Growing Defiance of LGBTQ Bans Leads to Schism: United Methodists Lose One-Fifth of US Churches

by Ethan Kim
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In a schism driven by the increasing defiance of LGBTQ bans and theological differences, the United Methodists have seen a significant loss of churches in the United States. Approximately one-fifth of the total churches in the country have now obtained permission to leave the denomination, marking a significant turning point in the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

These statistics have emerged following the recent conclusion of regular meetings in June for the denomination’s regional bodies, known as annual conferences. The exodus began gradually in 2019 when the church introduced a four-year window of opportunity for U.S. congregations to depart due to LGBTQ-related issues. However, this year witnessed the highest level of departures.

According to church law, the marriage or ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” is prohibited. Nevertheless, a growing number of conservative members have chosen to leave due to the mounting defiance of these bans within various U.S. churches and conferences.

The departing congregations have pursued different paths, with many joining the Global Methodist Church, a denomination formed last year by conservatives breaking away from the United Methodist Church (UMC). Others have opted for independence or have aligned themselves with alternative denominations.

Since 2019, a total of 6,182 congregations have received approval to disaffiliate, as reported by the unofficial tally conducted by the United Methodist News Service, which has been diligently tracking the votes from annual conferences. This year alone, the figure stands at 4,172.

It is anticipated that some annual conferences may approve additional departures during special sessions later this year, according to Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative group that has advocated for the departing churches. Although most UMC congregations are choosing to remain, the departing churches tend to be larger, prompting denominational officials to prepare for significant budget cuts in 2024.

Therrell notes that the numbers of churches leaving are higher than originally estimated by conservatives.

The legal complications surrounding the departing congregations’ compensation for their properties and other financial obligations have mostly been resolved.

Therrell expressed gratitude for the overall graciousness exhibited by bishops and other annual conference leaders throughout the process, although there have been a few unfortunate exceptions. Bishop Thomas Bickerton, president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops, expressed disappointment regarding the departures, emphasizing the church’s calling for unity. However, he extended blessings to those wishing to live out their Christian faith in a new expression.

This split has been long in the making, reflecting similar controversies that have resulted in divisions within other mainline Protestant denominations. United Methodist legislative bodies, known as general conferences, have consistently upheld bans on LGBTQ marriage and ordination, backed by coalitions of conservatives in U.S. and overseas churches.

In response to the growing defiance of these bans in many U.S. churches, conservatives initiated the establishment of the separate Global Methodist Church, believing that the issues surrounding sexuality revealed deeper theological differences.

The exodus of churches has been particularly significant in the South and Midwest, with states like Texas, Alabama, Kentucky, and Ohio losing hundreds of congregations.

To accommodate United Methodists who desired to remain within the denomination despite their churches leaving, “lighthouse” or similarly named congregations have been designated in certain areas. The Global Methodist Church has also begun establishing new churches, even in regions where United Methodist congregations have chosen to remain.

With the departure of these churches, progressive members are expected to propose changes to church law at the next General Conference in 2024, advocating for the recognition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ individuals.

The United Methodist Church currently has approximately 6.5 million members inthe United States, along with a similar number abroad. The U.S. membership has been steadily declining, while overseas membership, particularly in Africa, has been growing.

Therrell has mentioned that efforts will be made at the 2024 General Conference to provide a legal pathway for overseas churches to disaffiliate, similar to what U.S. congregations have had.

To date, around 3,000 churches have affiliated with the Global Methodist Church, with more expected to join.

Bickerton believes that it is now time for United Methodists who remain in the denomination to refocus their efforts. Despite the challenges, he sees an opportunity for the church to adapt and refashion itself for relevance in the 21st century, with a renewed focus on evangelism, albeit with smaller budgets.

This article on religion coverage is supported by Big Big News through its collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. The content is solely the responsibility of the AP.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about schism

What is causing the schism among United Methodists in the US?

The schism among United Methodists in the US is primarily driven by the growing defiance of LGBTQ bans within the denomination and theological differences surrounding the role of LGBTQ individuals.

How many churches have left the United Methodist denomination?

Approximately one-fifth of the total US churches affiliated with the United Methodist denomination have received permission to leave, resulting in a significant loss for the denomination.

Where are the departing churches going?

Many of the departing churches are joining the Global Methodist Church, a separate denomination established by conservatives breaking away from the United Methodist Church. Some are also choosing to become independent or aligning themselves with different denominations.

Are there more churches expected to leave?

There is a possibility that additional churches may choose to leave in the future. Some annual conferences may approve more departures at special sessions later this year, and efforts will be made to provide overseas churches a legal pathway to disaffiliate at the 2024 General Conference.

How has the United Methodist Church responded to the departures?

While the departures have been disappointing, the United Methodist Church aims to remain focused and unified. Bishops and conference leaders have shown grace throughout the process, and the remaining members are encouraged to refocus their efforts and adapt the church for relevance in the 21st century.

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1 comment

ChrisMinds July 7, 2023 - 5:07 pm

so the united methodists are losing churches left and right. it’s sad, but also shows how society is changing and how different people have different beliefs. we gotta respect that, i guess. peace! ✌️


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