Thousands of congregations leave the United Methodist Church ahead of a year-end disaffiliation deadline
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Visitors to Pastor David Graves’ small office have to sidestep an old pew wedged into an already tight space. The pew is probably well over 100 years old, like most things in the white clapboard building. But Graves had it removed from the sanctuary only a few months ago to make room for a row of new churchgoers in wheelchairs. That kind of growth is unusual for a tiny country church, especially one that just left its denomination.
Crums Church disaffiliated from the United Methodist Church (UMC) on Jan. 6, 2023. Established in 1792, the church sits among cornfields and back roads on the outskirts of Berryville, Va. Retirees make up about half its congregation, with a few families sprinkled in. About 80 people regularly attended the church before January. But by September, Graves said the number had swelled to over a hundred. A change like that makes a huge difference to a church like Crums. A new piano player joined the congregation, and the choir has started singing again.
Graves is cautious about ascribing his church’s growth solely to its disaffiliation. But he says some former church members came back after Crums left the UMC, and several new attendees told him they left their former congregations because those churches stayed.
About 6,600 of the UMC’s estimated 30,000 congregations in the United States have left the denomination since 2022, fleeing its continued shift away from Biblical orthodoxy. Most exited using the official disaffiliation process that allows congregations to retain their property—if they leave by Dec. 31. Other congregations are mired in legal battles or have lost their properties in what feels like a bitter divorce.
Crums was already primed to leave the UMC when Graves became its pastor in 2019. By 2022, about 80 percent of the congregation was frustrated over disagreements within the larger denomination—and ready to leave before they had to pay another year of dues.
The UMC has warred internally over doctrinal issues since its 1968 inception. Delegates first debated homosexuality in 1972. They amended the denomination’s Book of Discipline that year to contain this statement: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The Book of Discipline has kept, and even strengthened, that orthodox statement on human sexuality ever since. But the UMC rarely enforces any of its doctrinal statements; in fact, its leaders often encourage flagrant disregard. Because the denomination’s accountability structures are regional, a few liberal bishops in high positions pave the way for others beneath them. Two top bishops are currently involved in openly gay relationships. Denial of Scripture, references to God as female or some vague animistic force, and celebration of transgenderism and homosexuality are common.
Graves summed up the prevailing attitude at Crums: “We like what the Book [of Discipline] says, but we don’t see that being enforced. We don’t see people being held accountable.”
JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, many conservatives thought they’d won the battle for the future of the UMC. Delegates at the 2019 Special General Conference narrowly passed what they called the Traditional Plan. It affirmed a conservative understanding of sexuality and established a pathway for local congregations who disagreed on that specific issue to leave by the end of 2023. Delegates also put forth the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation, which set guidelines for the formation of an alternative denomination via splits at the regional level. The protocol proposed that separating regional groups get $25 million in UMC funds and be allowed to keep their properties.
The disaffiliation pathway was mainly intended for liberal congregations. But now, conservatives are the ones exiting. That’s partly because the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the UMC’s 2020 General Conference back to 2024. In the meantime, the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace was never enacted, and liberal factions maintained a strong presence in the denomination. Then in 2022, a 17-member group of conservative UMC leaders broke away and started the Global Methodist Church. Given the opportunity to join a new conservative denomination, thousands of local congregations decided to disaffiliate.
The process is laborious, but congregations have an incentive to follow it. That’s because it’s a temporary exception to UMC rules that give the denomination authority through a trust clause to seize even a fully paid-for property if a congregation stops functioning as United Methodist.
To leave with their properties, churches must first hold a 30-day period of discernment. Crums Church held six informational meetings during this period for its members to debate and ask questions. Next, at least two-thirds of a congregation must vote in favor of disaffiliation. Crums voted 81 percent in favor. If the vote passes, the congregation must agree to pay any unpaid dues for the disaffiliation year, as well as one additional year’s worth of dues, its share of pension obligations for the region, and legal fees. For Crums, that added up to $158,646. Finally, the regional annual conference must vote to ratify the congregation’s decision before the Dec. 31, 2023, deadline.
Meanwhile, the disaffiliation process also allows those regional conferences to add additional requirements. That means regional conference leaders set the tone—and terms—of separation.
Regional conferences in the South and Midwest have generally opted not to add additional monetary requirements, likely because those areas are more broadly conservative. As expected, they also have the highest disaffiliation rates. The Northwest Texas Conference, where 163 out of 200 churches left the UMC, is the most extreme example. But South Georgia, North Alabama, and Kentucky all have about a 50 percent disaffiliation rate. Some regional conferences actually make the process easier: The East Texas regional conference covered remaining pension obligations with money it already had in reserve.
But other regional conferences, particularly on both coasts, made it hard to leave, and they have much lower disaffiliation numbers. For instance, the Baltimore-Washington Conference and California-Pacific Conference require congregations to pay 50 percent of their property value, among other things. At a June meeting of the California-Pacific Conference, several delegates pleaded with Bishop Dottie Escobedo-Frank to reconsider the terms. One pastor said the fees for his congregation would amount to $60,000 per member. The bishop ruled him out of order. No church has successfully left the California-Pacific Conference.
The North Georgia conference tried to bar churches from starting the process at all. Nearly 200 churches successfully sued to begin disaffiliation in May. In several states, churches have sued to leave without paying fees. Those cases have gone both ways, and the outcomes largely depend on whether state laws favor local churches when interpreting the denomination’s trust clause.
Some churches met all the requirements, but the UMC refused to ratify their decision. That’s what happened to New Town Church in Williamsburg, Va. The family that originally donated the land to the church didn’t want it to leave UMC hands. Official UMC guidance actually bars consideration of such intents, but the conference voted against New Town anyway. Then it fired the pastor and took the building. Now, the congregation meets in a community center and is known as Daybreak Church.
EVEN THOUGH MOST MEMBERS at Crums wanted to leave the UMC, sharp debates broke out at times, and everyone felt the tension. Disaffiliation isn’t just about severed associations—often it means severed relationships, too. More than one member confessed to harboring hard feelings. “How can I sit in Sunday school with this person, when I know they’re against me?” they asked in the weeks leading up to the church’s disaffiliation vote. Again and again, during meetings and after services, Graves hammered his point home: “The name on the door is not nearly as important as our association with each other and our desire to follow Jesus Christ.” After the vote, several people left the church, but most of the dissenters decided to stay.
Further complicating matters, pastors must make the decision to disaffiliate separately from their congregations. One Texas conference even told retired pastors they would lose their pensions if they served outside the UMC without a bishop’s permission. Graves told his congregation, “If you stay, I’ll stay. If you go, I’ll go.” When they voted to go, he went with them gladly. But Graves’ conference asked him to return his ordination certificate.
Many of the disaffiliated congregations found a new home with the Global Methodist Church (GMC). At least 3,800 congregations, just over half of those leaving the UMC, joined the GMC. Friendswood Methodist, like many Texas churches, is among them. Its pastor, Jim Bass, said his first GMC conference meeting was “very freeing.”
“We were all moving in the same direction,” he said. “We didn’t have all these theological fights.”
The sign outside Crums still says it’s been a Methodist church since 1792. The United Methodist hymnal still sits on the piano. But Crums no longer has any denominational affiliation. Its members are wary of ceding control again. “That’s part of just their experience with the United Methodist Church,” Graves said. “You had to buy your way out because they controlled your property … why would you ever want to do that again?”
Now that the complicated denominational politics are over, Graves is focused on gospel work. The church has surplus money for the first time in a while, so he has mission trips and local outreach events to plan. And outside his small office, people are trickling in for Bible study.
—This story was corrected on Nov. 28, 2023, to note that retirees make up about half of the congregants at Crums Church.
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