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The faithful head for the exits

United Methodist disaffiliations accelerate as end-of-year deadline approaches


The faithful head for the exits
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This month hundreds of congregations are being ratified for exit from the United Methodist Church, even as the deadline for disaffiliation fast approaches. In some Deep South regions, close to 40 to 50 percent of congregations are exiting. Does United Methodism even have a meaningful future in the Deep South? And what are its prospects as a national denomination as it further liberalizes?

As of today, May 18, no less than 3,356 United Methodist congregations were approved for exit. Likely another 1,000 or more are in the queue for exit ratification later this spring. On May 11, 132 churches were approved for exit by the North Alabama Conference, which already approved 198 exits on Dec. 10, 2022, for a total of 330 exiting churches, or over 50 percent of the total. Today, only 308 United Methodist churches remain in North Alabama.

In the Houston area Texas Conference, on May 11, 20 more churches were approved for exit, adding to last year’s 294, equaling 52 percent of the total.

On May 7, the Alabama-West Florida Conference ratified 193 exiting churches. Last year 35 churches exited, bringing the total so far to 233, or about 36 percent of the total. Three hundred eighteen United Methodist churches remain in the conference, but there will be another round of exits later this year.

In Western North Carolina on May 6, 193 churches were approved for exit, joining 41 who exited in 2022, or about 23 percent of the total. On April 22, the Holston area of eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia approved 264 church exits, or 31 percent of their total churches.

Not all church exit attempts were successful. In Virginia, in February, 34 churches were approved for exit. But one of the largest in the queue, New Town United Methodist in Williamsburg, was rejected for the second time. Descendants of the original landowner who gifted the property decades ago, including two ordained clergy, objected. The congregation responded by abandoning the property and reconvening in a local community center. They were to have paid the denomination $562,000 to exit. But now instead they will use that money to build a new church. Meanwhile, the old building, to which the bishop appointed a new pastor, stands almost empty, and predictably so.

The United Methodist future is grim. But the prelates show no awareness that their own revisionist theology is at fault.

Similarly, last November, the Arkansas Conference approved 35 church exits while rejecting the exit of three large churches. One congregation abandoned its property, while another is litigating. On May 13 Arkansas easily approved another 67 exits. And the Susquehanna Conference in central Pennsylvania okayed exit for 141 of its 805 churches.

This year, 1,353 church exits have been approved, usually by easy majorities in the state conferences. But there is increasing bitterness by United Methodist elites over these departures. Afraid of widespread exits, the bishop of North Georgia forbade any further disaffiliations, prompting a lawsuit by nearly 200 churches. On May 16, a Georgia judge ruled these churches may exit, which could bring North Georgia’s total church exits to nearly 40 percent.

As he presided over the exit of 193 churches from the Alabama-West Florida Conference, Bishop David Graves lamented the ongoing schism as demonic, seemingly aiming his ire at the departing churches. “I’d like to use Scripture to tell you to behave and become better Christians and love each other more,” Graves said. “For division is of the devil.”

Rather than division, the bishop, who is considered relatively conservative by Unite Methodist standards, said the church should focus on Jesus’s mission, which includes “exorcising demons from the church and our lives, and yes, there are the principalities of the world that are walking into our churches each and every day.” He went on: “Your hopes have been truly crushed by Satan’s manifested schemes,” Graves said. “If we don’t believe in spiritual warfare, we better get in tune, friends.”

Bishop Graves seemed to have no criticism for those clergy and bishops who precipitated United Methodism’s split. As recently as 2019, United Methodism reaffirmed and strengthened its biblical teachings about marriage and sexual ethics. But liberal clergy and bishops made clear their refusal to uphold official church law. Traditionalists decided to take advantage of the unusual temporary church law, approved in 2019 and expiring at the end of this year, allowing churches to exit with their property, which the denomination owns. Congregations must vote by two thirds and pay a onetime exit fee to the denomination.

At a recent meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, the group’s president, Thomas Bickerton, was clearly exasperated: “I admit to you I’m eager to get past all this. I want us to stop talking about disaffiliations,” he told his colleagues at their April 30 to May 5 gathering. “I’m worried genuinely that we’ve spent more time on those that are leaving than focusing our energy on those who are staying.”

Bishop Bickerton and the other United Methodist prelates are rightly worried. Their denomination’s future is grim. But they show no awareness that their own revisionist theology is at fault. Instead, they blame exiting orthodox Methodists for the rift. Let’s pray their eyes might someday be opened.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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