GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Seeking sanctuary from church doctrine they find unacceptable but perhaps leaving behind their houses of worship in the process, thousands of Methodists from North Carolina next week will try to complete what they started more than a year ago: a philosophical and emotional exodus from the United Methodist Church.
During a virtual special session on May 6, 192 churches in the North Carolina Western Conference – about 69 of them from the Piedmont Triad – will ask that their requests to leave the denomination be accepted and that they be allowed to continue to meet in buildings where some of them have sung and prayed for decades.
In the session at 10 a.m. on the conference’s website, YouTube channel and Facebook Live, delegates – a group comprised of each church’s licensed clergy and an equivalent number of its members – will hear and consider the applications for separation and discuss UMC’s significant financial requirement to compensate for releasing their property deeds.
The delegates’ yes-and-no votes will be recorded by 5 p.m. that day or postmarked by May 8. Results will be delivered in a letter from NC Western Conference Bishop Ken Carter that will be posted May 12 on that same website.
Church members, some of whom have been members of their congregations for their entire lives and who learned Bible verses and “Jesus Loves Me” in the same building where they were married and now pray, are leaving because of the denomination’s positions on same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ clergy, which some churches already routinely defied.
These congregations petitioned the conference under Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline to withdraw from association with UMC. Although this process was approved in February 2022, the conflict about doctrine, property and exit terms has continued to fester.
The 192 churches have about 36,183 members and represent about 15% of all membership in the NC Western Conference, which represents about half of the state and operates independently of the Eastern Conference, where 249 congregations disaffiliated last year.
But the actual effect is that more than 1 in 5 (21%) of those who routinely attend these churches will be finding a different affiliation, based on WNCUMC figures, and UMC will be replacing the 14% of contributions to the conference they have represented in the past five years.
“We grieve to see any church leave, especially as we believe that we all share the core mission of bringing people into the life of Christ, his love for us and his teaching that we love one another.” Carter said in a statement released by the conference. “Nevertheless, the issue of human sexuality has become an irreconcilable difference among us, and some are choosing to leave.”
In a letter dated Wednesday that he sent to church members, Carter cited same-sex marriages and ordinations of LGBTQ+ clergy as “irreconcilable difference among us.
“It is important to note that the Conference has never and will not force any church to host a wedding they do not wish to host. Nor will we send an LGBTQ+ pastor to a local church which is not receptive to them,” he wrote.
The churches that filed paperwork to leave the denomination are spread across eight districts in the conference. There are 13 churches in the Northern Piedmont District, which includes Guilford and Rockingham counties, and there are 15 from Randolph, Davidson and Montgomery counties among 37 in the Uwharrie District. But the biggest impact is in the Yadkin Valley District, in which 41 congregations from Forsyth, Davie, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin counties have asked to leave.
There are another 41 churches in the Western Conference that had disaffiliated between 2020 and 2022, and there were 12 in the Triad among those 249 approved in the Eastern Conference.
The United Methodist Church in North Carolina is divided into Eastern and Western Conferences that are separated along county lines on a north-south axis from the Virginia border to South Carolina. That line meanders between Rockingham and Caswell counties, along the eastern edges of Guilford and Randolph counties and western Montgomery County ending on the eastern limits of Mecklenburg County.
The Western NC Conference represents 44 counties, grouped by those eight geographic districts, and Carter is the bishop. Connie Mitchell is bishop of the Eastern Conference, which is based in Garner.
Neither includes Rushwood Church in Asheboro, which earlier this year had considered leaving the historically related Wesleyan denomination for similar reasons.
The trust clause
But whether those departing congregations remain in their familiar surroundings remains unclear. Dozens of those members had claimed that church property was being held unlawfully until they agreed to payments that some found extraordinary and unnecessary.
In March, Iredell County Superior Court Judge Richard L. Doughton, citing the religious protections of the First Amendment, dismissed a lawsuit brought by 36 churches that wanted him to grant their freedom from UMC and to release their deeds.
At the heart of this is what the UMC calls its “trust clause,” which specifies that the property where churches operate would continue to be used “exclusively” by the denomination. Legal documents drawn up when churches became affiliated included the trust clause, UMC said, and if for some reason it was omitted, the terms are implied based on “prevailing legal opinion by the courts.”
For the congregations to keep those buildings, they must contribute a perhaps significant sum based on a formula outlined in the Book of Discipline. This includes ensuring that all apportionments – think of those as dues – have been paid for the past year, paying another year’s worth of apportionments in advance, covering unfunded pension obligations for clergy and repaying the amount of any grants received from the conference or one of its divisions in the past 10 years.
“The Conference Apportionment Funds for 2022 have been calculated for each local church based on the church's average ‘net expenses’ for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020 as reflected in the annual reports from the churches and pastors,” Aimee Yeager, spokesperson for WNCCUMC, wrote in an emailed response to a question from WGHP. “Each of the apportionments is calculated separately for each individual church and is rounded to the nearest dollar. This formula is presented for approval to the Annual Conference each year in June.”
UMC officials, though, say they will not let the departures deter them from their missions to spread their ministry, grow their membership and serve those who want to remain.
“While this is not a joyful moment, we remain diligent and honor the process of disaffiliation,” Carter said. “And we remain in prayer for all involved.”
To that point the WNCC announced it was “commissioning a fleet of Lighthouse Congregations,” which are described as groups that serve members whose churches left the denomination but they want to remain affiliated with UMC.
The Lighthouse Congregations would present the church’s sacraments, such as baptism and communion, and UMC said about 60 churches had voted to move into that status.
UMC said that in other areas it would in June send out “a new cadre of community pastors who will serve them.” Questions should be directed to the Online WNC Collective.
“To those departing, we wish you God’s peace,” Carter said. “To those remaining, we draw strength from the gifts of grace, connection, and holiness.”