By Thomas Lambrecht
As of this week, over 3,000 U.S. churches have now disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church since 2019. This means the denomination has lost ten percent of its congregations. More annual conference votes are scheduled for the weeks ahead, and it is estimated that nearly 5,000 churches will have disaffiliated in the U.S. by the end of this year.
Disaffiliation is only the first of two crucial decisions for a congregation’s future. The second decision is whether to affiliate with another denomination or remain independent. And if the decision is to join another denomination, which one?
At last count, over 2,000 congregations had officially joined the Global Methodist Church, with many more in the pipeline to be approved. That makes it far and away the most popular choice among disaffiliating churches. There have been a few congregations that have joined other Methodist/Wesleyan denominations or formed informal networks of (mainly) large churches.
The choice to remain independent is probably the second most popular choice of disaffiliating churches. This article makes the case that connection to a denomination is a vital aspect of Christianity, and particularly of our Wesleyan heritage.
In Our DNA
Connection to one another is in the very DNA of Methodism. That connection began with the formation of small groups called “class meetings,” clusters of twelve who met together weekly for encouragement and accountability. In Wesley’s words, they “united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation” (Book of Discipline, p. 78).
The key to the connection was “watching over one another in love” and “helping each other to work out their salvation.” Accountability and encouragement together led many to a steady growth in faith and kept them from falling away.
As Methodism grew, only those preachers who were “in connection” with John Wesley were allowed to preach in Methodist gatherings. That personal connection was again for the purpose of accountability and encouragement. It ensured that only Methodist doctrine was proclaimed from the pulpit. Those “in connection” with Wesley met annually (the annual conference) to pray for one another and to ensure that they were still all on the same page in terms of doctrine and practice. After Wesley’s death, the connection transferred to the annual conference itself. The Methodist preachers were in connection with each other and still met annually for accountability and encouragement.
Over the last 200 years, connectional accountability has been weakened and, in some instances, lost altogether. That is why the Global Methodist Church is so determined to reestablish that personal relationship of accountability and encouragement among its clergy.
That same principle of connection extends to congregations, as well. Congregations that are independent and not connected can easily come to feel isolated and alone, in need of encouragement. And they can easily lose the ability to hold themselves accountable to the mission of the church and to acting with integrity to live out the Jesus way of life and ministry.
Recent Examples of Needed Accountability
Just last week, it was announced that an influential evangelical pastor and author was placed on an indefinite leave of absence from Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville. The pastor, Scott Sauls, “apologized for an unhealthy leadership style that harmed the people who worked for him and the church.” The leave came about after an investigation by the Nashville Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. The investigation found that the church’s lay elders were also responsible for allowing an unhealthy culture on the church’s staff.
The involvement of a denominational accountability system enabled this church and pastor to address a problem before it blew up the church. Problems could be identified and remedies sought in order to correct the problems. The hoped-for result will be a healthier church and a pastor with a healthier leadership style. (In the interest of full disclosure, Good News magazine published an article by Rev. Sauls in the March/April issue. This was prior to the action by the presbytery.)
Contrast that way of addressing a similar problem with what happened at the Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Formed in 1996, by its peak in 2013 Mars Hill Church had an average weekly attendance of over 12,300 at 15 locations. When allegations of bullying and unhealthy leadership style surfaced regarding Pastor Mark Driscoll, the church had to attempt to resolve these issues on its own. Driscoll refused to accept the church’s proposed remediation steps and resigned. By 2015, Mars Hill Church dissolved and closed, and many of its other locations became separate, independent congregations.
Without the stability of outside oversight and denominational support, Mars Hill was unable to address an unhealthy leadership culture and ultimately could not survive as a church.
The sexual abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Church (SBC) is another illustration of the importance of denominational support and accountability. Although the SBC is considered a denomination, it is really an association of independent churches. There is little denominational structure for holding pastors accountable for misdeeds or even communicating with other prospective churches that a potential pastor was found to have problems. The association has no authority to impose accountability on a local church.
When SBC pastors were accused of wrongdoing, they often just left their church and became a pastor at another congregation. Serial abusers were never caught and continued their abusive behavior. Churches have become potentially liable for million-dollar lawsuits filed by abuse victims. Without a denominational accountability and support structure, those congregations are left pretty much on their own to deal with a horrendous problem.
None of these examples are meant to besmirch the integrity of the denominations or networks associated with the clergy in question. United Methodists who have served on their annual conference’s board of ordained ministry are well aware that these kinds of challenges are confronted in all denominations.
At the same time, being independent sounds great, especially in reaction to the, at times, heavy-handed, top-down United Methodist denominational culture. That is, until the local church must find its next pastor all on its own, ensuring that they adequately vet the candidate for doctrinal fidelity, ministry effectiveness, and lifestyle congruence with the Gospel.
Beyond These Walls
A positive example of what a denominational connection can do was featured in the recent Beyond These Walls (BTW) missions conference held at The Woodlands Methodist Church in the Houston area. Originally put together by missions pastors at a number of large Methodist churches, BTW this year more than doubled in size, thanks to the denominational connections through the Global Methodist Church. BTW brought in top-notch speakers and workshop leaders to inspire, minister to, and equip local church pastors and lay leaders to make missions a key part of their ministry. It was the highest quality missions conference I have ever attended!
The personal connections local mission leaders could make at BTW with mission agencies will allow them to expand the mission outreach of their local churches. Dozens of workshops helped leaders learn how to do mission work more effectively, whether across the street or across the globe. At the conference, the Global Methodist Church announced the launch of its new mission portal that will become the denomination’s platform for connecting local churches to missions around the world. These blessings are not nearly as available to, nor are they as likely to be taken advantage of, by independent congregations not in connection.
It is often pointed out that connection has a multiplier effect in mission and ministry. Churches banding together in a common project or ministry can accomplish things that no single congregation can accomplish on its own. Opportunities for partnership and common action abounded at BTW.
I am, of course, biased in favor of the Global Methodist Church as the best option for disaffiliating UM congregations. I respect the integrity and effectiveness of its leaders, and I have confidence in the new denominational structure they are building that focuses on equipping and empowering local churches as the primary locus of ministry.
But whether it is the GMC or another denomination, the best option for local churches is to be in connection with other congregations that share their beliefs and values. As congregations make that second important decision, I hope they will move toward connection—it’s who we are as Christians and as Methodists!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo: Lead Pastor, the Rev. Mark Sorensen, prays over next-generation leaders at the church conference where The Woodlands Methodist Church voted 96 percent to align with the Global Methodist Church. Photo by Steve Beard.