Largest Congregation in Mississippi Parts Ways with UM Church

The Orchard Church, Tupelo, MS

By Walter Fenton-

The largest local church in the Mississippi Annual Conference in terms of worship attendance and one of the 25 fastest growing churches in the U.S. has now officially exited The United Methodist Church.

According to lead pastor Bryan Collier, The Orchard Church (Tupelo) reached a settlement with conference leaders that made its departure official as of May 19, 2017.

The congregation agreed to pay 100 percent of its 2017 apportionments and to release the annual conference from all financial and legal liabilities. In turn, the conference has released the congregation from the trust clause. Therefore, The Orchard now has complete and unfettered ownership of its property and assets. (Local UM churches hold their property and assets in trust for the annual conference in which they reside, and would normally have to surrender the property and assets if they decided to leave the denomination.)     

“There was just no question among [The Orchard’s] leaders that this was right move for us,” said Collier. “Our departure was not about the homosexuality issue per se, but about the general church’s inability to deal with it. Unfortunately, its failure became an enormous distraction to the kingdom work our congregation is called to do.”

Last fall, the UM Church’s Council of Bishops appointed 35 clergy and laity to serve on the Commission on a Way Forward for the Church. It charged the commission with preparing a proposal it hopes will serve as a basis for resolving the denomination’s long and divisive debate over its sexual ethics and teachings on marriage. And recently, the council announced it will convene an unprecedented, called General Conference in February 2019 in an attempt to settle the dispute that threatens to divide the denomination.

Rev. Bryan Collier

“The Orchard fully embraces, as it does with all people, its need to minister to those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, and with their families and friends as well,” said Collier. “But the denomination was not helping us do that. The Judicial Council’s recent, convoluted decision is emblematic of [the UM Church’s] inability to put the disagreement to rest. We didn’t want to let this one issue distract us anymore. We know the arguments on both sides, we’re clear in our hearts and minds where we stand, and we’re prepared to move forward accordingly.”

The multi-campus church has facilities in Tupelo, Baldwyn, and Oxford, and averages over 2,600 in worship attendance. Collier is the congregation’s founding pastor, and he and the church are celebrating 20 years of ministry together this year.

The Orchard announced its decision to leave the denomination this past February, and shortly thereafter entered into a time of discernment and negotiations with Mississippi Annual Conference leaders.

At the same time The Orchard announced its intention to leave, Getwell Road UM Church in Southaven, Mississippi, also gave notice of its plan for an exit. Reached via email, the Rev. Bill Beavers, the church’s senior pastor, said, “We do not currently have a settlement, but we hope to have things tied-up and resolved with the conference in the next two weeks.”

Both pastors characterized their negotiations with Bishop James E. Swanson Sr., the episcopal leader in the Mississippi Area, and other conference officials as peaceful and civil. Collier noted that there was no good model for a congregation that wants to leave peacefully and honorably, so both parties had to be creative.

“Everyone in the process has tried hard to be God honoring,” said Collier. “We’re most appreciative of the tone of the conversation between ourselves and the conference’s leadership. It was peaceful because both sides were committed to making it so.” 

Collier serves as a council member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and The Orchard is a member congregation. The WCA is a new and growing network of local churches and people who are planning for “what’s next” in light of denominational uncertainties. Collier explained that both he and the congregation will remain a part of the WCA, and are excited about working together with other like-minded congregations who embrace Wesleyan theology and practices.

The Rev. Victoria White, Director of Connectional Ministries and Communications for the Mississippi Annual Conference, said, “We encourage everyone to keep the congregations at The Orchard and Getwell Road, and the entire Mississippi Annual Conference in their thoughts and prayers.”

The conference will gather in Jackson June 8-10 for its annual gathering.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News. 

Comments

  1. Barbara Pickens says:

    Thank you for doing the right thing that honors God.

  2. William says:

    In a better world, in a better church — those in defiance of the church would be going, starting with many in the Western Jurisdiction. But, this is not a better word, not a better church. The UMC is obviously in crisis, is virtually dysfunctional, and contains many unethical members and leaders. However, I am unable to comprehend why orthodox congregations, orthodox organizations like the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, etc., are not DEMANDING that the defiant churches leave, or even demanding their removal. Is this and other departures a signal that the orthodox folks are simply going to throw in the towel and not fight this? Will this departure of congregations accelerate? Will the progressives prevail by running off enough of the orthodox churches? If the liberals do not currently have the votes to change church law on marriage and the practice of homosexuality, then why are the orthodox folks not banning together to preserve the current church? Why would the orthodox folks be the ones possibly forming a new denomination? It should be the progressive folks doing that since they’re the ones in open war against the UMC, essentially declaring their independence from it anyway. This just does not make any sense!

    • I agree with everything you state. Nobody is focusing on this comment from the lead pastor of The Orchard:

      I heartily agree with this statement from the lead pastor from the Orchard:

      “Our departure was not about the homosexuality issue per se, but about the general church’s inability to deal with it. Unfortunately, its failure became an enormous distraction to the kingdom work our congregation is called to do.”

      The real shame is that sexuality has been allowed to become a “do or die issue” for the church.

    • Barbara and William, while I certainly respect your right to your opinion, you do not have the right to your own facts. In the long history of Methodism, discrimination of our LBGT sisters and brothers is rather “new” insofar as this ruling was only adopted in 1972. In 1972, being LBGT was considered to be a “mental illness.” In 1976, both psychiatrists and psychologists realized, from years of diligent study, that being LBGT was an inborn characteristic. How can good Christians feel that an inborn trait is sinful?
      Do either of you really think that LBGT men and women were not ordained? Perhaps those who are LBGT did not have the right to marry, prior to 2015, but there were certainly partners who were LBGT.
      If you were in school in the 1950s don’t you remember some of your teachers who were “single” but had fellow teachers who were “roommates?” I do, and they were fine teachers, and in those days no one questioned their sexual identity or gender orientation, as it was not on the “radar.”
      Our LBGT sisters and brothers have always been living among us, in our families and in our circle of friends. Today it is safe, in some mainline churches, to live openly as LBGT persons.

      • Of course inborn traits are sinful. We are fallen and all of us have sinful natures. Unlike animals who live by instinct and genetic programming we have the free will to choose how we behave and act no matter what traits we are born with. Pyromaniacs like fire but that does not mean that arson should be endorsed.

        • Former United Methodist says:

          All sin is inborn. This is why Paul was emphatic that only he (or she) who OVERCOMES will receive a crown. Stop and consider how important, life-and-death that statement is.

          Forget the empty argument that all ordained persons are sinners. Of course they certainly are, and frankly every congregation I’ve been in has regularly featured laypeople more mature, more holy, more Christ-like, even more knowledgeable than the ordained staff. That’s not the point. It’s the DENIAL of sin that is requisite in an openly homosexual lifestyle. Yes, your currently appointed pastor may have private, human struggles with any number of sins, as all of us do. Forget “may” and substitute “assuredly does.” But the minute that individual openly DEFIES the sinfulness of gluttony, lust, materialism, pride, slothfulness, etc. and places fill-in-the-blank on public display as a point of pride – at that point, it’s time to go. Frankly, open homosexuals should not be members either as the loss of the meaning of membership (and discipline) is what has brought the UMC to this point.

          The UMC ordains divorced people. I’m not so sure that should happen as easily as it does in the present day, but that’s a different debate than a denomination ordaining divorced people that publicly hold up divorce as good, right, a glorious lifestyle choice and a blessing from God. I’m certain in saying the latter have disqualified themselves.

      • Michael Peters says:

        Carla and Bob,
        There is no discrimination allowed towards sexual orientation in the UMC. Paragraph 605.9 , and 162j make that clear. Further your judgement that “good Christians feel that an inborn trait is sinful?” Is unwarranted. The fact that … “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” 161B, supports our calling to maintain our BoD principals. The problem lies with those who purposefully defy our Church law and refuse to live according to our BoD.

  3. Nancy McNair says:

    These orthodox congregations are tired of the 30 year “discussion” over the “defiant” churches actions. Jesus did not say to follow Wesley, or Methodist. He said “Follow Me.” After 30 years it is obvious that the Methodist denomination is not going to back track. The congregations that are choosing to leave are “following God, not man.” Methodist is not the end all and be all of Christian worship. And Jesus was all about change. Jesus said to “follow him”. These churches have all spent months in prayer about where God it telling them to go, and they are being obedient. I respect that and support it.
    Not to say that those who choose to stay with the denomination are not following God. They too have spent many months praying over what they will do and maybe God has told them to stay in the game. I believe that we should not feel resentful or as if they are “quitting”, but that they are following God’s lead for them. Let us all trust that God is still in control, as he always is, and that his plan will prevail.

  4. PAUL JOHN SAVKO, JR says:

    Finding the presence of God at Get well Road UMS in 1997 was a joy. Getwell’s charter has always been doing God’s will, not what was the easy or expedient thing. God speed!

  5. William says:

    Why does this look most suspicious? This is what we pay the Connectional Table to do? These people never rest in their relentless pursuit of bring change to the BOD by any means possible. They call getting a US Central Conference past General Conference, which voted down such an effort as recent as 2016, “rats”.

    http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/church-leaders-look-at-possible-u.s.-structure

  6. In John 4 we find
    Christ in ministry with the woman of Samaria not to. Much of the time we spend time praying for and not
    With,… Some churches minister to people unlike them, but not with them. I know because I find this easy too.

  7. William said: ” . . . Why would the orthodox folks be the ones possibly forming a new denomination? It should be the progressive folks doing that since they’re the ones in open war against the UMC, essentially declaring their independence from it anyway. This just does not make any sense!”

    AMEN!!!

  8. I do not understand why they are leaving now. Why not wait and see what happens at the called conference? This just looks premature and provocative.

  9. William says:

    Oh it is so tragic that so many in the UMC seem to have given up on the transforming power of Jesus Christ and the evangelical preaching of John Wesley’s three pillows of grace — especially JUSTIFYING GRACE. Our mission statement is centered on the transformation work of Jesus Christ. Why are many LGBT self identified people in the UMC so consumed with their sexual orientation and sexual identifies so as to hinder their experiencing justifying grace (IF they’re involved in the practice of sexual immorality)? Per our beliefs statements, Justifying Grace is CONVERSION: repentance, forgivenesses, being born again, salvation, and a walking away from a sinful orientation to a new life in Jesus. Is this not the same gift from God offered to ALL of us sinners, including heterosexuals practicing sexual immorality? Has the UMC given up or watered down its primary mission for being — saving the sinner? God, please bring us a 21st century Great Awakening across the UMC.

  10. Rather than use the “follow Me” command, I would think the UMC would/should use “Be ye holy” as if they would behave holy (and avoid the sins) then the entire LBGTQIA issue should be resolved. Is an unrepentant openly defiant sinner who advocates others accept that person’s unholiness as an example of being a follower of Christ and therefore considered holy? “Former United Methodist” above is correct in claiming denial of it being sin is the problem. We want to “claim” we are Christians without regeneration and holiness and of course that means carnality and unholiness. We want our sin AND Christ and He will say I never knew you. There are only 2 sides and to call someone a brother or sister (an overt appear to emotionalism), then you must look to see who is the real father. Lack of holiness and unrepentant sinning is a sign your father is not related to Christ. If you are a New Creation in Christ then show it but not by flaunting your sin.

  11. “Our departure was not about the homosexuality issue per se,”

    Too bad.

  12. On 5/28/17 Carla and Bob explain that “being LGBT was (is) an inborn characteristic.” Let’s set aside all other considerations except simple logic. The following two derivative statements are not consistent: “G” is inborn, and can’t change, “T” is inborn and must change. “G” can’t change mind but “T” must change cis physical body. Makes no sense.

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