By Walter Fenton -
One of the fastest growing local congregations in the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church has parted ways with the denomination. Over the past two decades, Wesley UM Church in Quarryville, Pennsylvania, has grown from a worshipping congregation of 30 to 700. Local pastor Blake Deibler, who has served the church for 20 years, leads the conservative-evangelical congregation.
“We did not take this step lightly,” said Executive Pastor Larry Rineer. “A great deal of prayer, conversation and thought went into it. The idea of leaving the denomination was a grassroots movement in the congregation that had been welling up for years, but in the past we did not think the timing was right.”
Like many local churches in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, a pair of high profile clergy trials forced congregants to carefully consider Scripture and official UM Church teachings regarding the practice of homosexuality and same sex weddings.
In 2004 the Rev. Beth Stroud was defrocked after announcing to her congregation in Philadelphia that she was living in a partnered relationship with another woman. Although she was defrocked, the church hired her directly and she continued to serve there for a number of years.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, an elder in the Pennsylvania Annual Conference, was defrocked in 2013 for presiding at his son’s same-sex wedding. However, upon appeal to a Northeastern Jurisdiction judicial panel his credentials were restored and the Judicial Council, the UM Church’s highest court, confirmed the decision. Schaefer continues to serve as a UM pastor in Santa Barbara, California.
Members at the church grew increasingly perplexed and frustrated by the seeming inability of the UM Church leaders to speak with one voice and to hold pastors accountable. The highly publicized trials and the ongoing attempts by progressives to liberalize the church’s teachings finally prompted their decision to formally explore parting ways with the denomination.
“For us it really came down to the authority of the Bible,” said Rineer. “People grew dissatisfied with the leadership of the general church and the direction they seemed to be heading. It didn’t seem in keeping with Scripture.”
After the people at Wesley voted 441 to 5 leave the denomination, church leaders entered into negotiations with the annual conference. According to Rineer, they negotiated an agreement that allowed them to keep their new, sprawling campus set on 57 acres of fields and woods. The congregation has a $1 million annual budget and services a $4 million mortgage on its facilities. It now goes simply by the name Wesley Church.
The conference could have exercised the denomination’s “trust clause” in an effort to retain the property and assets held “in trust” by the local congregation. However, conference officials did not believe it could afford to service the debt or maintain the property.
For fear that other local churches might attempt to leave the denomination, conference officials were careful to characterize the negotiated settlement as an “unprecedented agreement.”
According to Rineer, Wesley Church agreed to contribute a total of $100,000 to the annual conference spread out over a five-year period. It will also forward apportionment dollars it had retained during its discernment process.
“We wanted to end our relationship with The United Methodist Church respectfully and without fanfare,” said Rineer. “We believe our decision is a faithful one and is done in God’s timing.”
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.