Diverging views on sexuality led the United Methodist Church to approve an exit plan four years ago for churches that wanted to leave. Since then, 6.1 percent of United Methodist churches in the United States – 1,831 congregations out of 30,000 nationwide – have been granted permission to disaffiliate, “Christianity Today” is reporting.
The denomination’s disaffiliation plan gives churches until December 31 to cut ties, and many already have made known their desire to leave. Those churches can take their properties with them after paying apportionments and pension liabilities. Others are forcing the issue through civil courts.
But whatever the final tally may be, the analysis suggests the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination — numbering 6.4 million U.S. members and 13 million worldwide — may weaken but is unlikely to break.
“You think of a schism as 50 percent or even 35 percent (split),” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and a lead researcher for the 2020 U.S. Religion Census. “This is not a real schism.”
The 1,831 church departures come as United Methodist bishops claim they’re battling misinformation from groups that encourage churches to leave the denomination for the newly formed Global Methodist Church, which has declared it will never ordain or marry LGBTQ people, which is the crux of the conflict. In turn, the Global Methodist Church and groups such as the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a network of theologically conservative churches, argue that the denomination’s regional conferences are making it prohibitively hard for churches to leave.
The high-stakes duel has hit some regions of the country harder than others. But four years into what has been depicted as a breakup of the denomination, the picture is less climactic than anticipated.
“Some are leaving, but the number of churches and members moving forward is far larger,” said Hope Morgan Ward, retired bishop of the North Carolina conference. “It is important to focus on who is staying and moving forward in the continuing United Methodist Church.”
In March 2022, the United Methodist Church announced a third delay for the 2020 meeting of its global decision-making body, the General Conference. Delegates were expected to consider a proposal to split the church in 2020. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
The final delay prompted some Methodists to go ahead in May and launch the Global Methodist Church rather than wait for the outcome of a General Conference meeting In the meantime, the denomination’s 54 U.S.-based regional bodies called conferences have been approving disaffiliations at their regular meetings and at a flurry of special sessions.
While fewer Americans are attending church overall, mainline denominations like the UMC have been hemorrhaging members. The denomination lost 1.3 million between 2010 to 2020. In 2021 it lost another 180,00 and that was before churches began leaving in large numbers.
According to the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the denomination will fall to 5.2 million by 2025 just through attrition and not counting the disaffiliation move.
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice