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) — Maria Grimm doesn’t pull any punches about fissures that have widened within the United Methodist Church (UMC) since a 2019 General Conference confronted denominational divisions over issues of human sexuality.

“I think the most hurtful part of all this has been just some of the ugliness … both ways, just the ugliness shown to each other,” the pastor of Mount Zion UMC in Afton, Tenn. told News Channel 11.

A pipe organ and stained glass window at Johnson City, Tenn.’s First United Methodist Church, which is remaining in the denomination. (WJHL photo)

When she says “both ways,” Grimm refers to Methodists with more progressive views about LGBTQ issues and those like herself and her rural congregation with more traditional views.

The issue — specifically whether the UMC should ordain openly LGBTQ clergy and allow the performance of same-sex weddings — was hardly resolved at the conference. The traditional language in the church’s Book of Discipline calling the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching was upheld, but in a very close vote (53% to 47%).

The regularly scheduled quadrennial General Conference set for 2020 was postponed due to COVID, and the overall body hasn’t convened since. But the long-simmering human sexuality issue had moved front and center and that tension hasn’t abated since.

“I’ve seen colleagues that have gone to conference and hung out and were really close, and this has just caused divisions,” Grimm said.

That divided 2019 conference produced a structured exit plan for churches that wanted to leave the UMC “for reasons of conscience.”

Mt. Zion United Methodist Church pastor Maria Grimm says the division over theological issues has led to some painful personal acrimony within the church at large. (WJHL photo)

After COVID-19 caused the cancellation of the 2020 regular General Conference — the church traditionally meets every four years — a group of liberal and conservative Methodists began discussing possible “protocol legislation” that would have allowed a clean break.

Several years passed without a follow-up General Conference and the traditional, theologically conservative Global Methodist Church came into being. Conservative churches like Grimm’s began advocating for a way out before the next conference, which is now set for 2024.

Joel Cook pastors Marvin’s Chapel UMC in Jonesborough, Tenn. Some people in his predominantly conservative congregation followed events at the 2019 conference and became “highly concerned about the direction of the Methodist Church,” Cook said.

The same was true with Grimm’s congregation, as well as Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va., whose leader, Chuck Griffin, also leads the region’s chapter of the theologically conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association. Holston View, Mt. Zion and Marvin’s Chapel are among more than 200 churches that plan to leave the UMC at a called Holston Conference meeting April 22.

Resolution delayed, suspicions raised

Part of the pain and division Grimm described has arisen as the issue has dragged on over time.

Leaders at churches that are staying with the UMC talk about combatting misinformation.

“People were reading, primarily from online sources, and would come to me with different questions, some of which were truly surprising,” Elizabethton First UMC Pastor Robert Countiss said.

He said some of those questions revolved around the foundational tenets of Christianity.

“That the church was going to take a stance of where it no longer believed in the birth of Jesus, or in the resurrection, or something like that.”

Those at departing churches question just how willing some leaders are to fully inform their entire membership about the process and about the church requiring more monetarily than is fair from churches that leave in a denomination with shared property and retirement funds.

Greg Davis pastors four small, rural churches that are leaving the denomination. (WJHL photo)

“What kind of bites a lot of them is because they shut us down over 400 days during COVID and a lot of us have not rebounded monetarily,” said Greg Davis, who pastors four small churches in the Baileyton area. Davis said conferences are often taking financial statistics from pre-COVID, “when we were blooming. Now we’re having to pay extra fees on those numbers compared to what they are now.”

The delays following the 2019 conference created some hard feelings, particularly among conservative churches who often thought COVID restrictions in the UMC were overdone.

“We really had a difficult time with the fact that they weren’t going to have this protocol and that we weren’t going to have the agreement voted on that looked like was going to be something that every church could vote to go the direction they wanted to go,” Marvins Chapel’s Cook said.

Burl Lawson, a longtime member of Cassidy UMC in Kingsport, had initially grown suspicious of how the denomination’s leadership was managing the debate over human sexuality when the issue was discussed at the 2016 General Conference. The progressive side had pushed for changes to the Book of Discipline’s language around sexuality but with the majority against them, Lawson said, they had succeeded in convincing bishops to appoint a “Way Forward” commission to develop a recommended approach to the issue.

“If you went back and read the background of the individuals that were appointed it was rather obvious that it was going to come to a simple conclusion that was compatible with the progressive views,” Lawson said.

In 2020, Lawson said, he began sharing what he described as his research about how the issue was playing out in the UMC. He sent emails to multiple churches and said some stayed in communication with him as Lawson sent “probably about 50 emails” over three years.

He said some of the responses have made it clear to him “there’s in essence interference and not allowing an education process to proceed in churches.”

Lawson believes that in some of the Holston Conference’s churches, church councils “are not receptive to a wide education process” about the issue and the disaffiliation process. He said when a council decides unilaterally not to embark on the spiritual discernment process, it leaves large parts of congregations out of the process. In other cases, he said, pastors may be the ones limiting discussion and education.

Burl Lawson of Cassidy United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tenn. has mounted a campaign to provide church members with information about disaffiliation that he thinks they may not be getting from their church leadership. (WJHL photo)

Lawson said in those cases it takes someone “with the intestinal fortitude to say, ‘look, I’m concerned enough that the rest of you need to know and we need to complete the (spiritual discernment) process.'”

For his part, Lawson believes the discernment process — which not every church has gone through — leaves a full congregation educated on both sides of the issue and “equipped … to vote their individual conscience.”

No discernment process doesn’t mean ‘no transparency

Lauri Jo Cranford heads the Holston Conference’s Three Rivers District. She said churches have had full access to information about disaffiliation and that she’s had a “very busy season” sharing facts, explaining the process, answering questions and presiding over votes when those occur.

Jodie Ihfe’s congregation didn’t walk through the prescribed discernment process, but the pastor of Johnson City’s First UMC said that doesn’t mean members weren’t fully aware of the disaffiliation issue.

Ihfe said she met with every Sunday School class, small group and women’s group to answer questions and “clarify any misinformation or answer any questions I’d heard from a neighbor or somebody else who didn’t really understand our system and our denominational structure,” she said.

First UMC also had a leadership gathering with more than 50 members (over a quarter of the congregation).

“We spent an hour or more talking about what’s going on, the history that led up to this, this moment in time and what our next steps can be and should be as a congregation,” Ihfe said.

At Johnson City’s Wesley Memorial UMC, Cranford visited to answer questions and share details about disaffiliation, Pastor Ginger Isom said. Several dozen people came to that session, about 15% of the total church membership. In the end, like at First UMC, there weren’t any requests to vote on whether to proceed to the discernment process.

A small parting in Elizabethton

The division has, however, had a direct impact on Elizabethton First UMC, where Robert Countiss, who’s served the conference for nearly 40 years, recently took the pulpit.

Several members wanted to know more about the disaffiliation process — but to enter the spiritual discernment phase requires a church’s administrative council to approve.

First United Methodist of Elizabethton pastor Robert Countiss said a few members left after the church elected to stay in the denomination. (WJHL photo)

The group invited Cranford in for a discussion that Countiss said lasted about three hours, with Cranford answering “many questions.” A motion to move to the discernment process was voted on, but failed, and Elizabethton First’s official consideration of leaving the United Methodist denomination was over.

The fallout was not, as about six members have not been back since the decision was rendered.

“Two officially withdrew, and the others have just not been present since that time,” Countiss said. He said it’s not for lack of trying.

“Through the leadership of a church lay leader and a Sunday School class, they were sent letters inviting them to continue to be part of the congregation and to participate,” Countiss said. “Did not hear anything from those folks.”

But some members who had wanted the church to explore disaffiliation further stayed on board, he said, “satisfied that they had shared their point of view…

“The feeling of staying together and moving forward and being the church in our community was what they wanted to do.”

Getting past the pain

Even with all the ground rules and procedures, it hasn’t been easy, Mt. Zion’s Grimm said. Her rural church decided to enter the discernment process, had several meetings and voted unanimously to leave the denomination.

But Grimm said she believes people across the spectrum of theological beliefs who still call themselves Christians — in this case, Methodists — are “about making disciples of Jesus Christ, showing the love and grace of Jesus Christ to people.”

The pulpit at Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va. (WJHL photo)

She said she’s seen relationships among fellow believers strained and even fractured over the past several years — people who have been close in the past.

“That’s the part that hurts is just seeing where you had those close relationships, but because of this, it’s just like people are divided and no longer talking, or even being together.”

Grimm said the division is heartbreaking to her, especially when she thinks about the example she believes Christians should be setting.

“When people see the church, right now what they’re seeing is a church that can’t get along, a church that can’t move beyond their differences,” Grimm said. “To me, in a lot of ways, that’s sending the wrong signal to non-Christians.”

Grimm and Cranford are soon to be members of different denominations — though both still Methodist — and both hope those signals to folks outside the walls of the church will become more positive.

Cranford said the UMC has long included progressives, centrists and traditionalists who have studied Scripture together.

“We have agreed, and we have disagreed and we have prayed together and loved one another and worked side by side,” Cranford said. “What I would love is for us to reclaim that as part of our heritage as we move forward — that we are a diverse church, who values people and who values diversity and who values opinions that agree and opinions that disagree. And we love one another, and we serve loving one another.”

Grimm agreed, despite her belief that the human sexuality issue had reached a point of no return.

“We can fight outside of Christianity,” she said. “Scripture is highly important to me and that theological difference is very critical to me.

“But I think we should agree to disagree and be able to lovingly share Jesus Christ and show that love to each other, even when we don’t agree, rather than the ugliness and the meanness that sometimes comes out of this.”

Next: What does UMC, GMC future hold?