By Jim Patterson
The pastors of United Methodist churches are having to decide whether to leave the denomination over questions of sexuality and theology.
After decades of debate about the status of LGBTQ people in the church, General Conference was set to vote on a denominational separation plan in May 2020. After being rescheduled three times due to COVID-19, the denomination’s top lawmaking body now is scheduled to meet in 2024.
The delay led to the early launch of the Global Methodist Church, a new traditionalist denomination that has been encouraging United Methodist churches to disaffiliate.
A United Methodist News review of U.S. annual conference reports showed about 600 church disaffiliations since 2019 — a fraction of the more than 30,000 United Methodist churches in the U.S. More are in various stages working toward it.
After voting to disaffiliate, some churches — including large Texas churches — are discerning further about whether to join another denomination or remain independent.
Rhetoric around the split has heated up in recent months. There have been claims that The United Methodist Church is moving toward denying the virgin birth and the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Several bishops have stepped forward to deny such charges, most prominently Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton during an Aug. 22 address to his fellow bishops. Bickerton also leads the New York Conference.
Bickerton decried what he called “a constant barrage of negative rhetoric that is filled with falsehood and inaccuracies” coming from backers of the Global Methodist Church.
The Rev. Laura Brantley, a former pastor at Brentwood United Methodist Church south of Nashville, who was a member of its discernment team, has advised pastors from Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia on the process.
“The first thing I do is try to help them broaden their scope of what they’re trying to discern,” she said. “It usually ends up being something more akin to, ‘Who is God calling us to be as a church in this particular time, in this particular context that we find ourselves in?’”
At Brentwood, the discernment process got underway in 2015 with “a year-long study focused on scripture interpretation, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer and conversation with subject matter experts, including theologians, bishops, doctors, psychologists, gay and lesbian individuals and others,” according to a document titled “Discernment Team Proposal & FAQ,” which is available at the church website.
Other steps in the process included:
- Offering a four-week course for interested church members about homosexuality, marriage, and ordination;
- Having the discernment team attend the 2019 Special General Conference in St. Louis, the UMCNext meeting in Kansas City in spring 2019, and the Wesley Covenant Association meeting in Oklahoma in November 2019;
- Establishing a larger discernment team comprised of lay and clergy leaders to make a recommendation regarding disaffiliation to the church council.
“The discernment team engaged in nine months of intensive work that included study, prayer, listening sessions and holy conversation,” the report read. “Our intent from the beginning and above all else was to listen to the movement of the Spirit. When we began our work, there seemed to be uncertainty about the best way forward, but by the time we had completed our work, we arrived at what seemed to us to be a Spirit-led alignment in our recommendations.”
At the end of the process, the discernment team recommended that Brentwood remain a United Methodist congregation.
“Within our own community, we had people that were on both ends of the spectrum,” Brantley said. “And we were constantly making sure that they weren’t stereotyping each other in unhelpful or inaccurate ways.”
Brantley said one key to Brentwood’s process was “to think the best of people even if they don’t agree with you.”
“If we don’t agree with each other, we’ve got to be OK with that, but still love each other and still respect each other and not demonize (anyone).”