TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – A split in the United Methodist Church hangs over the denomination’s upcoming conference in May.

Internal disagreements within the church were cast into the world’s spotlight last year as church delegates grappled with a growing divide over LGBTQ acceptance within the denomination.

UMC leaders called a special meeting last year in an effort to find a way forward for the denomination through their disagreements over human sexuality.

That meeting concluded with the passage of a Traditional Plan that upheld what’s been called “LGBTQ bans,” meaning bans on performing same-sex marriages and appointing gay clergy members within the UMC.

The 2019 meeting led to the realization for many that there would be no compromise as one denomination, and plans for a split began to sprout in the following months.

Delegates at a special conference called to address human sexuality last year voted on the “Traditional Plan,” which reinforced bans on same-sex wedding ceremonies and appointing gay clergy members in the UMC.

Uniting and dividing

According to Rev. Carol Wilson, lead pastor at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City and a former delegate, the conversation surrounding human sexuality has been ongoing for most of the UMC’s history.

A union between The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church shaped the United Methodist Church in 1968, rising in membership to become the second-largest protestant denomination in the U.S. by 2015.

The UMC hosts what it calls a General Conference every four years. Elected delegates from regional conferences around the world shape a General Conference every four years. Delegates are equal parts laity and clergy members who are elected within their regional conference.

If the General Conference is the UMC’s Congress, then the Book of Discipline acts as its Constitution. The Book outlines the church’s laws and doctrines, and members of the General Conference vote on legislation and amendments.

Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church lead pastor Carol Wilson said the issue surrounding human sexuality has been ongoing for most of the UMC’s history.

Wilson, who served as a district superintendent for five years, characterizes the legislative process as the church’s “work” that affects how the church can carry out ministry.

“In our Book of Discipline, we can say a lot and be very explicit or we can a little and be implicit, or we can say nothing,” Wilson said. “That’s true about any topic that affects our ministry. That’s true about human sexuality as well.”

Formal or informal groups within the church can develop plans to present at General Conference as legislation. Then, delegates selected from each regional conference consider the legislation through an anonymous voting process.

“(The delegates) can amend it, they can approve it, they can defeat it,” Wilson explained. “Whatever is approved is submitted to our Book of Discipline and serves then as our governance for the whole denomination.”

In 1972, four years after the birth of the UMC, members of the General Conference voted to add passages to the Book of Discipline barring “any self-avowed practicing homosexual” church member from becoming clergy and banning church officials from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The Book also outlines discipline for clergy who defy those passages. The Traditional Plan passed at the 2019 conference strengthened punishments for those defying passages on human sexuality.

Wilson said it’s been a topic of discussion ever since, cumulating in a special meeting called last year in an attempt to address the issue.

The special conference concluded with a vote that passed a traditional plan that reinforced the existing passages restricting same-sex marriages and LGBTQ clergy.

“Now we’re trying to decide what language helps us going forward,” Wilson said. “Does it help us to modify that language, does it help us to remove that language (or) does it help us to keep that language?”

The widening rift

At the heart of the church’s tension is the lens through which its members read scripture.

First Broad Street United Methodist Church associate pastor Missy Belote explained that different interpretations of scripture lead to differences in opinion on how the church should handle certain issues.

First Broad Street Associate Pastor Missy Belote said the size of the church encompasses different views – including different ways of interpreting scripture.

“We have folks who take a more traditional look at scripture, they may have a tendency to read it in a more literal way,” she said.

“The folks on the other side will take a look at scripture and see cultural context, what was happening in society in that time. So from that point of view and study, they have arrived at a different conclusion.”

After the 2019 conference, new legislation passed that would give churches that disagree with the Book of Discipline amendments an “exit ramp” to disaffiliate from the denomination.

Before the 2019 conference returned a ruling in favor of the Traditional Plan, Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the traditionalist Wesleyan Covenant Association, wrote an editorial in favor of providing such an exit ramp for local churches and allow them to retain assets and liabilities.

“The WCA believes a generous exit path is essential for the health and viability of the denomination and local churches,” he wrote in the 2018 editorial.

According to the WCA’s website, the association is comprised of traditionalist leaders within the UMC who “believe change is coming to The United Methodist Church.”

Plans of separation sprouted following the 2019 conference, penned by different groups within the denomination.

Even if a plan is passed at this year’s conference, it would likely be years before anything would take effect according to church leaders.

The plans offer different ideas for separation – one outlines a complete dissolution of the UMC to create four new denominations, while another proposal leaves the door open for other denominations to be formed.

One plan, dubbed the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” sailed through headlines last month, but district superintendent Lauri Jo Cranford said it’s not certain which route the General Conference will take on the issue.

“The reality is, whatever goes when it’s proposed on the floor, it could go through multiple changes there and look very different coming out,” Cranford said. “We can talk about the what if’s of certain plans, and those plans may never even be voted on.”

Lauri Jo Cranford supervises almost 80 congregations in northeast Tennessee. She said the divide in the church has been accelerating in the last few years.

Cranford said The Protocol gained traction because a diverse group of UMC members representing traditionalist, centrist and progressive-minded values authored the proposal with a moderator.

The proposal would retain the UMC while giving traditionalist congregations the ability to form a new denomination while keeping church properties and $25 million in UMC funds.

The UMC would continue in that plan, which also hints toward a restructuring of the remaining global UMC into regions with the flexibility to adapt church policies, including those regarding LGBTQ inclusion.

“I think it gave them an opportunity to work with people that they might typically see themselves as working against, and it brought them together and it brought them to something that is more of the middle and more encompassing of who we are,” Cranford said.

Even if a new plan is accepted at May’s conference, Cranford said it will be years before the denomination is ready to organize a split. Legislators would have to tease out details surrounding things like dividing finances and assets and organizing the structure of a potential new denomination.

The only certainty, she said, is that the conference will conclude with more questions than answers.

Finding a way forward

Wilson and other area pastors put their trust in the 862 delegates selected to represent the UMC at the upcoming conference.

This is about us organizing for ministry, it’s us doing our work, but our lead story is about being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ,” she said.

“What holds us together is so much stronger than any opinion we might have on any topic.”

Pastors at local churches say they believe faith will carry them through any difficulties that arise.

Cranford’s family shares deep roots in the UMC and stretches back for generations, but she said staying in the church has always been a conscious choice for her.

The way she sees it, the church finds its strength in its diversity.

“I like that I’m at the table, whether it be a communion table, a meeting table or a worship table, with people who agree with me, with people who disagree with me, people who read scripture in a similar way, people who read scripture differently,” she said.

Wilson and Cranford said having a church spread over multiple cultures presents its own set of challenges.

The UMC’s branches extend into countries with little progress in terms of LGBTQ human rights. In some of those countries, homosexuality is criminalized.

In others, it’s punishable by death.

The UMC spreads across different countries with different cultures, which can make compromising on things like human sexuality difficult, Wilson said.

Sweeping church legislation across the entire denomination would affect conferences in such regions. That adds to the challenge delegates are facing, Wilson said.

“In all honesty, it’s a challenge for us on everything, because we’re always trying to honor other persons,” she said.

For Cranford, the division created by those differences can be disheartening.

She noted that the UMC general conferences line up with presidential election years in the U.S., and noted that division has been heating up the last few years.

“The frustration in that and the short-sightedness in that is rather than us being shaped by culture, the hope is and the ministry of the church is to be shaping culture,” she said.

Wilson and other local pastors agree that the best thing they can do is pray and focus on serving their communities.

“What holds us together is so much stronger than any opinion we might have on any topic so we are willing to honor each other, to try to seek to be faithful to God’s calling, and that’s what’s most important to us,” she said.

The annual conference will meet in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 5-15 to consider legislation including the potential plans to split the denomination.