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.