The social media messages can be heartrending to read:
- “I feel abandoned by my church that voted to leave the UMC.”
- “This separation has caused a rift in decades-old fellowships.”
- “I’m feeling … like our beloved church got pushed off a cliff into the unknown.”
- “My church will leave the UMC in August to join GMC. When or how or will UMC provide those without church wanting to remain in UMC with support of some kind?”
For those feeling spiritually “homeless” in the splintering of The United Methodist Church, a “metaverse movement” called UMsConnected has launched to provide those wanting to stay in the denomination a way to be connected beyond their disaffected congregations.
UMsConnected was imagined by Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, who oversees the Florida and Western North Carolina Annual Conferences. Aware that some Florida Conference churches were preparing to leave the denomination, Bishop Carter contacted retired seminary professor and Methodist spirituality expert Steve Harper about starting an online community to support those who want to stay in the UMC even as their local congregations depart.
“Bishop Carter asked me to consider heading up a website that could be a gathering place for those who want to stay in The United Methodist Church when their congregations disaffiliate,” Harper explained. “After thinking it over, I decided that such a ‘metaverse movement’ could be valuable to other audiences as well as those feeling spiritually homeless.”
“As a metaverse movement, UMsConnected expresses words like ‘location’ and ‘interaction’ in new and various ways,” says the website’s About section. “The movement will evolve, meeting needs using a learn-by-doing approach, but it has launched with these basic resources: a website, a group Facebook page, and a podcast.”
Harper and other UMsConnected leaders say they envision participants for their online community as church members whose congregations have closed; those whose congregations have voted to leave the UMC; those with no United Methodist church nearby; and those who seek a supportive faith community via the internet. They say the movement isn’t a church and doesn’t have members, preferring to describe itself as a community of “belongers.”
The website says the movement’s mission can be described in three words: vision, intention and means. The “vision” is to foster “a theology of love that expresses itself in personal and social holiness. The “intention” is to provide spiritual formation in the tradition of Methodism’s founder John Wesley using technology in innovative, meaningful ways. The “means” to fulfill the vision and intention will be resources to educate and inspire participants in Wesleyan spiritual traditions via UMsConnected’s website, Facebook page and podcast.
Two online gatherings are slated to start in September:
- “Kindred” — a weekly Zoom group for young adults starting Monday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. Eastern Time led by Christy Holden, director of the Gulf Coast Wesley Foundation on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla.
- “Conversations” — a monthly Zoom meeting that features a guest who will dialogue about a particular theme. The first meeting is Thursday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. Eastern Time.
Two other gatherings are in the works, Harper said. “Epworth Group,” a spiritual formation session named for John Wesley’s childhood home, will be modeled after the traditional Methodist class meeting. “Living the Wesleyan Way,” a monthly group, will combine the disciplines of common reading and “holy conferencing” discussions and will be led by another retired seminary professor and Wesley heritage expert, Paul Chilcote.
Three other experts joined the UMsConnected team during the first week of August. Kim Ingram, an ordained deacon and staff member in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, will serve as co-director. Chilcote, currently serving as director of the Center for Global Wesleyan Theology at Cambridge University’s Wesley House in England, will head a team to develop spiritual formation resources. Derrick Scott III, head of an independent ministry called Studio Wesley, will bring multimedia expertise to upgrade the inaugural website and create a YouTube channel.
As part of its mission to be a waystation on the journey toward a new UMC, UMsConnected posts answers to church members’ questions, such as what happens to someone’s United Methodist membership if their church disaffiliates but they want to stay in the denomination. The website reassures members that their individual United Methodist affiliation doesn’t invalidate and advises members to transfer to a congregation that plans to remain with the denomination.
In the event there’s no other United Methodist church close by, Harper suggested that organizing an Epworth Group, similar to a “house church,” can function as an interim arrangement.
“UMsConnected can help interested persons organize an Epworth Group complete with guidelines and resources,” Harper said.
In the wake of the sometimes-fraught conflicts going on now about the UMC’s splintering, UMsConnected’s founders also say they hope its Wesleyan spiritual focus will dispel false narratives being spread across the denomination by dissident forces.
Bishop Carter shared his concerns in an Aug. 2 Facebook post about how rumors and misinformation are undermining The United Methodist Church as congregations splinter off.
“There is misinformation about what the ongoing and future United Methodist Church believes,” Bishop Carter wrote. “Some of this misinformation is being shared in local churches. If we do not tell our story, others will construct a story about us, in this instance a false witness about the UMC. This is a violation of the Ninth Commandment.”
In UMsConnected’s inaugural podcast, Harper characterized the “metaverse movement” as a pathway for United Methodists to traverse change while a new denomination takes shape.
“God is guiding us toward a future filled with hope,” Harper said.
For more details about UMsConnected, contact Steve Harper at [email protected]
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.