Divided in Devotion: The Controversial Split of Dexter's Methodist Congregation


Huron River Methodist Church. Photo by Traci Husse.

By Traci Husse, STN Writer

The decision of Dexter United Methodist Church (DUMC) to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church (UMC) over LGBTQIA+ inclusion has sent shockwaves through the congregation, eliciting heartfelt responses, challenging deeply-held beliefs, and prompting former members to share their stories and experiences in a bid for understanding and change.

Broken hearted

“It breaks my heart,” said Barbara Locks, a long-time area resident, and former Dexter United Methodist Church (DUMC) member, referring to her decision to leave the congregation after it voted to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church (UMC) last fall.

After six decades of worshiping, serving, and volunteering side by side with fellow members, staff, and leadership, Ms. Locks and her mother were deeply saddened to learn that when presented with the choice, the majority of DUMC voters preferred to actively exclude the LGBTQIA+ community from ordination and marriage, rather than allow their full participation.

Locks said that’s when she and her mother realized they couldn’t stay. “My family started attending in 1962 but my mother and I left to join Chelsea First United Methodist Church when we could see the direction DUMC was going,” she explained. Now known as the Huron River Methodist Church (HRMC), the congregational change became official earlier this summer and the news brought a renewed wave of grief and confusion to many former DUMC members.

Sad yes, surprised no

Locks clarified that even though she’s troubled by the outcome, she isn’t surprised at all. She believes that the vote to disaffiliate, and the process leading up to it, were the result of anti-LGBTQIA+ views and attitudes held by church leadership and staff and that those sentiments were on full display during the church’s process to consider the matter. During the church discussion she attended, she said pastors were clear they would all leave the church if the congregation voted to stay with the UMC because “their theology regarding LGBTQIA+ specifically would not allow them to continue.”

Several former members corroborated Ms. Locks’ remarks when describing their own experiences. Asked to confirm that church leadership made it clear they would leave if the vote were to stay with the UMC and become inclusive, one former member who is also a former employee and who prefers to remain unidentified said, “Yes. And most administrative staff also made it clear they would depart if the church voted to stay.”

Dr. Matt Hook is the Senior Pastor at Huron River Methodist church. When asked if he or other church leaders or staff members stated or implied their own departure if DUMC voted to remain part of the UMC, he responded, “I endorsed the move to the Global Methodist Church to remain faithful to our Wesleyan heritage. When any organization changes its core beliefs and values, every professional thoughtful person would ask if they’re still aligned with those beliefs and values. Our church is no different.”

Note: The Sun Times News made multiple efforts to speak with members who remained with the congregation through its transition to hear their impression of the process and why they chose to stay. Leadership promised a list of contacts multiple times but never followed through. Members contacted directly chose not to speak on record.


The process leading up to the vote involved discussion meetings of small groups arranged by a church team. The purpose was to share with church members everything leadership had learned about the stay/leave options and the effects those options would have on the future of the church so that all members felt informed before the vote. “There was a lot of encouragement to attend an informational meeting,” said Ms. Locks.

As a person of faith, she had been expecting an unbiased presentation of the options and their effects, but it quickly became clear to her that the church was specifically seeking to disaffiliate and that the process was intentionally designed to produce that. She characterized the meeting she attended as “one-sided” and felt that the information provided by the church was heavily skewed in favor of disaffiliation. “It felt like there wasn’t a choice. Vote to disaffiliate or leave [the church],” she said.

When asked about the specific pre-vote meeting they had attended, one current member requesting anonymity responded, “You mean the propaganda?” in what seemed to be a not-so-subtle acknowledgment the meeting was one-sided.

Others reported similar experiences. According to a letter sent to some members of the congregation by other members, “Many felt that the information we’ve received has been one-sided in favor of DUMC disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church (UMC) and joining the Global Methodist Church.” It continues, “The overwhelming request was for more of the UMC side of the story.” The letter explained that to address the lack of information about staying with UMC, members of DUMC took it upon themselves to invite a guest speaker who supported staying and becoming inclusive. Still, Ms. Locks says the opportunity was, “barely publicized at all.”

Beyond just a lack of publicity, that opportunity and the entire letter itself were explicitly disavowed by the church via an email from Dr. Hook. In his congregation-wide response, Dr. Hook refers to the letter and the opportunity as “confusing” and “unsolicited” and reiterated the church’s official position, “While the meeting is happening on church grounds, it isn’t sponsored by our church’s Ad Council, staff, or Way Forward plan. The email was not sent by me.” Dr. Hook’s email also reminded the congregation, “For us to continue improving as the church we’ve always been, the lay leadership and Ad Council stands by our recommendation to disaffiliate from the United Methodist church and join the Global Methodist church.”

Qualifications to vote

Ms. Locks also said some members weren’t allowed to vote. Just weeks before the vote, some received notification that they had been removed from membership rolls due to lack of attendance. A former employee and member of DUMC confirms that they were notified by mail that they had been removed from the membership rolls about two weeks before the vote. “We hadn’t attended regularly for about three years, but it was during the pandemic; a lot of people couldn’t attend. As a former staff member, I know from experience that there should have been multiple calls and emails to discuss attendance and membership before removal. I knew how the vote would go but before I got the notice. I’d thought about showing up to vote anyway. I think they chose to remove folks who would vote for inclusivity.”

Dr. Hooks said that is simply not true. “People we don’t see for a long time receive ‘We miss you/are you okay/is there anything we can help with?’ letters. We changed no procedures in how we do membership. We wanted everybody to vote who showed up!”

Deciding to leave

When asked why their feelings about the church changed, the former member and employee said, “Before the 2016 election, politics, and political candidates were openly discussed in the workplace and comments were made indicating that the assumption was we would all be voting for the Republican candidate. At one point a church leader said to me, ‘we have to all vote the party line.’”

They continued, “During sermons, staff meetings and casual conversations behind the scenes, any suggestions of inclusivity or progressive ideas or even democratic political views were shut down and it was implied that anyone who differed in thinking from the conservative leadership was in opposition to the bible (sic).”

Adding, “It took a long time for me to process. I thought [me and my family] leaving meant [anti-LGBTQIA+ members] won and I was not going to let go of it. But we finally left. It started to feel like spiritual gaslighting,“ and, “It’s not just the loss of my place to worship. This hasn’t separated me from God, I still have my personal spirituality. I’m not looking for a new church, the idea of walking through a church door still puts me off. But I miss the people. It’s complicated living in a small town.”

Megan Meeker is another former DUMC member and employee. “We left in 2016 when it became clear that the church would not be moving in a more inclusive direction,” she said. “Pastor Matt sat down with me, he listened to everything I had to say. I appreciated that, and I value him--but we don’t agree on this. The church teaches the Jesus message of inclusion but has now taken specific action to exclude LGBTQ - when they had an opportunity to do the opposite. They sacrificed money, members, and close relationships to disaffiliate. I think it's understandable why now-former members are struggling to reconcile it all.”

Another former member, Paula Kipke, echoed that sentiment, “It was pre-election 2016 when it felt like people’s true colors came out. They weren’t the people I thought they were.”

“I don’t preach issues”

Dr. Hook denied creating a conservative or overtly political atmosphere in the church. He said, “Again, we’re a church of a variety of people. I’m not sure what sort of pressure people felt, but I don’t preach issues. And it’s not uncommon for me to be pressured to speak from all sides of all aisles about specific political issues and ideas, but I really try to resist. I try to keep the focus centered on Jesus – he’s the best we got!”

He continued, “Our mission is to love God, love people, and serve the world, for Jesus Christ. So, unless there’s an argument by silence, (for example, I didn’t go with BLM from the pulpit, etc, but we sure as heck prayed for the violence in the cities and racism in our country and our hearts.) So, I’m not sure what the pressure was, other than I didn’t use the mantra of the moment.”

Former members and staff agree Dr. Hook does not preach issues, but they say services are sometimes delivered by other leaders. Ms. Kipke remembers Reverend Tom Snyder saying from the pulpit, “Let’s all pray that the Supreme Court does not approve gay marriage.”

Several former members remember Pastor Emeritus Steve Bringardner giving multiple sermons with clear anti-LGBTQ messages. For instance, “When those twin brothers had their show on HGTV canceled for speaking at an anti-gay event, [Pastor Steve] said, ‘they were being persecuted for their Christian beliefs,’” said the unnamed former employee. “There were a few upset that day and several other sermons crossed the line but that’s just one we can remember being disgusted by. These are just a few more examples making it pretty obvious the view point held by the leadership at the church and why I was not at all surprised by the vote and the way this went.”

A glaring question

Many former members say it’s bigger than the decision made by one church. They continue to ask one simple, yet long unanswered, question: Why is there so much focus on homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching when there are many, many other incompatibilities that are ignored, overlooked, and forgiven by the church?

Retired Rev. Dr. John E. Harnish, a beloved former pastor at DUMC, said it’s a good question, adding, “Living together before marriage, divorce, second marriages, and even war are all deemed incompatible with Christian doctrine. But churches are not voting to disaffiliate over those issues. It’s just this one issue dividing the church.”

Dr. Hook was asked to explain why the Huron River Methodist Church is choosing to differentiate only LGBTQIA+ members by way of restricting their right to get married in the church or hold church leadership positions even though there are many other sins/incompatibilities (living together without being married, divorce, second marriages, war, etc.) that are overlooked and forgiven without official church sanction.

He responded, “This is a good and complex question. We have gay people at our church still, who simply want to hear about Jesus and life. And we know other generations have dealt with this issue almost as badly as possible. The Bible talks about the goodness of sexual intercourse and always in the context of a married man and woman. Just because every Christian continues to fail God in some way doesn’t mean we should abandon biblical norms. Rather, I’m praying that we can affirm God’s love and God’s standards and walk with each other to help each other become more and more conformed to Christ.”

The unnamed former DUMC member and employee said, “When [LGBTQIA+ members] are the only ones restricted from marriage and leadership roles, it's hard to see it as anything other than bigotry.”

Paula Kipke agreed saying, “It’s bigotry.”

Looking ahead

According to a 2022 statement made by Bishop David Bard, presiding bishop of the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church, “The Michigan Conference has consistently identified a direction for its future, a direction that defines inclusivity in ways beyond our current polity, a direction that seeks to combine personal faith development, congregational vibrancy, and passion for creating a more just and peaceful world.” More recently, when asked if he had any words of comfort for former members of DUMC who were struggling he said the Michigan Conference is “happy to reach out...and talk about how to stay connected to your faith and build on your faith community in and around Dexter.” He continued, “You are wrapped in the arms of God’s love even during this difficult time.”

HRMC’s decision to disaffiliate stands out in that it is in stark contrast to many other area Methodists. Reverend Michael Vollmer, another local pastor of both Stony Creek and Macon United Methodist Churches offered, “Something like the love between two people should NEVER need to be a political or theological discussion point…I am hopeful that the church will soon find itself on the right side of this issue. If not, then I believe we are breaking the two greatest commandments according to Jesus - love God and love thy neighbor.”

In response to being asked why she agreed to speak with the Sun Times News, Ms. Kipke replied, “Because it’s good for people to hear. I want people to know what my experience was compared to what I thought it would be when I joined.” The unnamed former member and employee had a similar response when they said, “I just want people to know about this because it feels misleading.”

As for Ms. Locks, she has found her peace. When asked to explain why she agreed to share her story, she referred to the famous Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

Note: The author would like to hear from those members who decided to stay with Huron River Methodist Church, both those who voted for or against disaffiliation. She can be contacted at traci@thesuntimesnews.com

Former longtime member of DUMC, Barbara Locks. Photo courtesy of Barbara Locks.
Rev. Dr. John E. Harnish. Courtesy of Rev. Harnish.
Bishop David Bard, presiding bishop of the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church website.
The disaffiliation is even more stark with many surrounding Methodists choosing to remain with the UMC. Chelsea First United Methodist Church hangs its welcoming message. Photo courtesy of Joy Barrett, Lead Pastor at Chelsea First United Methodist Church.
I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified