Editor’s Note: This is one of three stories on a split in the United Methodist Church (UMC) as some congregations have elected to “disaffiliate” due to conflicts — including an ongoing debate over human sexuality and the church’s stance on it. News Channel 11 spoke with congregations in the area who are planning to remain UMC and others who will be leaving about the reasons, process and feelings surrounding their decisions.
WEBER CITY, Va. and JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Global Methodist Church (GMC) isn’t even officially 18 months old, but it can expect to add a bucket load of new congregations after April 22.
That’s when the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) will shrink significantly during a called meeting at Central United Methodist Church in Knoxville. The meeting is part of a split that’s impacting the UMC nationwide, with more than 2,000 churches in other conferences already having left and dozens of conferences yet to meet.
A couple hundred churches in the Holston Conference are observing their last Easter weekend as United Methodists, including close to 100 in News Channel 11’s viewing area. About 600 others will remain United Methodist in the sprawling conference that stretches from Chattanooga, Tenn. metro area through East Tennessee and as far northeast as Galax, Va.
“We’ve got all our signs down right now for changing,” Chuck Griffin, pastor of Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va. told News Channel 11. Holston View voted to “disaffiliate” from the UMC after a 90-day spiritual discernment process the conference required of churches that wanted to consider leaving.
In conversations with leaders from churches that will stay UMC and those that won’t, News Channel 11 learned the faithful are approaching the future with a mix of hope, uncertainty and determination to continue fulfilling Methodism’s mission.
“I get asked this question quite a bit by church members — ‘What’s gonna happen in 2024?” Johnson City First United Methodist Church Pastor Jodie Ihfe said during an interview with several pastors from churches that are staying part of the UMC.
“And I’ll tell you what I tell them – I have no idea. I have hope for the future of the denomination to continue to do what it has always done, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Maria Grimm pastors Mt. Zion UMC in Afton, just north of Greeneville, Tenn. Her church voted to disaffiliate and to join the GMC, something that should become official May 29. She hopes for a similar focus within the GMC that Ihfe wants to see as the UMC moves forward.
“Know that we’re about the same thing and just proclaim Jesus Christ you know and go our separate ways but work together to make disciples,” Grimm said during an interview at Griffin’s Holston View.
Holston View is also going GMC after a March 5 vote to apply for membership in the new denomination, which will follow a more conservative theological approach than the UMC. The older denomination’s doctrine currently forbids ordaining openly LGBTQ pastors and allowing same-sex weddings. But denomination-wide votes on that topic have become increasingly close and some conservatives say UMC churches in certain regions have openly flouted the church discipline on the subject.
“Two weeks ago, we got approved to join the Global Methodist Church,” said Griffin, who’s been a leader among regional churches that are departing. He leads the region’s Wesleyan Covenant Association, a six-year-old theologically conservative Methodist group that was instrumental in the conception and formation of the GMC.
“You have to agree to abide to the transitional discipline for the new GMC,” Griffin said. “There always needs to be some order, there needs to be some understanding of what our doctrine is, but it’s the kind of thing that conservative Methodists are going to be very comfortable with.”
He’s not certain how many of the departing Holston Conference churches will immediately join the GMC but said the trend in conferences that have already held their disaffiliation meetings has been for about half of departing churches to join the new denomination. Becoming an independent Methodist church is also an option.
Marvin’s Chapel UMC in Boone’s Creek is also disaffiliating, but pastor Joel Cook hopes the separation won’t end partnerships with churches that stay in the Holston Conference.
“I think that we would definitely continue the ministries that we are involved in as much as possible, for instance, the Melting Pot,” Cook said, referring to a downtown Johnson City feeding ministry that runs out of Munsey Memorial UMC.
“We do once a month and we give out 160-plus sandwiches and meals that we prepare.”
The remaining churches could find themselves wrestling more closely with tough questions about sexuality. Ginger Isom, the pastor at Wesley Memorial UMC in Johnson City, said she believes the LGBTQ community has suffered inside the church.
Isom said the intense discussions about LGBTQ issues in the runup to the disaffiliations — it’s lasted more than three years — could actually bring some positive long-term results for that community within the UMC.
“The suicide rate of attempts at suicide is what, three to four times greater than among heterosexual youth? And I think that’s a concern for me as a person because we’re a church that talks about offering life,” Isom said.
“Jesus says ‘I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly,'” she added. “But when we realize that that attempt at suicide is there, it’s not because they’re LGBTQ, it’s because they don’t have the support and they’re discriminated against. How is that life-giving? So I’m hoping that this will help us as a church to become more life-giving to those in the LGBTQ community.”
Lauri Jo Cranford anticipates some migrations between churches of people who are overly dissatisfied with their home church’s decision on the issue.
“We will have some of that and we might have some people migrating in,” the superintendent of the conference’s Three Rivers District said.
Cranford isn’t worried, though, that the split won’t leave a UMC that’s homogeneous in its approach to theology, politics or social issues.
“I think I would have been at first, but as I see the churches who were staying, there’s such good diversity … and I’m so thankful that I don’t believe that’s going to be an issue,” she said.
Cranford said a large part of her is grieving the coming meeting.
“When we have that vote, I think, for me, it’s going to be a time to kind of take a deep breath and say, ‘okay, this part’s done,'” Cranford said. “But I also think that I am not prepared for the emotions that are going to hit that day, and then the days ahead …I don’t even know how to anticipate it.”
She said the worship service that will precede the called meeting “will be beautiful and will be very meaningful and yet very hard, knowing that that’s the last time we’ll do that as Holston Conference as I’ve known and loved it.”
Cranford is looking forward to the day after the meeting — a Sunday — despite the future’s uncertainty.
“We’re going to go back into our churches and we’re going to say, ‘okay, here’s where we’re going now,” she said, mentioning “amazing ministries at churches small and large.
“We have churches that are looking at ways of opening their doors to feed and clothe and to take care of those who need caring for so I think on the 23rd it’s ‘okay, here we go, we’re going back into it.’ And I’m excited about that part.”