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.