by Chris Ritter

I have a strong bias for the local church. If the primary mission of Methodists is to make disciples (Par. 120, UMC BOD) and the primary arena of disciple-making is the local church (Par. 120, BOD), the health and wholeness of the local church is more important than which denomination scores a “win.” Connectionalism that does not foster healthy congregations is actually institutional parasitism.

It is a tragedy when otherwise functional local churches split over external denominational issues. There is, of course, truth worth separating over. But the shape, magnitude, and timing of local church splits should reflect the realities in the local church. Frankly, the UMC has handed our congregations a bad set of options and an contrived timeline. But some congregations are creating solutions beyond the “winner take all” dynamics of disaffiliation.

Buncombe Street UMC in Greenville, South Carolina voted on April 16, 2023 to separate from the UMC. But this motion was for the main campus only. They also approved a plan to spin off their Trinity Campus as a new and separate UMC congregation. This solution, something approaching a win/win, was approved by nearly 90%. An earlier advisory vote on October 30, 2022 indicated 68.6% support for disaffiliation (before the two-campus solution was conceived.) 

Central UMC in Fayetteville, AR was the state’s largest UMC congregation. Amid a chaotic atmosphere in the conference toward disaffiliation, Central leaders chose a new path. The bid to disaffiliate would be dropped. The main campus would remain UMC. The pastor and pastoral staff would launch a new church called Christ Church. Central UMC agreed to provide $500,000 in seed money for the startup congregation. This allowed the congregation to avoid disaffiliation payments and invest their money instead in a new local expression. A South Fayetteville satellite campus, Genesis Church, would spin off as an independent congregation.

Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau, Missouri has decided to divide into two congregations. An independent Centenary Church will stay in the building. The pastor, Jennifer Long, will lead an LGBTQ-affirming United Methodist congregation to be formed over the next few months According to the report: “Centenary will also be sending a $200,000 lump sum and existing equipment — not exceeding $50,000 in value — to help the new UMC church.”

Sharing Space?

I am still waiting for a congregation to utilize provisions in our polity for sharing of campuses. A “federated church” has members of two or more denominations worshipping together under the same roof as one congregation. A “union church” maintains one membership roll and all members belong to both denominations involved. A covenant agreed upon by all parties defines how pastors are chosen, what apportionments are paid, property issues, and representation granted in judicatory bodies. Both the UM Discipline and GMC transitional Discipline contain allowances for federated and union churches (For the GMC example, see “Ecumenical Congregations”, Par. 353. In The UMC Discipline, see Par. 207ff.).

Specialized denominational arrangements arose on the frontier as an efficient way to use church buildings. They have continued as congregations struggle to maintain viability in smaller communities. Some progressive UM congregations have sought to yoke themselves with with the UCC or other progressive denominations as a way to allow same-sex weddings in their buildings. Is it possible that a dual affiliation with the GMC could provide assurances against and expected leftward shift in the UMC?

In a post-denominational world, most congregations would seemingly want fewer denominational ties, not more. Strident denominationalism has become something of a barrier to evangelism. And wishy-washy compromises sometimes leave congregations perpetually stuck. There is wisdom in the adage: “Make a decision and live with it.” But as the United Methodist Church divides, federated and union churches have been suggested as a way to navigate divisive times without destroying the local church. 

I have heard two objections to UMC/GMC union congregations. First, it is sometimes said that the GMC is not recognized by the UMC. But the UMC does not “recognize” other denominations at all. We have full communion agreements with a few denominations, but our cooperation (receiving pastors, yoking churches) is in no way limited to this small list. Second, some have noted that it takes two established congregations to form a federated church. How can a single UMC become a yoked church? We are learning through this season of disaffiliation that churches are routinely being organized from the memberships of other churches. You simply need a group of members to move their membership over to organize a new entity. It would not be difficult for a group of UMC members to form a GMC church plant for the purpose of federation. The only limits are the willingness of the judicatories involved.

Imagine First UMC (Anytown, USA) becoming a federated or union church with the GMC. Some in the church are concerned about the leftward lurch happening in the UMC and all would like a bigger voice in future pastoral appointments. A group of their members form a GMC and the new church makes a covenant with the old one. The congregation agrees to pay half apportionments to the UMC and half the GMC connectional funding. Or perhaps they follow a federated model and let each church member decide their own affiliation, paying on a percentage basis. First Church could conceivably pick and choose between what the GMC and UMC have to offer in terms of programming, supervision, and support services. The federated/union model might persist indefinitely or provide some assurance while the denominational dust settles.
Significant time and effort would be necessary to assume this specialized status. But full exit is not possible everywhere and is often divisive to the point of death. A federated or union model could allow congregations to navigate thorny issues while maintaining their congregation life. This might be a particularly useful strategy where a majority, but not a super-majority, wants separation.

It is likely that denominations of all stripes will be moving to a humbler, background role in our post-denominational culture. It would be most healthy for conferences to re-invent themselves based on the value added to local churches as top-heavy structures mercifully collapse under their own weight. When a congregation organizes wisely, they may have opportunity to re-negotiate what they need from a denomination, how much they are willing to pay, and how much control is reasonable to share. Kudos to Fayetteville First, Centenary, and Buncombe Street for charting courses apart from “winner take all.” Will local churches now find ways to thrive under the same roof with multiple denominational affiliations?

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