A quarter of U.S. congregations in the United Methodist Church have received permission to leave the denomination during a five-year window, closing this month, that authorized departures for congregations over disputes involving the church’s LGBTQ-related policies.
This year alone, 5,641 congregations received permission from their regional conferences to leave the denomination as of Thursday, according to an unofficial tally by United Methodist News. In total, 7,658 have received permission since 2019. Thursday marked the last scheduled regional vote, according to the news service, when the Texas Annual Conference authorized four congregations’ departures.
The vast major are conservative-leaning churches responding to what they see as the United Methodists’ failure to enforce bans on same-sex marriage and the ordaining of openly LGBTQ persons.
The new year is expected to bring more changes.
The first denomination-wide legislative gathering in eight years, slated for spring 2024, will consider calls to liberalize policies on marriage and ordination. It will also debate rival proposals, either to decentralize the international church — which has at least as many members outside the United States as in — or provide overseas congregations with the same exit option their U.S. counterparts had.
The schism marks a historic shift in a denomination that was until recently the third largest in the United States, and perhaps the closest to the mainstream of American religious culture — its steeples prominent in rural crossroads and urban squares, scenes of countless potluck suppers, earnest social outreach, and warm yet decorous worship.
Many departing congregations have joined the more conservative Global Methodist Church, with others joining smaller denominations, going independent or still considering their options.
United Methodist rules forbid same-sex marriage rites and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” but progressive Methodist churches and regional governing bodies in the U.S. have increasingly been defying these rules.
Conservatives have mobilized like-minded congregations to exit. The Global Methodist Church has declared its intention to enforce such rules.
“We are sad about losing anybody,” said New York Area Bishop Thomas Bickerton, president of the United Methodists’ Council of Bishops. “There’s also — at the end of the year — grief and trauma, parishioners that have said goodbye to friends, pastors who have had relationships over the years that have ended.”
He depicted the debates in the church as difficult, and said some who urged churches to disaffiliate used “falsehoods.”
“This whole disaffiliation process has in large measure not been about human sexuality, it’s been about power, control and money. That’s surprising and disappointing,” Bickerton said. “It’s time for this denomination to pivot” to focusing on mission rather than disaffiliation votes.
The United Methodists had a U.S. membership of 6.5 million in 30,543 churches as of 2019, according to its website. It had at least one church in 95% of U.S. counties, more than any other religious group, according to the 2020 Religion Census, produced by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
There’s no immediate estimate on how many individual members are leaving the UMC, since some members of departing congregations are joining other UMC churches, but the departing churches include some of the largest in their states. UMC officials are already preparing historic budget cuts to denominational agencies in anticipation of lower revenue from fewer churches.
The UMC also reported having 6.5 million members overseas as of 2018, the vast majority in Africa, where more conservative sexual mores are common.
In 2019, a special legislative gathering of Methodists voted to strengthen longstanding bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination. The votes came from a coalition of conservatives in the U.S. and overseas, particularly from fast-growing African churches. At the same time, that conference offered a five-year window for U.S. churches to leave under somewhat favorable terms, such as being able to keep their properties while compensating the denomination for certain costs.
That measure was expected to be used by progressive congregations dissenting with the letter of the church law, and a handful did take the church up on its offer. But in the end, the vast majority of departing congregations reflect conservative dismay over what they saw as the denomination’s failure to discipline those defying church law, as well as other liberal trends.
In the legislative General Conference, scheduled for April and May in Charlotte, North Carolina, efforts to lift bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination are expected to have a strong chance, given the departure of many conservative votes.
The delegates will also consider a decentralization plan favored by progressives — which, among other things, would enable U.S. and overseas churches to set separate standards for ordination and marriage — and another sought by conservatives enabling overseas churches to leave under the same provisions that U.S. churches had.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, who is the Global Methodist Church’s top executive, said it has registered about 4,100 U.S. churches so far — former UMC churches as well as new ones organized by former United Methodists whose congregations voted to stay in the UMC. It has been organizing in other countries where United Methodist churches or individuals left that denomination, he said, such as Bulgaria, Slovakia, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It’s unclear how many U.S. churches are going independent, but “the fact that so many churches have aligned indicates their commitment to wanting to be part of a connectional system,” Boyette said.
The Rev. Scott Field, president of the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has advocated for churches leaving the UMC, said congregations’ experiences varied in regional conferences, depending on what financial and other conditions they have required of churches. “It’s been punitive in some and it’s worked seamlessly in others,” he said.
Under the slogan, “Fair for some, fair for all,” the group will be advocating for overseas churches to have the same option to leave.
Field predicted “an African wave” of churches seeking to leave.
Several African bishops, however, issued a statement in 2022 denouncing efforts to get churches to leave as false and destructive.
Field also predicted many U.S. churches, despite missing the 2023 deadline, may try to exit under other church law provisions.
“We’d like every congregation, whether it’s a liberationist church or a solidly evangelical church, to end up where they’d like to be,” Field said. “It makes no sense for our United Methodist Church to attempt locking the gate.”
Jan Lawrence, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, said the personal toll of the schism is deep.
She knew members of a church that had an acrimonious break after it chose to disaffiliate. “It really broke relationships,” she said.
She expressed hope that the 2024 General Conference will open ordination and marriage rites to LGBTQ persons — realizing a decades-long goal for the network.
“Those churches that are disaffiliating and joining the Global Methodist Church, I hope they find what they’re looking for and they’re able to thrive as a new denomination,” she said. “I don’t know anyone that doesn’t want everybody to live into what they believe God is calling them to do.”
Bickerton said he particularly laments the departure of many churches that are longtime, rural-area fixtures.
“When Methodism came to the United States, it went to where the people were. It was carried in the saddlebags of the circuit riders,” he said.
A return to informal ministry may be needed to maintain a presence in many regions, he said.
“The hallmarks of United Methodism is a theology based on grace, hope, joy, love and justice,” he said. “Where do we send people strategically so that message can be heard?”
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