Local Methodist Churches React to the Denominational Schism
Note: This article was updated on Nov 21, 2022, with information on Michigan UMCs.
A seismic shift is occurring in the United Methodist Church, requiring local congregations to make a providential decision.
The shift will expand the denomination’s inclusivity by supporting the ordination of LGBTQ+ ministerial candidates and allowing for same-gender marriage ceremonies. While not yet official, the change is expected to be ratified at the UMC 2024 General Conference. For those congregations that disagree with this change, a disaffiliation process was created in 2019 for churches wishing to exit.
The plan may sound counterintuitive: Churches wishing to remain traditional leave the denomination. Churches remaining with UMC will embrace the expanded inclusivity.
As a landing spot for those congregations voting (by 2/3rds majority) to leave the UMC, the Global Methodist Church was officially formed on May 1, 2022. Exiting churches are not required to join the Global Methodist. They have options of aligning with another denomination or becoming independent.
One local church that has recently voted to leave the denomination is Dexter UMC. On Nov 2, 83% of the eligible voting congregation approved disaffiliation. The decision did not come quickly or easily.
“Our church went through a discernment process because the United Methodist Church has been at an impasse over the issue for the past 50 years,” says Senior Pastor Dr. Matt Hook. “The presenting issues are marriage and ordination of LGBTQ+ folks, and that’s not new.”
For Hook and the DUMC leadership, the real problem lies behind the headline issue, what he describes as the UMC movement to “a more universalist, politicized theology, potentially obscuring the centrality of Jesus and the new life for all people that we find in Him.”
Not long after the General Conference approved the articles of disaffiliation in 2019, the Dexter church formed a team to explore its future denominational affiliation. The articles set Dec 31, 2023, as the deadline for churches to make their affiliation decisions. Among other things, DUMC describes in a statement that the team formed a plan “for how our church would work together to discover the will of the congregation regarding the presenting and underlying issues…”
For months leading up to the vote, Dexter UMC conducted 28 discussion meetings with more than 340 participating. “These meetings served as a place where each person could candidly, respectfully and thoughtfully offer their thoughts and opinions on the presenting issue,” says the church’s release.
DUMC describes the presenting issue as wanting “the United Methodist Church to embrace a new sexual ethos for marriage and ordination of elders, in which sexual identity, preferences, behaviors and expressions would have no bearing on one’s qualifications on marriage or ordination.”
The church lists “underlying issues,” which include “the active defiance of some North American Bishops” and a 50% loss of UMC membership in N American since 1972. Also, “The embrace of theological pluralism in 1972 has led to theological chaos in 2022.”
“To many people, it looks like we’re leaving the United Methodist Church,” says Hook. “But the sentiment we received from out group discussions is that the United Methodist Church has left us.”
Like Dexter, Manchester UMC also began a process several years ago that would determine the direction of the church. Responding to a request for comment on the church’s position, Pastor Dillon Burns responded,
“Manchester United Methodist Church will remain a United Methodist congregation in keeping with our professed desire to joyfully welcome all people into the body of Christ and the life of the church, including the LGBTQ+ community. When the denominational tensions began increasing several years ago, we began a congregational process of conversation that focused on strengthening our relationships with one another while reaching a deeper understanding in our perspective around human sexuality. Over several phases of conversation, we recognized our commitment to being an inclusive congregation and passed a welcoming statement to clarify both our individual identity and our intent to affiliate with a denomination that shared this core value.”
One area church that has not struggled with the issue is Chelsea United Methodist Church. For many years, the congregation has been overtly supportive and inclusive of the LGTBQ+ community. Rev. Joy Barrett was appointed to the church in 2004 and explained how their stance on the issue doesn’t conflict with the UMC Book of Discipline.
“We have a statement in our Book of Discipline in the section that deals with social issues that addresses human sexuality, and it is a message that really can be read several different ways. On the one hand, it affirms that all people are people of God who stand in need of the church, should not be barred from the church, and have access to all of the Ministries of the church. That paragraph talks about the importance of not being discriminatory toward persons in the LGBTQ+ community and that we should not be ostracizing or practicing discrimination against them in any particular way. That paragraph also says that the United Methodist Church considers the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“For Chelsea UMC, we lean very strongly into the initial portions of that paragraph I was describing,” continues Barrett. “And we do disagree with that statement that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. We believe that is a place where our church has it wrong. Our commitment and statements around inclusivity speak to that.”
Barrett emphasizes Chelsea UMC’s commitment to UMC teachings and Wesleyan theology of grace. “We’re anchored in scripture based in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the ongoing continuing movement of the Holy Spirit,” she says. “That's just core to who we are, and we commit ourselves to that discernment.”
Even if the UMC denomination was not expanding its inclusivity but giving those congregations who wish to do so a way out, Barrett says Chelsea would not change. “We will stay with whatever the post-United Methodist Church is. We are not looking to leave this denomination for the reasons I just stated. And we affirm that all people are beloved people of God.”
While some folks have left DUMC for the greater inclusiveness of Chelsea, Rev. Barrett notes the movement has gone both ways. People have left the Chelsea church for DUMC. “I think that is important to note,” she says.
Saline First United Methodist Church has not yet begun its discussions on future affiliation and feels no urgency to do so. Senior Pastor Rev. Amy Triebwasser only just arrived in July. She explains, “The church doesn’t feel the need to dig in too deeply right now because they have a new pastor. And also, we are waiting to see the results of the 2024 worldwide United Methodist General Conference.”
“We're taking the time to get to know each other first,” adds Triebwasser. “These are really difficult conversations. We have a wide range of theological views here at saline, and we are working to make room for all of them.”
DUMC is by no means alone in its disaffiliation. The Michigan Area Wesleyan Covenant Association announced via Facebook “there are 68 who have contracted the MI AC trustees for disaffiliation and there are 40+ in addition to that who are engaging in negotiations for disaffiliation.” The association believes at least 100 of the approximately 850 UMCs in Michigan will be receiving Annual Conference approval when it meets in June 2023.
Baptist News Global reported in a Sept 30, 2022, article “that through the end of September about 700 congregations have disaffiliated since 2019. The total represents about 2.3% of the more than 30,000 U.S. United Methodist churches.”
The article also reports “that not all departing churches are joining the traditionalist Global Methodist Church. For instance, some progressive congregations are preferring to remain independent to pursue the kind of LGBTQ inclusion that neither the UMC nor the GMC offers…”
According to the report, observers estimate 10-20% of U.S. Churches will disaffiliate before the exit process expires on Dec 31, 2023. Dexter UMC expects its disaffiliation to occur next summer when it joins the Global Methodist Church denomination.
Editor’s Note: North Lake UMC and Sharon UMC did not respond to requests for comment.
 United Methodists talk up reasons to stay in splintering denomination with less than 3% of U.S. churches leaving so far, Sept 30, 2022, By Cynthia Astle. https://baptistnews.com/