Sunday, May 2, 2021

A Trickle of Churches Leaving the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church is heading towards an official split, but with the pandemic and the inability to bring in delegates representing the church in nations other than the United States, the General Conference where the plan to do so will be voted on keeps getting postponed. As of now, it won't be happening until Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022. While most parishes of the UMC are apparently waiting it out, for a few, it's just too long to reach a decision, and they are disaffiliation. It's not an easy road to take, and here I'll take a look at what makes it difficult, and review the situation of some churches that have departed or are in the process of doing so.

Complicating the decision of a church to leave the denomination is the connectional polity practiced by United Methodism, in which all property at the congregational level is held in trust 'for the benefit of the entire denomination.' Putting it plainly, people can quit the denomination, but the property stays behind, unless the annual conference approves property going with a departing congregation. Even with approval, a disaffiliating parish will have to pay up all apportionments (dues to the denomination) for prior and current years, as well as its share of the conference’s unfunded pension liability. None of that is cheap. 

United Methodist News reviewed available data and found that the 54 conferences only approved around 51 disaffiliations in 2020. I say 'only' because that seems small in comparison to the 305 churches that closed because they were too small and had become unsustainable, and because there are 31, 000 United Methodist parishes in the United States. A 0.16% decline in parish affiliations is barely a drop in the bucket. Two churches in the Texas conference have disaffiliated or plan to do so pending conference approval, but again that's only 2 of a total 640 congregations in the conference, or 0.31%. 

Although historically the UMC hasn't kept official, consolidated records of disaffiliations, it is doing so now through its General Council on Finance and Administration. The denomination's pension agency, Wespath Benefits and Investments, is keeping track of departures as will in order to ensure that clergy pension liabilities don't go unmet. Given the small numbers involved so far, and the high cost of leaving, I don't think they have a great deal to worry about until the actual split presumably takes place. 

What about the churches that are leaving? It turns out that they represent both progressive and conservative perspectives. 

Grace Fellowship Church in Katy, Texas left for the Free Methodist Church in North America in 2020, citing the 'dysfunctional fighting' within the UMC as their motivation for doing so. This was no small loss in terms of membership for the UMC, as Grace Fellowship is a megachurch consisting of nearly 3000 members. The Free Methodist Church, for its part, wanted to make clear that it isn't merely a conservative version of the UMC. It was founded in 1860 and in the roughly 160 years of its existence it has developed its own culture and values. At about 110,000 adherents in 900 congregations, the FMC is considerably smaller than the UMC, and I imagine that concerns over church culture aside, denominational leaders must be pleased to have such a sizeable church join their number. 

Three progressive churches in Maine have also taken steps to disaffiliate: HopeGateWay in Portland, Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland and Chebeague United Methodist Church in Chebeague Island. It's unclear to me at this point whether any of these will be affiliating with other denominations. HopeGateWay, which had to pay more than $350,000 to the United Methodist Church as part of the settlement to leave, has indicated that there are no immediate plans for them to do so, although they are 'in covenant' with other departing UMC churches in their area. All three of these churches cited discriminatory language and practices toward the LGBTQIA+ community as motivating their decisions.

Christ Church, a conservative congregation in Fairview Heights, Illinois, is another disaffiliating congregation. They incorporated as a new entity in 2020 and as far as I know are working through property issues with their conference. They appear to have a commitment to remaining non-denominational.

Bering Church, in Houston, Texas, is another noteworthy parish of the UMC that is on its way out.  Founded in 1848, when the population of Houston was only around 5000, the first members were German-speaking immigrants. Remarkably (to me, anyway) German remained the primary language in the worship services and Sunday School classes until 1911. Demographic changes in the 1960s and 1970s brought in 'hippies and homosexuals,' according the church website. Rather than resist the changing face of the community around it, they embraced it by committing to minister to their new neighbors and fully welcome them without discrimination or prejudice. That they were so progressive at that time is really impressive to me. I also found intriguing the statement of belief included on their website.

WHAT WE BELIEVE

If you are a first-time guest at Bering or a long-time member,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
If you are black, brown, white or anything in between,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
If you are gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, or non-gender binary,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
If you are a Native American or an immigrant friend, whether or not you have documents,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
If you are lay or clergy, male or female, young or old, abled or differently-abled, rich or poor, short or tall, wide or deep,
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
No matter what you believe or what you doubt . . .
No matter what you count on, or what you question . . .
You are not only welcome here, you are celebrated here!
At Bering, we celebrate you as a gift of the Creator,
and an individual wonder of God’s creation.

What strikes me about that statement is how humanistic it is, particularly in comparison with the usual statements of faith we find on church websites. Instead of beginning with God and the Bible and only mentioning humans as sinners, this statement is affirming of myriad ways of living a human life, and only mentions God at the very end. Obviously, evangelicals would despise it. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bering Church has opted to pursue affiliation with the United Church of Christ. Widely known as the most progressive denomination in the United States, the UCC has served as a refuge for a number of congregations whose denominations have tended to be a bit too conservative for them. The latest example I know of are the seven Reformed Church in America congregations in New York who joined the UCC in 2017. Although I don't know all the details, my understanding is that LGBTQIA+ exclusion from ordination was a deal-breaker for them. While they have maintained their affiliation with the RCA (I have to think it has to do with the conditions around endowments), they are now co-affiliated with the UCC, thus circumventing any issues of ordination or other official forms of LGBTQIA+ discrimination. 

Aside from social considerations, the UCC is also a good fit for Bering Church because no change in their current beliefs or practices will be required. As a UMC church they already practice baptism of infants and adults, and their liturgy won't have to be modified either unless there are aspects that directly reference the UMC. It isn't the intent of Bering Church to entirely abandon their Methodism, and the UCC allows plenty of room for that. 

To me, it makes more sense to wait until the General Conference, even if it's postponed again. Then again, it's not my pony show. Conservatives complain that while they stay they're spending time and resources on their denomination's issues that they could be putting into their missions. Progressives point to the ongoing sense of harm being done to LGBTQIA+ members as something that can only be ended by splitting off. 

For those who manage to wait, the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation would relieve them of the price tag for leaving, assuming it's approved. The protocol would commit $25 million over the next four years to form a new conservative or 'traditionalist' denomination. Conservatives have already taken steps in that direction by organizing the Global Methodist Church, at least on paper. With the approval of the protocol, parishes and conferences could vote to join the new denomination (or I suppose, perhaps, go off on their own), taking along their property. 

Whatever happens, it's indicative of the deep divide that exists politically, religiously, and socially in the world. While I tend to believe that denominations in general are going to continue to dwindle to a pale shadow of their former selves, and that what's considered 'progressive' today will be 'conservative' in 50 or more years, in the meantime we have to live through the struggle and do our best.