United Methodist churches face challenges as disaffiliation tops 30% in North Carolina

Published 12:38 pm Monday, March 13, 2023

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The United Methodist Church (UMC) is experiencing a major transition across the nation and the globe, resulting in a significant number of churches disaffiliating from the denomination.

About 6% of churches in the United States have chosen disaffiliation, but in North Carolina, that number is closer to 30%.

The central issue causing division revolves around human sexuality.

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The United Methodist churches in the Outer Banks and surrounding areas are part of the Beacon District, which is one of eight districts that make up the North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church (NCUMC).

In the Outer Banks and surrounding areas, there are currently 16 churches affiliated with the UMC. Some are firmly decided to remain with the denomination, and others are in discussion about making a change.

The Book of Discipline, or rule book that guides the denomination on everything from issues of doctrine to rules for clergy, holds the position that every person is of sacred worth however the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

While celibate homosexuals may be ordained as ministers, practicing homosexuals may not. Additionally, UMC ministers may not perform same-sex marriages inside the church or in other locations.

At the 2016 General Conference, over 100 clergy came out as gay, and later that year the Western Jurisdictional Conference elected Karen Oliveto, who is openly lesbian, to serve as bishop in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences, bringing mixed reactions.

In 2019, a Special Conference was held to attempt to settle the debates within the denomination about human sexuality, with 53% of global voting members opting to keep the traditional wording in the UMC Book of Discipline, which states that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidate, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

Though American churches seem to be divided on the issues on human sexuality, UMC churches in Africa are decidedly more conservative. It is believed by many that the African vote was influential in keeping the traditional wording.

Marc O’Neal, pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC in Manteo, explained that the Special Conference, which was supposed to have been the final answer, was “anything but.”

“It was supposed to make things better it only added fuel to the fire,” he added.

So while the rule states that clergy cannot be living an actively gay lifestyle, it is left up to the local conferences to enforce. When it became clear that the UMC would not pursue action against the local conferences that were not following the Book of Discipline, some congregations throughout the country and the world started making plans to disaffiliate.

Likewise, “progressive” congregations or church members who felt that the denomination was not supportive of LGBTQ persons were equally hurt and confused.

Understanding that the disunity should not continue, the current disaffiliation process or “exit plan” as determined at the 2019 conference under paragraph 2553, allows congregations to leave and keep their building for “reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline relating to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow.”

“The paragraph was developed with traditionalists, centrists, and progressives all speaking into the way that that paragraph needed to be written. And again, I think that’s evidence of the desire of General Conference to try to be helpful for all,” said David Blackman, Beacon District superintendent, who provides leadership to 53 congregations in the northeastern part of the state.

Another 25 congregations in the Beacon District have already made the decision to disaffiliate from the denomination in the last several years.

So, understanding that there were people with strong feelings on all sides of the discussion, the UMC laid out a clear plan for exiting the denomination.

Disaffiliation is allowed under certain stipulations. The time limit to process a disaffiliation must be completed by December 31, 2023. Before the deadline, a church must request a local conference to discuss the issue, and be approved by the conference. There must be a two-thirds majority vote of members present at the church conference. The terms of disaffiliation would be established by the board of trustees of the applicable annual conference. The exiting church must make payments for retired clergy pensions and pay two year’s worth of apportionments, which is an amount or tithe each congregation pays to support things like global missions, other churches and their local bishop.

This can add up depending on the size of the church. Some disaffiliating churches can expect to pay several hundreds of thousands of dollars to the UMC before they will be allowed to disaffiliate under the stated provisions.

United Methodist church buildings are not owned by the individual congregations; they are held in a trust. Disaffiliation under paragraph 2553 allows the congregations to keep their buildings once fees have been paid and legal proceedings have been completed.

The pandemic has delayed the next General Conference until April 23 – May 3, 2024, when it will be held at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Between 5,500 and 7,500 delegates will be traveling in from Africa, Europe, Asia and around the United States for the 11-day gathering.

Though the exit plan laid out in the past conference expires at the end of this year, it is unknown if the UMC will extend the disaffiliation plan in the 2024 General Conference and under what terms. Additional unknowns include whether the denomination will make further determinations or changes to the Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality, particularly since many of the more traditional U.S. churches have left, thereby removing their voice and vote in the matter.

Over 2,300 congregations have left the denomination since the 2019 General Conference. The UMC is the largest mainline protestant denomination in the United States, with over 30,000 churches.

The Methodist tradition is no stranger to conflict. Begun in the 1730s by John Wesley, the denomination has endured 80 different splits, according to Blackman, from issues relating to prohibition, women in the pulpit and the Civil War. The UMC was formed in 1968 when the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

The General Conference meets every four years, and the issue of human sexuality was a topic of conversation at the very first conference in 1972. There have been debates and conversations about sexuality at every General Conference since.

For some Outer Banks United Methodist churches, there was never a question to consider disaffiliation.

“Sharon UMC in Poplar Branch remains a part of The United Methodist Church and does so unapologetically,” said Pastor Susan Lindblade. “For 120 years, Sharon has had strong roots in United Methodism and to remain United Methodist is not abandoning one’s faithfulness to theology and tradition. Our congregation is made up of individuals who could be described as socially and theologically liberal, moderate and conservative, and we are content to minister together in a spirit of respect, living into the words of John Wesley: ‘Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike.’”

All UMC pastors who spoke to The Coastland Times agreed that their congregations share a healthy mix of social and political perspectives, and counted those differences as gain.

“The Kingdom of God is everybody– it’s Republican, Democrat, gay, straight, black, white. It’s not homogenous. But we’re still serving Jesus together. We serve a God of resurrection and the UMC is going to survive because there’s work to be done,” said Rev. Gina Miller, who pastors St. John United Methodist Church in Avon.

She said her congregation is “committed to stay.” To the congregations that are considering a departure she says, “Don’t leave. We need each other. Iron sharpens iron, and we do better when we’re all at the table together.”

Likewise, Rev. Toni Wood from the Little Grove United Methodist in Frisco said, “We are United Methodist and we are staying United Methodist. We are still a denomination trying to reach people for Jesus Christ.”

Rev. Pam Stoffel at Fair Haven UMC in Rodanthe came out of retirement to serve, and her congregation, too, is invigorated to reach out to their communities and have fun together after a difficult season.

“It’s been difficult in the church because we’re all trying to figure it all out. But we are firmly United Methodist, and we are remaining United Methodist,” Stoffel said. She said her congregation is excited to rebuild to be a church for those people whose churches may have disaffiliated yet they still desire to be part of the UMC. “We want to be a welcoming home for anyone who still wants to be part of a UMC, to be a safe place to land.”

In the Outer Banks and surrounding regions, four churches have already completed the disaffiliation process – Duck Church, Mt. Carmel in Manns Harbor, Clarks Bethel in Salvo and Bethany Church of Wanchese. Each could not be reached for comment or declined to comment.

Another 16 churches are still with the denomination, though some have expressed interest in pursuing a vote to disaffiliate.

Pastor Eric Lindblade of Moyock UMC said his congregation is “exploring the possibility” of disaffiliating, though he is encouraging them to stay.

“The conversations within the church have been cordial … In a recent sermon I said that what we decide is important, but how we treat one another as we decide is more important,” he added.

Mt. Olivet in Manteo has had discussions for several months and have scheduled a vote in March to determine if the church will disaffiliate, according to Pastor O’Neal.

“Your doctrine is only good if it’s enforced,” he said.

Some Mt. Olivet church members, in a meeting with Blackman on February 15 to discuss the possibility of disaffiliation, said they felt like they are abiding by the Book of Discipline while those in high levels of leadership are acting in violation of it and yet are not met with any type of consequence.

Blackman agreed these situations are “head scratchers” but he continued to move the conversation back to the local church.

“If there’s a violation of a Book of Discipline matter, our Bishop expects us to bring it to her attention so that she can then uphold the Book of Discipline. I cannot speak for different annual conferences – really none of us can speak for the United Methodist Church as we carefully answer [The Coastland Times’] questions today. The only body that really represents the denomination is the General Conference and they meet every four years which can be a challenge,” Blackman said to The Coastland Times in a Zoom interview.

Still there are others who didn’t want to wait for a vote, leaving the UMC to seek church membership in other denominations.

“In the future, I believe the church will continue to slide down the slippery slope and eventually support other non-Christian ideals and practices. Instead of being salt and light, the Methodist Church will become no different from secular society and will lose membership in the process,” said one former member who attended a United Methodist Church for 38 years, and wished to remain anonymous.

She and her husband left when their pastor indicated that gay marriage would be accepted in the church. “We had no problem with gays attending the church but not to be married there … I felt profound disappointment, confusion, anxiety, and anger with the entire situation,” she said.

Even in those churches which are committed to remain United Methodist, the splintering has been painful.

“We’re hurting. We’re sorrowful. We’re mourning and we’re grieving what’s happened to us as a denomination,” said Blackman.

Still, Blackman said he is grateful “to be here for such a time as this” and has not wavered from his goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Part of his role now is to “navigate with those churches that are discerning and seeking a possible disaffiliation, to live into that in gracious and loving ways.”

Even just the process of having the vote can be hard on a congregation, as it can cause division if the vote is not unanimous. “If you’re not 100 percent sure that a big majority are going to want to go independent, I’m of the camp that you don’t have the vote because it creates an angry church,” said Reverend Colin Snider of Kitty Hawk UMC, whose church is still seeking information but not opting to pursue the process of disaffiliation at this time.

The disaffiliation of a congregation is separate from the pastor’s decision to remain with the UMC or not. If a church disaffiliates and a pastor chooses to stay, the pastor will be reassigned to another position.

Many disaffiliated churches are looking into joining the Global Methodist denomination, while others are remaining independent.

The NCUMC has recognized that many people whose churches have disaffiliated feel lonely and isolated. In response, they’ve created a collective to offer support, hold church membership, and try to help people connect with a new church.

While there are still questions that remain unanswered, what is clear is that there are strong feelings on all sides. So much that Blackman said the split is “probably inevitable.”

O’Neal agreed: “It hurts my heart that we’ve gotten to this point yet at the same time I do recognize that for churches to flourish is probably necessary. Whether churches decide to stay or go I just pray that all of us learn to put this behind us and move forward in doing Kingdom work.”