Summer is known as “annual conference season” for United Methodists in the United States and Europe. It’s a time when the regional units that form the basic structure of the global denomination come together to make decisions for their future.
While only the General Conference can make decisions for the entire denomination, choices made at annual conferences often indicate what topics the global legislative assembly, now scheduled for 2024, may consider.
This year the key topic in most annual conferences is whether churches in their region have decided to “disaffiliate” or leave the denomination.
Currently, the official count of churches that have left the UMC stands at 167, according to UMC Data, a unit of the General Council on Finance and Administration. Unofficially, the tally of departing churches stands between 750 and 1,000 of the more than 30,000 U.S. congregations, based on news reports from the conferences and local media. At least one conference, North Texas, announced it would not disclose names or numbers of churches seeking disaffiliation; those agreements won’t be decided until spring 2023.
Unofficially, the tally of departing churches stands between 750 and 1,000 of the more than 30,000 U.S. congregations.
Meanwhile, accompanying issues around disaffiliation such as the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage are providing “straws in the wind” for how the UMC is reforming itself from the bottom up. Here are some highlights from this year’s annual conference sessions:
Baltimore-Washington Conference ordained a married lesbian, T.C. Morrow, as a “deacon in full connection” after she spent a decade in limbo because of her sexuality. United Methodist deacons are ordained to ministries of “word and service,” meaning they can preach but not preside at baptism and communion. Morrow’s proposed ordination was challenged during a plenary session, but Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling cited the UMC’s Book of Discipline and a Judicial Council decision that specify determining a candidate’s fitness for ministry is the responsibility of the conference board of ordained ministry and the clergy session, which votes on candidates’ acceptance. By a 2-to-1 margin, the conference also endorsed the Christmas Covenant, a proposal to restructure the worldwide denomination into continental regions to allow for contextualized decision-making and to eliminate U.S.-centric bias.
Czech and Slovak Conference appears on the verge of “moving in different directions.” The Czech district wants to stay in the UMC. The Slovak district is interested in joining the Global Methodist Church but wants answers to questions “on the employment of pastors, on the adaptation possibilities of the church order or also on the administration of assets in the GMC,” according to a report on the Central and Southern Europe website.
Estonia Conference voted overwhelmingly to leave the UMC. The vote flies in the face of a ruling handed down by the denomination’s Judicial Council regarding a similar vote in the Bulgaria-Romania Conference that was called illegitimate. Still uncertain is what the decision will mean for the Latvia and Lithuania districts, “neither of which has mentioned the decision on their Facebook pages,” wrote David W. Scott on UM & Global. it’s also unclear whether Estonia will join the GMC or become an autonomous national church. The conference will complete its exit process by 2023.
Florida Conference drew both praise and criticism after its clergy session voted to reject a class of 16 clergy candidates because two of them are openly LGBTQ. A third candidate identified herself as having same-sex orientation after the vote. According to a report by Sam Hodges of UM News, the conflict highlighted the divide among United Methodists over the acceptance of LGBTQ persons as clergy.
Great Plains Conference covering Kansas and Nebraska approved the disaffiliation of 12 churches. Additional disaffiliation applications will be voted upon during an online special session scheduled for Sept. 10. A resolution endorsing Kansas’ anti-abortion campaign was withdrawn before the conference began.
Holston Conference, defined as the valley of the Holston River running through Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, voted to adopt the resolution, “Moratorium on Church Trials in Holston Conference” by a vote 361 to 323. However, the conference voted against “A Resolution Encouraging Discernment,” which asked General Conference delegates “to prayerfully discern how they may support legislation that removes discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding ministry of and with LGBTQ persons,” according to a UM News report.
Illinois Great Rivers Conference, considered the more conservative of the two units in the state, “approved the closure of a congregation — the former Xenia UMC — which left the denomination to become independent,” according to its UM News report. The conference reported only three churches have left, all becoming independent rather than join the Global Methodist Church founded by the traditionalist Wesleyan Covenant Association.
Indiana Conference leader Bishop Julius C. Trimble previously set a special session for Nov. 19 via Zoom to deal with all requests for disaffiliation. Applications for leaving the UMC were to be considered starting June 13. At the annual conference session, members narrowly defeated a resolution titled “Building Beloved Community” that opponents contended would have set standards on LGBTQ acceptance different from the tightening bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage enacted by the 2019 special General Conference. The resolution was defeated 402 to 410 with four abstentions.
Michigan Conference leaders emphasized a desire to “bring balance” back to their conference after more than two years of disruption. The program emphasized positive accomplishments of local church and conference ministries. Members affirmed Actions for The Future of The UMC, including the Covenant to Build BeLoved Community, an open letter by UMC leaders titled A Call to Grace, and A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church from the Council of Bishops. Four United Methodist churches requested disaffiliation. According to the conference report: “After these votes were taken, Bishop (David A.) Bard observed, ‘We hold together mourning and dancing and, right now, mourning is in the foreground. It is a moment of separation. But we trust we can work amid our brokenness.’”
Minnesota Conference adopted four resolutions focused on increasing “diversity, equity and inclusion,” including hiring and retaining employees and prioritizing recruitment of candidates of color and LGBTQ candidates. The conference voted to ratify disaffiliation agreements between the conference board of trustees and three local churches “that have discerned that their path goes a different direction from the Minnesota Annual Conference.”
North Georgia Conference, which has been a hotbed of disaffiliation activity, approved disaffiliation agreements of 70 churches according to the rules set forth by the 2019 General Conference. This means each of the 70 churches will be required to pay two years’ worth of “fair share” contributions for church-wide ministries and all their unfunded pension liabilities for conference clergy. In return, the departing congregations get to retain their real and personal property. In a separate action, North Georgia and Mt. Bethel Church announced they had reached a settlement in a lawsuit over control of the church, with Mt. Bethel agreeing to pay North Georgia $13.1 million to retain its Marietta, Ga., campus.
Norway Conference adopted a resolution committing to stay in the UMC. However, the resolution also specified the conference will develop a process for congregations that want to disaffiliate to do so by 2025. Norwegian United Methodists also pledged to work toward a more inclusive church but not to violate the Book of Discipline. The conference also agreed to hold in abeyance any complaints against clergy who perform same-sex weddings.
Switzerland/France/North Africa Conference voted overwhelmingly to continue working on a plan titled “Kaleidoscope — Living the Mission,” a proposal to keep the conference together despite differing views on human sexuality. The plan would let congregations and pastors follow their consciences on accepting LGBTQ persons, including officiating at same-sex marriages. The plan resembles a similar plan approved earlier by German United Methodists’ executive council.
Western Pennsylvania Conference posted a report to UM News calling the most notable piece of legislation “Actively Waiting Task Force Petition for an Intentional Missional Alignment Process.” The resolution calls for establishment of “three households” within the conference to allow for continuing in ministry based on differences of opinion regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ persons. Legislation pulled from the consent calendar and ultimately approved by the body included a motion urging the General Council on Finance and Administration to stop offering “non-binary” as a gender option on reporting forms.
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.