Editorial: More Hopeful Than Ever —
By Rob Renfroe —
I have enjoyed the reports coming out of Global Methodist annual conference meetings from all over the United States and Europe. Delegates report that the conferences have been filled with an air of excitement, anticipation, and joy. They state the meetings have the feeling of a revival and there is the sense that something new is being born and a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit is being experienced.
I have also listened carefully to those who have attended the last round of United Methodist Church annual conferences earlier this summer. The word I heard most often coming out of those meetings was “hope.” Some pastors and bishops have even stated they “now feel more hopeful for the United Methodist Church” than they have ever felt in the past.
I wish to state clearly that I pray God will bless the ongoing UM Church with a wonderful future. I pray he will so anoint the UM Church with his Spirit that it will be a church where the Gospel is preached with power, where many lost souls find a new life in Christ, and where acts of mercy and justice are so prolific that the goodness of God’s kingdom becomes apparent to everyone.
So, I pray great things, I wish great things, I hope great things for the ongoing United Methodist Church. But UM leaders who state they are more hopeful than they have ever been for the UM Church mean something more than that. They say they are now more hopeful than ever. Now, for them, is a different time, a better time, a more hopeful time than ever before.
What has changed recently? What’s different now from the last time UM annual conferences met? The change is that over 6000 traditional churches have disaffiliated from the denomination. That’s what’s different now.
The UM Church still has the same bishops; the same seminary professors; the same “open hearts, open minds, open doors” slogan; and the same willingness to allow bishops, pastors and seminary professors to teach a defective Christology, to promote a faith that is far from orthodox, and to bless lifestyles that are contrary to what the Scriptures approve.
The old adage states: Keep doing what you’ve done, and you’ll keep getting what you’ve gotten. And what the UM Church has gotten in the past has not been great. Since the UM Church was founded in 1968, its membership has never grown year over year. Not once. Not once in the past five and a half decades. From 1970 to 2021 UM membership in the United States has declined from 10.7 million to 5.7 million. And it’s getting worse. The loss of membership in 2021 (the last year before disaffiliation began in earnest) was greater than any other single year in the denomination’s history. That is, until 2022 when membership decreased by over 500,000.
I’m not hopeful for the UM Church’s future growth and I won’t be until evangelism becomes one of its chief priorities, until its pastors are given a thoroughly orthodox education at its seminaries, and until the entire denomination admits that the progressive values that have led the church to where it is now will not lead it to a better place in the future.
“But,” I’ve heard centrist and progressive leaders state, “once the traditionalists leave with their narrow-minded, bigoted beliefs, we UMs will be perfectly positioned with our message of grace to reach our culture.” Well, that’s a hope, but not one founded on what other mainline Protestant denominations have experienced. Many of them are far ahead of the UM Church when it comes to ridding themselves of their traditionalists and liberalizing their sexual ethics. What was the result? Their decline in membership, attendance and finances has continued, only at a more rapid rate than ever before.
Since affirming gay marriage and the ordination of practicing gay persons membership, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) has decreased by 20 percent and youth professions of faith by over 50 percent. Since making the same changes, The United Church of Christ has seen its membership decline by 30 percent. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has experienced such a rapid decline that its Office of Research and Evaluation projects that the whole denomination will have fewer than 16,000 persons in worship by 2041. Rather than seeing an influx of secular people since adopting a liberalized sexual ethic, The Episcopal Church (USA) has experienced a decrease in its attendance that is so dramatic that church growth expert the Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile wrote, “The overall picture is dire … At this rate there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”
What reason, what hope do UM leaders have that it will be different for the UM Church? Do they really believe that the UM pastors remaining in the UM Church are so spectacularly different from the pastors of our sister denominations that our story will be different when it comes to reaching the culture? Are our pastors more committed, more spiritual, more insightful, more compelling than the clergy in the PCUSA, the UCC, the ECUSA, and the ELCA? So different from the pastors of other liberal denominations that our team will crack the cultural code and we will be able to reach the masses where all the others have failed? That doesn’t sound like hope. That sounds like hubris.
Some centrist leaders have said, “Those who are leaving are primarily small churches. We hate to see them go. But losing them will not have a big impact on the denomination as a whole.”
It’s true most of the churches that have left the UM Church are small churches. That’s because most UM churches are small churches. Before the devastating impact of the pandemic on church attendance, fifty percent of all UM Churches had less than fifty persons in worship on a Sunday. Seventy-five percent had less than a hundred. The numbers are even worse now. To be honest the leaders telling people that most of the churches that are leaving are small churches need also to report that most of the churches remaining are small churches.
They also need to tell their followers that many of the denomination’s largest congregations have left. A partial listing includes three of the four largest in the Texas AC, the largest in the Rio Texas AC, and the largest in the Central Texas AC. The four congregations in Louisiana with the highest attendance have left, as well as the two largest in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. The largest church in North Georgia, Illinois Great Rivers and in Mississippi exited years ago. Two of the three largest congregations in North Alabama are out. The two congregations with the highest attendance in Oklahoma have disaffiliated, as well as the churches with the highest attendance in the Michigan, North Carolina, South Georgia, and the Northwest Texas Annual Conferences. The results are similar in other Annual Conferences, but these examples illustrate that those saying the churches that have exited are primarily small congregations are misrepresenting the truth of what has happened in the UM Church.
If the majority of the 6000 churches that have left are so small, why has the General Council on Finance and Administration proposed that the denomination’s budget for the next quadrennium be cut by 40 percent? That is an astounding number. That is an alarm bell loud enough to awaken all those who have ears to hear.
Membership is declining. Attendance is decreasing. Finances are struggling. And the plan is to blame the traditionalists, keep electing progressive leaders, double down on the liberal agenda that has brought the UM Church to where it is – and be hopeful.
Hope is a wonderful thing. But hope is not a strategy or a plan or a way forward. In fact, if it’s a blind “hope against hope” kind of hope, it can be a detriment to making the changes that need to be made.
Do I wish the UM Church well? I do. Am I hopeful for the UM Church? I want to be. But I can’t be until I hear its leaders deal with the real reasons it has declined for the past fifty-five years, acknowledge that something went very wrong when 20 percent of its churches and five of its bishops felt compelled to leave the denomination, and admit that maybe, just maybe, they are part of the problem.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. Photo by James Barr on Unsplash.
Polishing the Golden Rule —
By BJ Funk —
It was a beautiful spring day as I prepared my kindergarten class for our Easter egg hunt. Outside my classroom were plenty of trees and bushes to hide eggs, and several of my parents were doing just that as I stayed inside and talked with my children. They brought their Easter Egg baskets to school, eagerly awaiting the happy moment when they could start hunting.
Most of the children had dressed for the hunt, wearing clothes that their mamas would not care if they got dirty. South Georgia dirt cleverly hides in the most secure places until a child finds it and then wears it.
“Fill up your basket,” I said, and with that we walked out to the playground.
Ten minutes into the hunt, I heard Mary crying. Not a shy little cry, but a loud bellowing. I got to her quickly. Fire ants? Skinned knee? No, it was neither of those things.
Mary was crying because she had not found any eggs. Not one. The children began running up to me calling out the number of eggs they had found, and then moving on to find more. Only two children remained by me. One was Mary, crying even louder, and one was Johnny, whose basket was filled to the top.
The two represented the contrasts in my classroom that year. Mary, who always dressed like a princess. Perfect hair flowing down her back in soft curls. Perfect dress, ironed to perfection with socks and shoes to match and with a large hairbow that perfectly matched her dainty pink laced dress. And Johnny, with hand-me-down shoes flopping as he walked because they were too large. Johnny’s T-shirt was old and wrinkled, which is the same way he came to school almost every day.
And then I saw an amazing thing. It was as if the ground beneath me became holy ground, as the sun fell on the three of us, its warmth softly playing the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the background. Time stood still.
Johnny walked up to Mary and without a word he began taking Easter eggs out of his basket, one at a time, and putting them in hers. He gave her half of the eggs in his basket. Mary stopped crying, and I almost started.
Johnny, without saying a word, demonstrated the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.” Does that mean when Johnny shared his eggs this time that Mary would then share with Johnny the eggs in her basket next time?
We wish it worked that way. But it doesn’t. This is how it works: When we treat others the way we want to be treated, something breaks inside of us, something hard and crusty, something like a dam, calling for us to treat others with fairness, not expecting them to return the favor.
We want to question Jesus with, “Why didn’t you put another clause in the Bible that states if the other person has hurt you over and over again, you don’t have to treat them like you want to be treated?”
But he didn’t. His command is always to love, and he doesn’t say anything about how the other person should act. There is nothing in this command that guarantees that the recipient of your doing good will do good back to you.
We are called always to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As Christians, we are called to do the extra thing, to go above and beyond in treating others the way we want to be treated.
Why are we to follow this rule? Not so others will do good back to us, but because it makes us be like God, for this is how he acts. God sends the rain on the just and unjust. He is kind to the person who brings him joy, and equally kind to the one who grieves his heart. God’s love embraces the saint and the sinner.
The dynamic Golden Rule came to life for me that day, its clear message reverberating in my head. In my thoughts, I pulled out the Golden Rule in my life, checking to see if it was tarnished.
You don’t need to know. But I will say this. I’m having a Polishing Party at my home next week. You are invited.
B.J. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace, available on Amazon. Artwork: bobysbk via Unsplash.
Sewing with Love and Faith
By Jenifer Jones
In South Asia TMS Global cross-cultural witnesses (CCWs) run a textile business that provides meaningful employment to people caught in the devastating cycle of extreme poverty. Women of primarily Muslim and Hindu backgrounds sew and embroider quilts, pillows, table linens, and more while earning fair wages in a safe, loving environment.
Running a business can be challenging under normal circumstances. Keeping a business going during a pandemic in a place with strict lockdowns, even more so. In the midst of so many challenges, it can be tempting to worry. In what follows, one CCW, Sarah Wilson,* shares two stories that reminded her to have hope and not be afraid.
One of our artisans, Anjali* has decided to start regularly attending a fellowship that meets in our neighborhood. Anjali’s husband, Vasant,* makes Hindu idols for a living. Vasant struggles with addiction and poor mental health. He is often abusive, and Anjali has suffered with depression as a result of the challenges in her home. Throughout the last year, Anjali has grown tremendously in her faith in Jesus. God has consistently given her peace, hope, and joy in the midst of her struggles.
My husband, Paul,* went with Anjali and her daughter for their first time to church. She’d been having some persistent leg pain, and during prayer time, God healed her! After fellowship, Anjali invited Paul for chai tea at their house. When they walked in, Anjali showed Paul the area where she used to keep her Hindu idols. She has cleaned the shelf, and in its place a poster of Jesus now hangs. Although she’s been walking with Jesus for years, the public, bold display of her faith to her husband, extended family, and neighbors is huge! The best part of this is that Vasant has experienced more peaceful, calm days since Anjali took the idols out of their home. Anjali’s heart cry and boldest prayer in this season is that Vasant would come to know the saving grace of Christ and join her in walking with Jesus.
Another artisan, Surya,* has been very honest and open about her reluctance to jump all in with Jesus. Although she believes Jesus is real and good, she doesn’t want to leave her Hindu idols behind. She’s afraid of how her extended family and neighbors will perceive her. She’s been in this lukewarm place for a while – studying the Word, praying, but continuing to worship her other gods. But recently there’s been a shift in her. After she heard Anjali’s testimony of God healing her leg pain, Surya decided to go to church the next Sunday.
The week leading up to her visit to church, our teammate David* got a serious infection that required treatment in another city. Surya prayed for him without ceasing. On Sunday, he was well enough to return home. Surya got up in front of the congregation to share her testimony of how God answered her prayers for David. At the end, she said, “I don’t know what is happening to me. All of a sudden, I have this faith. And I’d like you all to ask God to give me more.”
Over the weekend, Surya’s son, Anik,* developed a fever. As his health continued to worsen, Surya took him to the doctor and discovered that he had dengue fever. His platelets started rapidly declining, and he was admitted to the hospital. Our state was in the middle of a dengue epidemic. Many people in our neighborhood had died or become seriously ill, so Surya was very scared. While Anik was being admitted, Surya also came down with dengue. Our team went to her house to pray together for Surya. After we left, Surya’s fever completely went away. She then went to the hospital to stay with Anik and his platelets miraculously rose back into the normal range and he was able to be discharged! Surya messaged us, saying, “God really is always with me.”
As I think about how I’ve worried and fretted over the business and our community in light of what God is doing in our midst, I find myself overwhelmed at the goodness of our Heavenly Father. God really is always with us, and if we seek first his kingdom, the other stuff really will be added to us! Really. Truly. So, fear not!
Whatever our circumstances, we can take comfort in the fact that God is always with us. Whether he intervenes in miraculous ways like in the stories above or chooses to work in a different way in our lives, we know that we can trust him when he tells us to “fear not.”
Luke 12: 32-34 (ESV): “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
* Pseudonyms are used for security reasons.
Jenifer Jones is a writer with TMS Global. A mission organization in the Wesleyan tradition, TMS Global trains, mobilizes, and serves the body of Christ as it joins Jesus in His mission. It serves cross-cultural witnesses (currently in 28 countries) and provides mission training, coaching, and resourcing to local churches around the world. For more information, visit tms-global.org. Photo: Two artisans work on quilts as part of a business-as-mission in South Asia. Through relationships with the business owners and with each other, employees are learning to put their trust in Jesus.
The Challenge Before Us All —
By JJ Mannschreck —
I had a conversation a few years ago with an elderly member of my congregation. “I think I agree with you on your interpretation of the Bible, and I don’t really want them to change the policies of our church,” she said, “but I have a grand-daughter who is a lesbian, and I really don’t want her to be mad at me for coming to this church.”
I’ve heard this same basic concept over and over from various people when the topic of disaffiliation comes up. Beyond the actual facts of the situation, people are very concerned with the perception. Whether it’s factual or not, there has been a massive disinformation campaign launched against the Global Methodist Church (GMC) as it emerges from The United Methodist Church.
It takes me back to the very first time I attended the Detroit Annual Conference at Adrian College in Michigan. I’ll never forget when we walked into the auditorium that they used for the big plenary meetings. My mentor pastor showed me the ropes. We stood in the back of the room and he said, “Down there on the left side is the angry progressive crowd. They’re a bit exclusive and they don’t really let anybody else sit with them.” Then he pointed up over his shoulder into the right back corner, “and up there in that section is where the angry conservative crowd sits. They usually say the worst things you’ll hear from a microphone this weekend, and they’re not much fun to sit with either.” And then he pointed to the bulk of the seating in the middle of the room and said, “and this is where all the normies sit. Let’s see if we can find a seat.”
That was my introduction to church politics in 2013. I didn’t actually know much about those groups, but I knew that the vast majority of clergy would prefer to sit in the middle and not really interact with those two angry extremes.
As time went on, the drama of the church began to suck more and more air out of the room and I realized that I needed to learn more about these conservatives. As a young clergy who is theologically conservative, I needed to figure out where I was headed long term. I decided to attend the lunch put on by those “angry conservatives” (which I had found out was a group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the “WCA” for short). But I was nervous. I might be a conservative in my interpretation of Scripture, but boy I wasn’t sure I wanted to be seen in the same room as those with such a negative reputation. I sat in the back, near the door – ready to bolt if I heard anything terrible.
After we ate lunch, the speaker addressed racism. Her name was the Rev. Dr. Joy Moore and she is fiery speaker with a heart full of Jesus. She spoke out strongly against evil and called us to do better. It was convicting and heartfelt, and I was shocked. I thought to myself, Wait, aren’t these guys supposed to be the horrible racists?! After her speech, I met Dr. Moore and we struck up a friendship that led to my (predominantly white) church partnering with her (predominantly black) church in the city of Flint. For a summer, we had volunteers come together to hand out water in Flint every single week because of the contaminated water crisis.
After that lunch, I realized that I may have jumped to conclusions. I may have made assumptions about a group of people without actually meeting them and talking to them and knowing them. I had lumped the WCA together in my mind with the worst sort of human beings my imagination could come up with – but my real world experience completely shattered that picture!
Fast forward two years to 2021. I had continued to exist as a theological conservative, but largely under the radar. I wasn’t shy about my position, but I also wasn’t broadcasting it loudly.
The Global Methodist Church had been announced, and I had written an article with five reasons I wanted to go to the Global Methodist Church but I didn’t turn it in. I sat on it for a little bit. If the article got published, suddenly my name would be out there in a big way as one of those “angry conservatives.” Again, I hesitated. I had been wrong about the WCA folks, but what if the GMC turned out to be filled with horrible hateful people? I wasn’t sure I wanted to connect myself to that group.
Then I was invited to participate in one of the Global Methodist Church’s big initiatives called the “Multipliers Cohort” through the Exponential conference. It was a brilliant class on how to do disciple-making in the modern world, and I learned a ton. But on my first day of the class, I was sitting in a room with a bunch of people who were heading to the Global Methodist Church and it felt the same way it had when I was attending my first WCA luncheon.
Tentatively, I was trying to get a feel for the room. At the lunch on the first day, the conversation shifted to the Global Methodist Church, and who would be joining it when it finally launched. There was a young woman sitting across from me who said it very bluntly, “Look, I am not interested in joining the anti-gay church. I want to join a church where they actually make disciples of Jesus Christ.” My eyebrows shot straight up.
All around the lunch table, every single person strongly affirmed that sentiment. Not a single clergy in the group of two dozen had any interest in being a part of an “anti-gay” church. But all of them wanted to be a part of a church that was truly united around the core purpose of spreading the gospel and transforming lives. That night, after our first day of the class, I clicked “submit” on the article, sent it in to Good News magazine, and the rest is history.
A lot of people are in the exact same conundrum that I was in. I was born and raised in The United Methodist Church, and I will always have a love for the people who introduced me to Jesus Christ. But there is an element inside the denomination that has been working overtime to smear the image of the emerging church.
Rather than Paul and Barnabas blessing one another and sending them on their different paths, it has looked more like mud-slinging politicians. Beyond the cost of disaffiliation, the price tag for the creation of the Global Methodist Church contains an uphill PR battle in an already hostile social moment.
One of the reasons for writing this article is to reiterate that you cannot argue someone out of a first impression. If someone accuses you of being hateful, it will never be enough to simply yell back, “No, I’m not!” Our counter-argument must go deeper than the statements we sign or the things that we say. It must be steeped in the lives we live. Our example must be drenched in grace and overflowing with kindness. We must hold ourselves to such a standard and conduct ourselves in such a way that nasty rumors don’t stick because they don’t match anyone’s actual experience.
If our church is to be accused of sexism, then we must become warriors for women – strongly standing up for their right to preach and administer the sacraments. If our church is to be accused of racism, then we need to work across the colors of God’s creation to listen, to love, and to share the gospel of Jesus to every nation, and every community. If our church is to be accused of homophobia and hatred, then we must show more love to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters than anyone would expect.
I have heard it said over and over that it is possible to disagree with someone and still love them. If that is true, then our churches should be an abundant source of that love. For example, if someone in your community struggles with same-sex attraction, ask yourself how can you provide them with love and support? How can we walk alongside our brothers and sisters with both compassion and conviction? We have made it clear that we will not compromise our convictions, and now it time to show the world that we are still people of compassion.
If you stand up for anything, there will always be people who hate you. Our challenge as Methodists is to live our lives in such a way that when someone tries to spread stories of your hatred, the people who know you will respond and ask the accuser, “Wait, are you sure? Have you actually met them?”
When I started out in ministry, I believed what I heard about the WCA and their “hateful ways” until I actually met them. When I took a class with the GMC, I was tentative because I believed the rumors. Only later did I sit in the room and hear who they really were. We can’t stop people from spreading lies or jumping to assumptions and judging us. We are not always in control of the first impression. But we can, as followers of Jesus, live a life so full of love and compassion and conviction that when people finally do meet us, they will experience the counterargument before they ever hear it.
JJ Mannschreck is the campus pastor at the Cardinal Square campus of Aldersgate Church, a newly minted Global Methodist Church in the Midland-Saginaw area of Michigan. He transferred his ordination from The United Methodist Church to the Global Methodist Church. You can read more about him at thesimpleton.org. Artwork: Shutterfly.
New Life for Fractured Churches —
By Walter Fenton —
According to the latest figures, more than 6,100 local churches have disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church since 2019. According to a recent Christianity Today article, many more would as well, save for the often costly and complicated process required to do so. The bar for disaffiliations has been set so high in some annual conferences that local churches have joined together to petition civil courts to mandate that annual conferences allow them to exit the denomination. In some states judges have ruled against them, while others have ruled in their favor.
However, some congregations, which do have the freedom to hold disaffiliation votes, come to discover a minority of their members can block the majority’s will to exit the UM Church. The high bar of 67 percent of a congregation’s membership must vote in favor of disaffiliation.
What happens when local churches come up just short?
“Many of our people were just heartbroken,” said the Rev. David Lindwall, the former pastor of Montgomery United Methodist Church, in Montgomery, Texas, a community about an hour north of Houston. In early September 2022, Lindwall explained, “Fifty-eight percent of the congregation’s members voted to disaffiliate from the denomination, and of course, many of them attended the church for years. They had poured their time, talent, and resources into its missions and ministries, and lovingly cared for its facilities; they were very faithful members.”
Lindwall – who served Montgomery UM Church for 12 years and whose family had formed strong bonds in the congregation and community – acknowledged his disappointment with the outcome. And as the Rev. Cabe Matthews, his associate pastor wryly put it, “We had a bad week at the office.”
Layman John David Peeples of Collierville United Methodist in Collierville, Tennessee – a suburb on the eastside of Memphis – could commiserate with Lindwall and Matthews. Earlier this year, on a Sunday in late February, 495 members (64 percent) of the Collierville congregation voted to disaffiliate from the UM Church, but 278 (36 percent) voted to remain. The majority fell 12 votes short of the 67 percent required for disaffiliation.
Peeples, who co-led a committee that helped the church move through a long discernment process regarding disaffiliation, was deeply disappointed and exhausted. “Frankly, it was good that the very next morning I needed to leave town to attend to family matters for several days; I needed to be away. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I got back home; I guess I figured I would just start looking for a new church to attend.”
In Montgomery, Lindwall, Matthews, and leading laity decided they wanted to make sure members who had voted to disaffiliate did not have to go looking elsewhere. They immediately started making plans to plant a new church, and two months later, in early November 2022, Christ the King Global Methodist Church held its first worship service in a local junior high school.
“It’s as if we traded a building for a mission, and for a much deeper faith,” said Matthews. “While we have an immense amount of work to do, there is an easiness to it, a lightness I have never known before in my life in ministry. In a way, we are just having fun! When we gather, there is a deep joy that we all feel. We know who we are and what we are about, and we know the Lord is with us!”
For the members who decided to leave Collierville UM Church, the pathway to something new was different, but the results are remarkably similar. The majority of the members of the church’s largest Sunday school class had voted for disaffiliation, and they decided they still wanted to meet together on Sundays. Its leaders started searching for a location the day after the vote; they found space at a funeral home. The idea was to meet for Sunday school, and then dismiss people so they could go looking for new churches to attend for worship.
As other Collierville UM Church members learned about the class gathering and where it planned to meet, they asked if they could join them. The requests kept coming all week, so by Sunday, instead of a class meeting, 350 people crammed into a space for 150, and held a worship service.
“People stood against the walls, stood in aisles, and in the foyers,” said Peeples. “There was no plan to hold a worship service or start a new church, but apparently the Holy Spirit did have a plan. We’ve been worshipping at the funeral home ever since, and given the interest and enthusiasm, we decided to plant a church. We are now known as First Methodist Church Collierville.”
The fledgling congregation eventually hired the Rev. Eddie Bromley to serve as its pastor. Bromley, a former associate pastor at the Collierville UM Church, felt called to lead the new church plant.
“My wife and I planted a church 20 years ago; it was in a small rural community,” said Bromley. “We had 40 people, and we all had about 18 months to plan, train and launch. Over almost a decade the church almost got to the size of 200 people, which was fantastic. But this time, rather than 40 people and a pastor starting a church, the Holy Spirit started a church, welcomed 350 people, and then a few weeks later invited a pastor to come and be a part of it. So, I get the joy of pretending to be the leader of this, as if I were smart enough to make any of this happen.”
While Bromley is a Global Methodist Church pastor, the new congregation has not made an affiliation decision. He is currently in the midst of a sermon series exploring Wesleyan distinctives, and notes that the people forming the new church appreciate their Methodist heritage and do not want to lose it.
“We’re trying to lay some good groundwork so when we do begin talking about denominational alignment, or at least the possibility of it, we’re not just sharing ignorance,” said Bromley. “We don’t want to make an alignment decision for just pragmatic reasons. I mean, there are some pragmatic reasons for being aligned with a denomination, including where do they get their next pastor when I’m gone, but I think there are deeper, more important reasons for alignment, and we want to carefully consider them.”
For the people who planted Christ the King in Montgomery, they decided fairly quickly to affiliate with the Global Methodist Church. And both Lindwall and Matthews, who were named the co-pastors of the new church, are GM Church clergy. The congregation has the distinction of being the first GM Church plant in the Eastern Texas Provisional Annual Conference.
“The lay people who stepped up to plant the church are highly committed, very generous, and very, very faithful,” said Lindwall. “They realize they’re on board a mission that is bigger than themselves. They’re interested in building a legacy church that will be in this community for years to come. It’s a challenging and exciting venture!”
Recently, the congregation unanimously voted to merge with The Woodlands Methodist Church, just 25 miles southeast of Montgomery. The Woodlands, also a Global Methodist Church, already has other local church sites in the area. The congregation’s new name will be The Church at Montgomery.
“We’re just honored that The Woodlands approached us,” said Lindwall. “We, of course, are theologically aligned and share the same passion for reaching people for Jesus, discipling them in faith, and helping people in need. This merger propels our mission forward, and will make it possible to accomplish some of our goals much sooner than we anticipated.”
The majority of the nearly 3,000 local churches that have joined the Global Methodist Church did so through successful disaffiliation votes, and so they came with their property and assets intact. But, like the Church at Montgomery, others are the result of people and pastors who have walked away from cherished sanctuaries and chapels, and in faith did something they never imagined doing – planting a church.
“We’re so busy just helping local churches and pastors transition into the GM Church that we’ve not had the time to determine how many of them are church plants, or how many of those planted churches are the result of people who lost a disaffiliation vote, and then boldly decided to plant a new church,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the denomination’s chief connectional officer. “But whatever the case, so many of the stories are an inspiration and testament to people’s fidelity to God’s call on their lives. And we’re confident a number of church plants that are still considering an alignment decision will ultimately join the GM Church.”
For the past year the Global Methodist Church has been partnering with the River Network to assist laity and clergy who would like to plant a church. Just recently the GM Church’s Transitional Leadership Council approved an additional 13 church planters and authorized them to plant churches from Concord, North Carolina to Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California, and places in between.
Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer. A graduate of Yale Divinity School and Vanderbilt University, he is an ordained clergyperson and former colleague at Good News.
Taking Stock of Methodism’s Shift —
By Thomas Lambrecht —
At the end of July, we reached the climax of church disaffiliations for the year. The flurry of spring annual conferences approved several thousand church disaffiliations, meaning most of the churches that wanted to disaffiliate this year have been allowed to do so. Several hundred more churches are in line for disaffiliation at special annual conference sessions later this year, with the expiration of the disaffiliation process set for December 31, 2023.
At this point, we have a clearer picture of how The United Methodist Church has been affected by disaffiliation.
As of the end of July by my count, 6,191 churches have disaffiliated since 2019. That represents 21 percent of the total number of congregations present in the UM Church in 2020.
By any interpretation, that represents a significant number of churches. At the time The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was proposed in early 2020, many bishops and other church leaders were expecting about 5 percent of the churches to disaffiliate. The fact that 21 percent have done so, especially given the barriers imposed by some annual conferences, is a significant indicator of the dissatisfaction many local churches have with how the denomination has handled its theological conflict.
A substantial number of United Methodists are not convinced the UM Church can be or should be a “big tent” that accommodates both traditional and progressive understandings of theology and sexuality. The ridicule and animosity that many traditionalists have experienced because of their views made such a “big tent” seem unrealistic. Many expressed through disaffiliation their inability to live in a denomination that has de facto changed its definition of marriage and its understanding of human sexuality in contradiction to biblical teaching and seems poised to change its on-paper doctrines on these issues at the 2024 General Conference.
Where have churches disaffiliated? A disproportionate share of churches has disaffiliated in the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions. When one compares the proportion of total UM congregations with the proportion of the churches that have disaffiliated, that imbalance becomes apparent (see chart above).
For example, although 35 percent of all U.S. churches are located in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, 46 percent of the churches that disaffiliated are located in the Southeast. By contrast, 21 percent of all U.S. churches are located in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, but only 11 percent of the churches that disaffiliated are in the Northeast.
Another way of looking at this is to see what percentage of the churches in a given jurisdiction have disaffiliated. The average for the whole denomination is 21 percent. Both the Southeast and South Central experienced 28 percent of their churches disaffiliating. The North Central had 18 percent of its churches disaffiliate, the Northeast 11 percent, and the West 5 percent (see the chart on next page).
Why would this be the case? One reason is that the South has remained a traditionalist bastion within the UM Church. Annual conferences in the South have generally upheld the provisions of the Book of Discipline and abided by church teaching. Traditionalists have remained in these churches because they saw no reason to leave, despite the progressive advocacy and occasional disobedience in other parts of the denomination.
Annual conferences in the West and in parts of the Northeast and North Central have for many years agitated to change the church’s teaching on marriage. A number of those conferences have ordained or appointed self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy, mostly without any consequences. The progressive voice has been much more outspoken in these areas and is even the controlling voice of the dialog in many of them. As a result, many traditionalists have left UM churches in these areas well before 2019, seeking out churches that were more congruent with their theological understanding. Often, these turned out to be non-denominational churches.
With fewer traditionalists remaining in the United Methodist population of the North and West, proportionally fewer churches would seek to disaffiliate.
A second reason for the preponderance of disaffiliations in the South is that most southern annual conferences followed a straight Par. 2553 disaffiliation process with no added fees or costs. In some cases, annual conferences used reserve funds to pay down pension liabilities and even apportionments to reduce the cost of disaffiliation. Only two of the 26 southern conferences (South Carolina and Florida) imposed high barriers to disaffiliation. (Alabama-West Florida just made it number three going forward with their ruling that no additional churches have a valid reason to disaffiliate.)
While none of the North Central conferences imposed high barriers, several made it more difficult than it had to be. That is why the 18 percent disaffiliation rate in the North Central is close to the 21 percent denominational average and close to the 21 percent of all churches found in the North Central.
In contrast, half the Western annual conferences imposed high barriers, including charging 50 percent of property value in the California-Pacific Conference. This is part of the reason why only 5 percent of Western churches have disaffiliated. In the Northeast, half of the annual conferences have imposed high barriers to disaffiliation, which has resulted in a disaffiliation rate that is 10 points lower than the denominational average.
How is the Global Methodist Church progressing? As of the end of June, around 3,000 congregations have been formally recognized by the Global Methodist Church. With the huge wave of disaffiliations taking place in May and June, many more are in the pipeline to be approved. Well more than 3,000 clergy have also been recognized, although some of them are retired.
As of mid-July, ten provisional annual conferences have been formed in the U.S. GM Church. Outside the U.S., three provisional annual conferences and two provisional districts have been formed. Six additional U.S. annual conferences are in the process of formation and should be up and running by the end of the year. Groundwork is being laid for additional annual conferences outside the U.S., as well.
Work is being done to plan the convening General Conference of the GM Church. Local churches that want to be represented at that General Conference should move now to join the GM Church, so that they will be able to help elect delegates to serve at that conference.
GM annual conferences are meeting and holding ordination services. For example, the Eastern Texas Conference ordained 92 clergy in February and another 73 in July. Other conferences are doing the same, although in lesser numbers.
Future Prospects. In many U.S. annual conferences, the process of disaffiliation is over. About a dozen annual conferences project to have additional disaffiliations this fall. The largest group of those is nearly 200 churches in North Georgia, where the conference recently removed the “pause” that had been in place, thanks to two favorable rulings for disaffiliation in state courts.
Once Par. 2553 expires at the end of 2023, over 90 percent of annual conferences in the U.S. have made no provision for any continued disaffiliations. A few have said they will allow disaffiliation under a provision that enables an annual conference to close a church and then sell it to the congregation. These conferences have said they will sell the building to the congregation for the same cost they would have paid under Par. 2553.
Outside the U.S., the disaffiliation situation is much different. Bishops are not allowing local churches outside the U.S. to use the process in Par. 2553, even though it was meant to be operative for all churches, not just in the U.S. There is currently no process for annual conferences outside the U.S. to disaffiliate easily. A few have done so by taking an end run around the Discipline. A few more are going through the arduous process of becoming autonomous Methodist Churches, which requires the approval of General Conference, as well as the central conference.
In light of the U.S. conferences that have imposed high barriers to disaffiliation, and in light of the fact that conferences and local churches outside the U.S. have not had an equal opportunity to disaffiliate, Good News and the Renewal and Reform Coalition will be proposing the 2024 General Conference adopt a new Par. 2553 for local church disaffiliation and a new paragraph for annual conferences outside the U.S. to disaffiliate. A significant number of U.S. churches, as well as nearly all churches outside the U.S., have been denied a fair and reasonable opportunity to disaffiliate due to conflicts in conscience. This inequity must be addressed.
Again, the tragedy of this whole situation is that it did not have to be an adversarial process. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation envisioned a fair and reasonable opportunity for churches and annual conferences to learn the facts of the situation and make an informed, prayerful decision on their future alignment. It would have avoided lawsuits that have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would have minimized animosity and conflict, making it possible to envision future cooperation between the UM and GM Churches. But many leaders of the UM Church determined to block the Protocol, even though some of them signed on to it in agreement. They created a power vacuum through postponing the General Conference, and then stepped into that vacuum to run the church themselves in the way they saw fit.
Despite the adversity, the fact that 21 percent of UM congregations have been able to exercise their conscience is a testament to their perseverance and conviction. Those qualities will come in good stead for the future of those congregations.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.