By John Lomperis
Congregations who wish to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church (UMC) have a historic, rapidly expiring opportunity to keep their church buildings and parsonages. Despite the historic nature of this opportunity, proceeding with United Methodist disaffiliation can seem scary, even in conferences where the bishops have not effectively locked the exit doors.
Yet, it is important to understand that your congregation not voting for United Methodist disaffiliation before your final annual conference session this year is itself a major decision. That would be a decision to permanently stay United Methodist. There are no clear exit alternatives that your congregation would have after your annual conference’s final session this year (usually no later than June, although some conferences have scheduled special sessions in the fall). Any promises some bishops have made to potentially offer an alternative exit path within your annual conference after 2023 can be unilaterally rescinded by one UMC official or another, just as easily as we have seen so many bishops rescind other solemn vows and promises in recent years.
It is a major decision, either way.
But I have recently gathered detailed testimonies from several congregations who have decided that they needed to pursue United Methodist disaffiliation, even with all the daunting challenges of building consensus in the congregation, raising the finances required from the UMC, and questions about the future.
Obviously, every congregation’s story is unique. But as your own congregation perhaps considers stepping out in faith and pursuing United Methodist disaffiliation, it may be helpful to consider the testimonies of others who have gone before you. Thanks to their brave steps, these are no longer uncharted waters. These congregations span a range of sizes, internal cultures, and contexts, from a range of different states and annual conferences.
Building consensus is one major challenge.
In one larger South Central Jurisdiction congregation, lay opposition to United Methodist disaffiliation centered on skepticism that denominational leaders would openly defy the official rules of our denomination. This skepticism was quickly mollified by the sharing of the official report of how the New England Annual Conference had formally committed to “nonconformity” with the biblical, duly established moral standards of the UMC Book of Discipline. There are plenty of other examples that could have been shared from across the country. But for this congregation, that was enough, and their vote to disaffiliate was nearly unanimous.
Facts are our friends.
In one Midwestern congregation, a relatively small group within the membership eagerly rushed forward to hurry the congregation into United Methodist disaffiliation. But the reasons why they wanted this, or even what the congregation was really being asked to decide, were not clear to many outside this limited group. Predictably, things did not go well with this group’s initial failures to communicate.
But then this congregation stepped back and tried a different approach, consisting of multiple town hall meetings offering a wide range of information and involvement throughout the congregation. It is vitally important that in such discernment, members of a range of perspectives be given a chance to share information and have their concerns heard. In this congregation, the more members learned the facts about the current situation in the UMC, the more consensus steadily built. By the time of the church conference, this congregation, which had previously been divided on the question of United Methodist disaffiliation, voted by well over 90 percent to disaffiliate!
Even congregations that are theologically divided have reached strong consensus to pursue United Methodist disaffiliation as members, through ongoing discernment, learn the facts about the UMC’s dysfunction and decline as well as the increasingly unchecked liberal extremism and intolerance of its leaders.
From another congregation, one couple shared:
“For years we have been warned that the United Methodist Church was becoming more liberal and moving away from traditional Biblical theology. Being a small, rural congregation, we ‘assumed’ this would have no effect on us. We continued to worship, using the Bible as our guide, all the while maintaining our obligations to the United Methodist Church.”
But then their lay leader returned from their annual conference session with a report of a new liberal stance their region of the UMC had taken, along with the denomination’s growing intolerance of non-liberals. Now the once seemingly distant problems of the denomination were coming much closer.
This couple continued:
“This was a scary thought. How would we as a couple react? We have worshipped in this church 50+ years, we have been very active, and our church family has been very important in our Christian walk. We wondered if we should walk away and try to find another church? It was a very stressful and unsettling time.
We felt the United Methodist Church was changing the rules, becoming more worldly, more politically correct, and ignoring God’s Word.
God’s timing is perfect. A Pastor was sent to us who was willing to inform us of the disaffiliation process and guide us through it.
The United Methodist Church would not allow us to just walk away, many obstacles were put in place, none were easy to complete, and the financial ‘ransom’ fee felt unreasonable as well as unreachable. All of this was infuriating.
The vote to disaffiliate was nerve racking, requiring 2/3 of the membership, not just a majority. The time of the vote came. It seemed the counting took forever. The results were announced, what a BLESSING, 99 percent were in favor of disaffiliation. Relief, joy, happy tears, filled the sanctuary that evening.
God has been faithful, our documentation was complete in the allotted time, by people working diligently, and finances were made available.
The day the announcement was made that we were officially disaffiliated, it was met with much joy, at last we would be able to worship as the Bible says and have ownership of our building.
This decision has hopefully eliminated tears, sleepless nights, and that unsettled feeling for many. PRAISE GOD!”
The lay leader from this same small, rural congregation shared that what was instrumental for building consensus on United Methodist disaffiliation was having meetings where they could hear from one conservative and one liberal leader within their annual conference, to fairly hear both sides.
Overcoming financial obstacles
It must be remembered that staying United Methodist is itself a very long-term and costly commitment, financially and otherwise. However, paying the large one-time fee required for disaffiliation, which some annual conferences have needlessly and greedily inflated, can still seem daunting.
This same lay leader shared about how his small, rural congregation of 60-80 people raised more than $85,000 within two months, including a collection of $45,000 on a single day. He said, “I firmly believe that God blessed us miraculously and affirmed our decision to leave the UMC.”
The pastor of a Southern congregation averaging over 400 in worship told me: “My own church … had a disaffiliation number of $484,000. We set out to raise the figure and two weeks later had raised $750,000. We paid our disaffiliation, set up designated funds for children, students, and missions, and [are] moving forward in a mighty way.” While that congregation is larger and faced fewer annual conference barriers than many others, that is rather dramatic fundraising over a short period of time.
I spoke at length with a pastor of a congregation in a Northern jurisdiction, whose annual conference leadership was choosing to charge them much more than was required by the Discipline. The price tag they were given was roughly equivalent to the congregation’s entire annual budget, or about half of its earlier-assessed property value. It was intimidating.
But this second-career pastor drew on his business background. He told the story far and wide about how the congregation was taking this major step to pursue faithfulness. They raised some 25 percent of the funds they needed from outside the congregation, including friends who live elsewhere and people in the community who were impressed with their stand for faithfulness. For their part, some members sold possessions to help raise the money. At one point, the pastor suddenly came into possession of an unneeded car, which he promptly sold to give the proceeds towards disaffiliation fundraising.
This congregation ultimately ended up raising enough money to fully cover disaffiliation costs and also get into a strong enough financial position to pay off a second mortgage!
One woman from a large congregation (whose United Methodist bishop was notoriously heavy-handed) told me of her congregation being charged a needlessly “exorbitant fee” to disaffiliate, forcing them to borrow money. The pastor and leaders helped the membership understand the hefty price tag. As this lay member recalled:
“Fair or unfair, they knew the story. Even with the unfair fees being required by the conference, our church members still wanted to disaffiliate from the UMC. We wanted to contend for the Lord and His Word…all of them.”
They borrowed what they needed in the early fall of last year.
“Before the close of 2022, less than four (4) months later, on Christmas Eve, our borrowed funds had been paid back! Our church members stepped up to the plate and paid off our loan. We are now debt free and planning on worshiping passionately, loving extravagantly, and witnessing boldly as a new Global Methodist Church. The air seems fresher and cleaner at our congregation now. We wish this for all those considering disaffiliating from the United Methodist denomination.”
Facing fears of loss
With United Methodist disaffiliation, as with any other major change in a congregation, there are understandable worries about potentially losing people in the transition. But we need not let such fears paralyze us.
One pastor recalled, “We lost a few people who hated to pay the disaffiliation fee.” But then the congregation “has had more visitors and more join in the last five months than in the previous five years.” Its worship attendance has now significantly increased, which the pastor credits to “God at work drawing people in.”
There are other stories of congregations growing after they disaffiliated, even making up for the losses of others.
For example, I recently learned of one little congregation that for the last several years had only seen an average of 30 people in worship, but after they disaffiliated on December 10, saw their average weekly worship shoot up to 80, which is far more than doubling!
Whether your congregation chooses United Methodist disaffiliation or to remain, it is a major decision either way. Either path brings significant costs and uncertainties.
But United Methodist disaffiliation is no longer as uncharted as it was a couple years ago. If you go that route, there are now over two thousand congregations who have gone before you.
If your congregation is considering United Methodist disaffiliation, there are many helpful things you can learn by seeking out and hearing about the experience of other congregations near you who have already made that transition.
John Lomperis is director of UMAction, a program of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, and a three-time delegate to General Conference.