sanctioned, (3) local church exit costs like pension liabilities would be avoided, (4) annual conferences would each take a vote to stay or leave, and (5) local churches could exit with a simple majority vote. The shift to disaffiliation as the exit mechanism meant that leaving would be expensive, self-triggered, require a super-majority local church support, and necessitate abandonment of the UM annual conferences and their assets. Gone was the possibility of avoiding a local vote by defaulting to the direction of your conference. It is astounding that over 2,000 congregations to date accepted those terms, explained it to their people, held super-majority votes of their membership, raised/paid the funds, and received multiple approvals by their annual conferences.

As we prepare to enter the final twelve months of UM disaffiliations before Par. 2553 expires, here some things items worth noting.

1. A spotty map

Geographic irregularity defines the current disaffiliation map. Most of the exits to date have come from the third of U.S. annual conferences that have convened special sessions to deal with them. These same conferences have tended to approve workable track to process requests. The U.S. South has seen the most disaffiliations by region. The single state with the largest number of completed disaffiliations, Texas, has reached 439 exits in the first year. Two Texas conferences have already lost a majority of their congregations to exit. These same conferences, Texas and Northwest Texas, have offset pension liabilities with conference financial reserves, reducing the cost of disaffiliation to almost zero. We can presume these conferences would have likely voted themselves out of the UMC as a unit had the Judicial Council not blocked this possibility. The two conferences outside the South with the most disaffiliations are the Indiana and West Ohio Conferences, both of whom held special sessions.

2. Blurry Data

Disaffiliation is a conference-governed process and each conference has its own approach. They tend not to share information about which and how many congregations are in negotiation to exit. For some, this information only becomes public in the lead-up to annual conference votes. Reporters are often forced to hand count the churches because the total number is not published even though it is readily available. There is no way to reliably know the number churches are currently in the pipeline.

On the traditionalist side, the Institute on Religion and Democracy has assigned intern Grayson Jang to maintain a list of disaffiliated/disaffiliating churches. United Methodist News Service has begun compiling a helpful tally of completed disaffiliations by conference. The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) has also promised to provide ongoing analysis on the statistical impact of disaffiliations here.

3. Irregular access

Some annual conferences are effectively shutting down local church disaffiliation efforts. High exit costs, onerous processes, and clergy intimidation are all tactics reportedly in play. While the Greater New Jersey Conference stands out in this regard, the Wesleyan Covenant Association initially identified a “Nasty Nineteen” that were making disaffiliations more difficult than they had to be. That number has since been slightly reduced. Several conferences continue to require a percentage of local church assets in addition to basic disaffiliation costs.

At least two bishops, Frank Beard in Illinois Great Rivers and Jonathan Holston in South Carolina, have contended that Par. 2553 does not apply to traditionalists in their conference because the current wording of the Book of Discipline is being upheld there. Disaffiliations are nonetheless moving slowly forward in IGRC. The South Carolina Conference recently came out with an exit plan that does not use Par. 2553 (but is similar to it.) In an effort to slow down the pace of disaffiliations, some conferences (like South Georgia) have promised to extend conference disaffiliation processes past the 12/31/2023 denominational deadline.

4. Conference ratifications

Only one annual conference, Arkansas, has so far failed to ratify duly negotiated disaffiliation agreements. Resistance to ratification was orchestrated there by disaffected laity who lost their local church votes. Unsubstantiated innuendo was allowed into the floor debate in spite of fact each disaffiliating church held certification of the vote signed by the district superintendent. Jonesboro First seems poised for a legal battle in the style of Mt. Bethel in Marietta, GA. In both cases, the pastor was suspended by the bishop but retained by the congregation. The Arkansas Conference, like the North Georgia Conference last year, declared exigent circumstances allowing conference trustees to seize local assets, triggering court filings. Cabot UMC in Arkansas has decided to walk away from its property following a 79% disaffiliation vote and denial by the conference. Outside these Arkansas variants, 90+% ratification votes are common around the nation.

5. Multiple destinations

About half the disaffiliating churches are joining the Global Methodist Church immediately. Others will do so eventually. Instincts to “wait and see” must be weighed against opportunities to help shape the new denomination. The GMC Transitional Leadership Council is naming Transitional Conference Advisory Teams (TCAT’s) as a preliminary step toward the formation of Provisional Annual Conferences. Presidents pro tempore lead the new conferences until a convening General Conference can be seated (perhaps in 2025). That GMC General Conference will decide the process for selecting and assigning bishops. We await to see whether GMC Bishop Mike Lowry will be joined by other traditionalist bishops retiring from the UMC at the end of 2022. The formation of the GMC is somewhat tied to the varied pace of disaffiliations from the UMC by region.

At least two networks have formed around former United Methodist mega-churches. The Foundry Network is basically a covenant group of pastors leading independent, former UM large churches. The Collegiate Methodist Church is being formed by White’s Chapel UMC in Southlake, TX and is billed as a middle way between a liberal UMC and a conservative GMC. The exit of St. Andrew in Plano, Texas (by simply washing the trust clause off the deed!) was also without reference to the human sexuality debate. It will be interesting to see if more centrist congregations seek to leave over issues of denominational incompetence.

In November 2022 Christianity Today reported that non-denominational churches for the first time outnumber any U.S. Protestant denomination. Former UM congregations will help swell these ranks. Concerns have been raised that Wesleyan identity will be lost as churches dissolve into a larger pool of vanilla U.S. evangelicalism.

6. Tricky voting

The disaffiliation paragraph contains unusual phrasing: “The decision to disaffiliate from The United Methodist
Church must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.” It should more appropriately read “present and voting.” As it stands, those present but not voting count against the 2/3 majority needed for exit. Several annual conference insist on printing and distributing the ballots. The “abstain” option included on some of these ballots count against the 2/3 majority needed for approval. Local churches are working to educate their members on these nuances as the deck is stacked against disaffiliation.

7. Local tensions

Established pastors who do not want to see their congregations disaffiliate are mostly able to stave off efforts toward exit. Less established pastors find it difficult to thwart the desires of lay leadership. Some district superintendents are helping to organize “Stay UMC” groups within local churches to defeat disaffiliation votes. These groups form Facebook groups, hold meetings, and make noise. In the Jonesboro, Arkansas example, the “stay” group complained of not having access to church resources in support of their cause. The congregations harmed the most by the disaffiliation process are those who achieve majority support for exit but fail to achieve the super-majority threshold. A notable example is Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City where the district superintendent, while chairing the meeting, also gave an impassioned speech against disaffiliation.

8. Multiple lawsuits

Disaffiliating churches in two conferences have banded together for legal action. Churches in Florida and Western North Carolina are seeking nullification of the trust clause tying them to the UMC. The National Center for Life and Liberty has offered low-cost legal representation to exiting UM congregations under the banner of religious liberty.

9. Church Planting

Both the Global Methodist Church and United Methodist Church are planning a wave of new church starts that use dissident groups from large congregations as a base. The Global Methodist Church has partnered with the River Network to identify planters, assess opportunities, and provide coaching. UMC conferences are keen to get the names of church members voting against disaffiliation to they can organize church plants or feed them into existing UM congregations.

10. The Pause/Panic Button

Annual conferences seem to be panicking at the scale of their losses. The Central Texas Conference announced a moratorium on disaffiliation activity for the final months of 2022. Bishop Harvey in Louisiana called for a pause in disaffiliation for the Advent and Christmas season, even though December is traditionally a month when district superintendents are less busy. Big news dropped on December 28: The North Georgia Conference (the UMC’s largest conference) announced a pause in disaffiliation due to alleged inaccurate information being shared and the possibility of irreparable harm. All these moves serve to run out the clock on a very tight disaffiliation window.

11. International Developments

Most United Methodists now live in Africa. This segment of the UMC, by and large, will stay to see the outcome of GC2024. The exception are those areas controlled by American-aligned bishops. GMC conferences have appeared early in places like North Katanga (Congo). In Eastern Europe, the Bulgaria-Romania conference unanimously exited the UMC to join with the Global Methodist Church. A provisional GMC conference has also been organized in the Philippines. African bishops draw a generous salary and travel benefits from the UMC and are otherwise loathe to see the UMC divide. A change in UMC teaching on marriage and human sexuality may be the breaking point as a church-wide regionalization plan struggles to gain traction.

12. Some Wait

United Methodists have long been trained to await the big decisions made at General Conferences. Current disaffiliations buck that trend. Why wait for a meeting when the discernment of the last multi-million dollar meeting was not honored? Nonetheless, many United Methodists will hang on until GC2024 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Some leaders are advancing the narrative that a larger, more gracious exit may be in the works. I don’t think so. The last thing the UMC institution wants is another round of exits following a controversial human sexuality vote. Once the UMC liberalizes on human sexuality, bishops will want to make the argument that those wanting to leave did so preemptively. They will need to address, however, the significant documentation of bishops and others calling for people to stay “because church teachings have not yet changed.” Another line I hear from conferences is “there have always been aways to leave the UMC for those who want to do so.” These ways, even less gracious than disaffiliation, often involve loss of local church property. And that is why many more disaffiliations will be seen in 2023 among those allowed by their conference to leave.

Thanks for reading this extended post. Anything you would add?

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