KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — More than 100 Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia churches are among 264 that have officially split with the United Methodist Church (UMC) Saturday at a called special session of the Holston Conference.

The number represents 31% of churches in the conference, which stretches from the Chattanooga metro area to the Blacksburg, Va. area in the northeast. The Holston Conference now has 578 churches after starting Saturday with 842.

The departures are the culmination of a years-long rift between more traditional congregations and those that are more moderate or progressive, particularly around issues of human sexuality. A conference media release said 945 members and guests attended the session at Knoxville’s Central United Methodist.

Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett leads a worship service at Central United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. prior to a special session of the Holston Conference, April 22, 2023 during which 264 churches left the conference. (Holston Conference of the UMC)

Each church that followed a 90-day spiritual discernment process, voted at least two-thirds to “disaffiliate” and met certain financial obligations had its disaffiliation request approved Saturday. Prior to Saturday’s meeting, more than 2,000 churches nationwide had left the UMC within the last several years — most within the last nine months at special conference sessions — with numerous conferences still to hold their special sessions.

“It is a poignant day as our disaffiliating churches and withdrawing pastors have played an important role in the lives of those of us continuing in The United Methodist Church,” Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop, said in the news release. “Our conference vote today ratifying disaffiliations will not change the impact these pastors and churches have had on us.”

Saturday’s meeting, which was announced late last fall, started with a worship service — the last many of those present would attend as members of what has been the U.S.’s second-largest protestant denomination. Many of the departing churches are joining the recently established and more theologically conservative Global Methodist Church.

Jake Herron is from East Stone Gap UMC in East Stone Gap, Va., which is leaving the denomination. He told News Channel 11 after the meeting the conference’s leadership was helpful throughout the process.

“We worked through everything and the whole time we were led by the spirit, just to move into this new expression of Methodism,” Herron said.

A time-limited disaffiliation process was added to the denomination’s governing documents at the end of a contentious 2019 national conference that was called to wrestle with the issue of same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly LGBTQ clergy.

Both of those remained prohibited by the UMC at that meeting, though the vote to maintain the traditional approach was very close.

The worship service, led by Wallace-Padgett, was followed by a business meeting with just one agenda item. Voting delegates considered all the requests in a single vote, which passed.

The Three Rivers, Clinch Mountain and Appalachian districts, which lie entirely within the News Channel 11 viewing area, had a total of 97 churches leave the denomination. The Mountain View District is partly within the viewing area and had 56 churches disaffiliate.

While Herron said East Stone Gap’s decision was led by the Holy Spirit and will allow a new expression of Methodism, a church leader who is remaining UMC told News Channel 11 the churches that are staying can be part of a better Methodism.

“We have always been real people who are about social justice, we’ve just not always lived it,” said Sharon Bowers, director of churches at Emory and Henry College. “So this gives us the opportunity, one of the first opportunities I believe in the history of United Methodism, to be what we say we are, to be the church.”

The pastor of Mount Zion UMC in Afton, north of Greeneville, Maria Grimm, said she believes those who stayed and those who are leaving share a bottom-line mission.

“Now I feel like both sides can move forward to do what we’re called to do and that is to make disciples of Jesus Christ,” Grimm said.

The news release said just two of the conference’s 25 churches with more than 1,000 members disaffiliated and that about two-thirds of those leaving have fewer than 100 members. Overall, the membership shrank from 148,580 to 117,378 Saturday, a drop of 21%.

Kim Goddard, superintendent of the New River District and former pastor of Mafair UMC in Kingsport, addressed a visioning session after the business meeting and said despite the pain of the day’s events, the remaining churches had a “calling to set a new course.”

“Now we have this hour, this moment, and I believe in this time we have the potential and possibility to write a new chapter, to give us a fresh new start, to set us on a renewed and revived path of faithfulness,” Goddard told the group, according to the release.