Dozens of congregations leave The United Methodist Church over gay clergy and same-sex marriage
At least 130 congregations have quietly walked away from The United Methodist Church in a schism over the denominations’ planned acceptance of same-sex marriage and gay clergy.
Separatist congregations retain their church assets through a “conscience clause” the group’s legislature enacted in 2019.
The General Conference of The United Methodist Church, its governing body, is expected to approve a separation plan later this year that would create two denominations: one affirming current prohibitions on gay clergy and same-sex marriage, and the other allowing for clergy and same-sex marriage. However, this decision has already been postponed due to the pandemic and it could be delayed again.
The denomination, formed in 1968 by the merger of the Evangelical Church of the United Brethren and the Methodist Church, is the second largest Protestant church in the United States after the Southern Baptist Convention.
Mark Tooley, Methodist and president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said the departures show the 54-year “experiment” that united the two liberal Protestant camps “failed, and now we see the consequences of it. consequences”.
He added, “The old denomination is falling apart. And it is, I think, irreversible.
United Methodists are the largest contingent of the worldwide Methodist movement. In 2018, the denomination had 6.4 million members and 30,543 congregations in the United States, with an equal number of lay members in Africa, Asia and Europe, where there are 12,869 congregations.
While the loss of 130 US churches may seem small compared to the total number of affiliated churches, the departures underscore the unease of many congregations over issues of sexuality and biblical interpretation.
The United Methodist Judicial Council, the church’s highest court, issued six rulings Feb. 9 clarifying and upholding several congregational departures, the denomination’s UM News reported. The 2019 decisions and disposition of conscience help free congregations from a centuries-old “trust clause” that states local church property is held “in trust” for the denomination.
Departing churches often have to pay unfunded pension obligations for clergy retirees, as well as repay any loans received from the local conference, which is equivalent to a diocese.
They must also pay for legal land deed transfer work and pay two years of “repartition,” contributions assessed by each church to support various global and national ministries.
The schism over LGBTQ inclusion isn’t the only issue facing The United Methodist Church. The denomination also faces sustainability issues, said Daniel Dalton, a Detroit-based attorney who specializes in church property disputes and denominational splits.
He said the average size of a United Methodist congregation is 75 members, a number widely considered less than that required to meet the expenses and salary of a full-time pastor.
“The average age of a congregation is 60,” he added. “The average age of a pastor is 63. I think we’re going to see a lot of churches closing just because they can’t support themselves anymore.”
Many existing congregations are located in the South and New England, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, and Florida.
Melissa Lauber, communications director for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, said none of the 603 United Methodist churches in the region have come forward to seek disaffiliation under the conscience clause. She said none asked to be on the agenda for the region’s annual working session in June.