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One-fifth of United Methodist churches in US have voted to disaffiliate
March vote to leave did not pass at Statesboro First UMC
While members of Statesboro First United Methodist Church voted to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church in March, the measure failed due to not reaching the two-thirds majority required to leave. - photo by JIM HEALY/staff

In March, members of Statesboro First United Methodist Church voted heavily in favor of choosing to no longer remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church. However, despite a 418-210 vote for disaffiliation, with six abstentions, the vote fell short of the two-thirds majority vote required to leave.

Since 2019, thousands of the approximately 30,000 UMC churches in the United States have taken similar votes. So far, more than 6,000 United Methodist congregations — a fifth of the U.S. total — have received permission to leave the denomination amid a schism over theology and the role of LGBTQ people in the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.

Those figures emerge following the close of regular meetings in June for the denomination's regional bodies, known as annual conferences. The departures began with a trickle in 2019 — when the church created a four-year window of opportunity for U.S. congregations to depart over LGBTQ-related issues — and cascaded to its highest level this year.

Church law forbids the marriage or ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” but many conservatives have chosen to leave amid a growing defiance of those bans in many U.S. churches and conferences.

Many of the departing congregations are joining the Global Methodist Church, a denomination created last year by conservatives breaking from the UMC, while others are going independent or joining different denominations.

Some 6,182 congregations have received approval to disaffiliate since 2019, according to an unofficial tally by United Methodist News Service, which has been tracking votes by annual conferences. That figure is 4,172 in 2023 alone, it reported.


Statesboro UMC

Statesboro First United Methodist has been a part of its denomination’s South Georgia Conference since the local church was founded in 1886 and of the United Methodist Church since unification in 1968.

On March 12, members voted, by paper ballot, “yes” or “no” to the question:

“Shall Statesboro First United Methodist Church disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church for reasons of conscience over disagreements related to human sexuality, or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues…?”

Following the vote, John Ashley Welch, chair of the Church Council, sent out an email that read, in part:

“The last several months have been a difficult time for our church as we have struggled with the decision of whether to remain members of the United Methodist denomination … I would ask everyone to take a few days for reflection, prayer, forgiveness, and healing. I call upon our leaders and all members of our congregation to move forward with peace and unity, and to refocus on our mission – to serve, empowering people to live Christ-centered lives.”

It was reported, some members requested to have another vote that was denied.


Departing congregations

While most UMC congregations are remaining, many of the departing congregations are large, and denominational officials are bracing for significant budget cuts in 2024.

The numbers of exiting churches are higher than conservatives originally estimated, said the Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative caucus that has advocated for the exiting churches.

Legal wrangles have largely been resolved over how much compensation the departing congregations must pay for their property and other financial obligations.

“For the most part, bishops and other annual conference leaders have been very gracious, and I deeply appreciate that,” Therrell said. “There have been some small exceptions to that, and those are unfortunate, but we’re grateful that cooler and calmer heads have prevailed.”

Bishop Thomas Bickerton, president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops, said the departures were disappointing.

“I don’t think any of us want to see any of our churches leave,” he said. “We're called to be the body of Christ, we're called to be unified. There’s never been a time when the church has not been without conflict, but there’s been a way we’ve worked through that.”

But for those who want “to go and live out their Christian faith in a new expression, we wish God’s blessings on them,” he said.


Origins of the split

The split has been long in the making, mirroring controversies that have led to splits in other mainline Protestant denominations. United Methodist legislative bodies, known as general conferences, have repeatedly reinforced bans on LGBTQ marriage and ordination, on the strength of coalitions of conservatives in U.S. and overseas churches.

But amid increased defiance of those bans in many U.S. churches, many conservatives decided to launch the separate Global Methodist Church, saying they believed the sexuality issues reflected deeper theological differences.

The departures have been particularly large in the South and Midwest, with states such as Texas, Alabama, Kentucky and Ohio each losing hundreds of congregations.

In some areas, United Methodists have designated “lighthouse” or similarly named congregations, with a mission for receiving members who wanted to stay United Methodists but whose churches were leaving. The GMC has begun planting new churches, including in areas where United Methodist congregations have remained in that denomination.

With these departures, progressives are expected to propose changing church law at the next General Conference in 2024 to allow for same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ people.

The United Methodist Church has about 6.5 million members in the United States and at least that many abroad, according to its website. The U.S. membership has been in steady decline, while the overseas membership has grown, particularly in Africa.

Therrell said there will be efforts at the 2024 General Conference to provide overseas churches a legal way to disaffiliate, similar to what U.S. congregations have had.

The GMC says about 3,000 churches so far have affiliated with the new denomination, with more expected.

Bickerton said it's time for United Methodists remaining in the denomination to refocus their work.

“Quite often, when you’re pressed, you begin to exhibit creativity,” he said. “We’re pivoting away from what we were into what our next expression is going to be." Budgets will be smaller, but "this is our opportunity to refashion the church for relevance in the 21st century and really focus on evangelism.”

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