JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Christianity’s waiting season of Advent drew to a close on Christmas Sunday, but the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) Holston Conference — and the entire denomination — is in a waiting period of its own.
The conference’s 800-plus churches have a called meeting April 23, 2023 — a gathering almost sure to end with dozens, if not more than 100, of Holston’s churches being approved for “disaffiliation,” or leaving the fold.
The primary cause is the church’s approach to LGBTQ issues. The controversial topic has roiled the U.S.’s second-largest Protestant denomination since coming to a head at the UMC’s last general conference in 2019.
“I hate to use sides, but no matter what side you are on there were things said that was hurtful, that was painful,” Holston Conference Director of Communications Rev. Tim Jones told News Channel 11. The conference includes all the churches in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
A narrow majority in 2019 voted to retain bans on same-sex weddings and practicing LGBTQ clergy, but some church leaders with traditional views on the subject expressed concern.
“I think for some churches, thinking that things in the discipline may change but as well as looking at becoming more independent and not being under the particular governing system that we’re under,” Jones said.
That system is centralized, with the church owning all property and using an itinerant system that moves bishops and pastors around. Along with a sense that the church’s Book of Discipline might someday become affirming of openly same-sex clergy and the conducting of same sex weddings, some more conservative churches may have been concerned about the potential arrival of a more liberal pastor or bishop, Jones said.
“I think a lot of it, this is my personal opinion, a lot of it is fear of the unknown,” Jones said. “And I think that is again on all sides, because you just don’t know.”
An early December called meeting of the North Alabama Conference saw 31% of its 638 churches gain approval to leave. In Texas, nearly half of churches left. Overall, with numerous conferences yet to meet, more than 1,500 churches have been approved to disaffiliate this year.
Jones said while he personally thinks the Holston Conference will see 20% or fewer of its churches leave, that could still herald a departure of 150 or more.
That prospect pains Jones, who joined the UMC after serving in another denomination partly because of what he described as a long-running open-mindedness among the United Methodists.
“I loved that I could be in a congregation that had conservatives, that had progressives, that had centrists both theologically and politically,” Jones said. “And we got along and we served together and we worshipped together, and I just I find a real beauty in that.
“I’m just saddened that some of my, my good friends are considering leaving over how we interpret this particular scripture.”
The path to parting
They may be starting at a lot of unknowns, but what United Methodists do know is that LGBTQ issues are a divisive topic in their denomination and across the American church. Leaders also knew in 2019 that a growing number of their churches were considering an exit.
That conference ended with a new paragraph in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, which essentially serves as a constitution for the church. Paragraph 2553 lays out specific steps for “Disaffiliation of Local Churches Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.”
The book’s text acknowledges “the current deep conflict within the United Methodist Church around issues of human sexuality.” It gives local churches “a limited right” to disaffiliate over “reasons of conscience regarding a change” in the Book of Discipline’s requirements related to “the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals…”
Churches that followed the detailed process and voted two-thirds in favor of leaving the UMC would be able to keep their property and even continue sponsoring voluntary employment benefit plans through the UMC’s program, under certain conditions.
The process kicked into gear in earnest this year, as conferences specified their ground rules. In the Holston Conference, that included what Jones called a 90-day “spiritual discernment process” for churches that wanted to move toward a vote. He said that process isn’t narrowly defined.
“We just ask that it be something that they take seriously,” he said. “Spend a lot of time and prayer, spend a lot of time in conversation. We’ve got a set of questions for them to consider.”
Churches that move on to a vote of more than two-thirds in favor of leaving then start a process involving paperwork. Some in the Holston Conference have already reached that stage, but Jones said the conference is declining to give specifics yet realizing some churches still might reverse their decisions — something he said has occurred in other conferences.
At some point before the April meeting, Jones said, the conference will release a list of the churches that will be up for a vote. Most conferences have approved all or the vast majority of proposed departures, he said.
What can be salvaged?
It’s likely that some departing churches will join a new Wesleyan movement called the Global Methodist Church. Wherever they go, Jones said he hopes the coming split diminishes potential bitterness rather than exacerbating it and that departed churches consider a continued relationship with their UMC counterparts.
“We also want to support the churches that do make the ultimate decision to disaffiliate and we don’t want to do anything to hurt them,” Jones said. “We don’t want to burn any type of bridges.”
He said conference staff are discussing what they’ll do about existing cross-church projects and partnerships, from combined Easter services to mission projects, if one church disaffiliates and the other stays.
“We still want to function and work together and ultimately hope that we can see past an interpretation issue to to get back to focusing on the mission and making disciples for the transformation of the world.”
That may be a lofty goal, but it’s not unique to the Holston Conference. Paragraph 2553 itself says that unless a disaffiliating church “expressly resolves to the contrary,” it will continue sharing “common religious bonds and convictions” with the UMC “based on shared Wesleyan theology and tradition and Methodist roots.”
Partly in response to the current situation, Holston’s bishop, Rev. Debra Wallace-Padgett, has instituted an “invitation team,” Jones said. That team meets monthly to work on helping churches understand there is a path to continued unity and it includes openness to different perspectives on difficult issues.
The team’s work includes looking at the past to say, “why is it that anyone would want to leave? What have we done that would cause people to want to leave, and we want to correct that. It’s a daunthing task, but it’s one that’s worth fighting for.”
Jones said Wallace-Padgett is pushing for churches to help people believe no matter their theological or political leanings, the Holston Conference wants them involved and needs dialogue. That includes more theologically conservative members of churches that stay in the UMC fold — people who may now have a more traditionally-minded Methodist church in their own town or city.
“So no matter who visits, it doesn’t become ‘well do I attend this because I know they believe this stance on this particular issue’ … (but) ‘I can come here and I know that everyone loves Jesus and that’s the reason and purpose that that I’m here.'”
Even Holston churches who don’t make the deadline to have a vote before April 23 will be given a chance to disaffiliate somehow before the end of 2023. Jones said the bulk of the transition will come in the spring, though, at a meeting with one agenda item but not just one activity.
“Once we gather there we will have a time of worship, we will have a time of recognizing these churches, and then we will take a vote,” Jones said.
It’s sure to be an emotional experience for Jones, who said he wishes it hadn’t come to this.
“There are so many other scriptures that we may interpret differently, but we’ve always been able to work through that and so it’s painful that this one this one is causing such a schism or such a split.”
A link to paragraph 2553 and full details over Disaffiliation over Human Sexuality in the UMC’s Book of Discipline can be found here.