“Disaffiliation” — the act of formally leaving The United Methodist Church — tops concerns for many clergy and laity these days as about 1,800 congregations out of 30,000 U.S. churches have left since 2019. However, not all the votes for disaffiliation have succeeded, and when that happens, there’s often a trail of damaged spirits and depleted resources left behind.
The United Methodist Church is organized with what’s known as a “connectional” model. Unlike Baptists churches that act independently, United Methodist churches are linked to one another through a regional body called the annual conference. The collection of church laws known as the Book of Discipline terms the annual conference, not the local church, as the “basic unit” of the denomination. Local churches receive their pastors through appointment by a bishop and pay annual contributions known as “apportionments” for denomination-wide mission and ministry.
Most important, local churches don’t own their property; it is held “in trust” for the annual conference, which provides the resources to start the church. Thus, leaving the denomination isn’t as simple as changing the name on the sign. The exit process places a heavy burden on church members to declare their affiliation if leaving the UMC is proposed.
Two examples from North Texas
For example, Lake Highlands UMC — one of the more prominent congregations in the Dallas-based North Texas Annual Conference — voted on disaffiliation Jan. 29. Members voted 157 to 145 to stay in the UMC, according to the Lake Highlands Advocate magazine. Three telephone messages and an email to the congregation’s senior pastor, Jill Jackson-Sears, asking what happens next for the church elicited a curt response: “I make it a personal policy not to talk to media.” So Lake Highlands’ fate publicly remains unclear.
Another North Texas church, First UMC in Frisco, a far northern suburb of Dallas, saw its disaffiliation vote fail by about 1%. United Methodist rules require a supermajority approval of 66% for disaffiliation. Nonetheless, First-Frisco’s senior pastor, Mark Vowell, said after the vote that he was taking the congregation out of the UMC anyway in defiance of church rules. Legally, First UMC-Frisco’s property still belongs to the denomination, but like Elvis, its spirit has left the building.
“Legally, First UMC-Frisco’s property still belongs to the denomination, but like Elvis, its spirit has left the building.”
Lake Highlands is a collection of neighborhoods in North Dallas united mainly by a single public high school. It is a well-known community but not its own city. In the past, Lake Highlands was a notably conservative enclave. Over the past two decades, however, the community has become significantly more ethnically and politically diverse. George W. Bush for president yard signs gave way to Joe Biden for president signs — partly a result of Trumpism and partly a result of younger and less conservative families moving into homes vacated by now-elderly original owners.
Lake Highlands UMC sits in the middle of this rapidly changing community and has long-term ties to the conservative ideology that once held sway.
The situation in Frisco is similar, although as a newer booming suburb of Dallas, Frisco sits in one of the most conservative urban counties in the state. Methodist, Baptist and nondenominational churches here butter their bread by appealing to the more conservative side of the population.
Similar stories could be told of UMC congregations nationwide facing disaffiliation votes. National and state politics often set the stage for debate over religious identity.
When a vote fails
Bishops from two of the five U.S. jurisdictions responded to inquiries about what has happened in their regions when disaffiliation votes fail.
Bishop Karen Oliveto said the episcopal area she administers, Mountain Sky, has had few failed disaffiliations. Mountain Sky covers Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and part of Idaho.
“So far, we have had churches vote to disaffiliate fairly intact — most if not all of the members have voted to leave,” Bishop Oliveto said. “There are a couple of church votes coming up that will be much closer. We are working with those who are seeking to remain in the UMC, providing resources and support as well as community. We have been doing fundraising for this. We also have a superintendent of community and congregational vitality who works with the cabinet to support these individuals and communities. Our desire is to maintain and expand the grace-filled witness of a United Methodist presence throughout the four-plus states of the Mountain Sky Conference.”
Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. has been at the front lines of the disaffiliation campaign for years. While he was bishop of the Florida Annual Conference in 2022, more than 100 local churches mounted a lawsuit organized by the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association to exit the UMC without paying the “dues” required by church law. Having survived that, Bishop Carter now administers the Western North Carolina Conference, where the WCA has fomented another lawsuit involving about 40 local churches.
Bishop Carter said while failed disaffiliations mean the congregation remains United Methodist institutionally, there’s still loss after a vote.
“In some cases, those promoting disaffiliation depart,” Carter said. “This can result in a decline of members and resources. In the Western North Carolina Conference, we’ve developed a plan to help out those churches.”
“Sometimes a failed disaffiliation vote brings clarity and fresh air,” the bishop said. “People say they can breathe at last, and it causes them to refocus on their mission.”
“I don’t use this word lightly, but a disaffiliation vote traumatizes people.”
However, whether a disaffiliation vote succeeds or fails, the emotional toll on United Methodists is “terrible,” Carter said. “I don’t use this word lightly, but a disaffiliation vote traumatizes people. It traumatizes pastors and members. There has been hurt, and people need to care for each other.”
There’s an irony around failed disaffiliation votes, too: a church that wants to remain in the United Methodist fold doesn’t have to vote. There’s no edict that says a congregation must decide whether it wants to stay or go. Only churches where disaffiliation has been proposed must vote.
‘Do you use Tarot cards to make conference decisions?’
Furthermore, exit votes are still plagued by misinformation and political maneuvering that take much research to correct, say a minister and a member who’ve done their own in-depth fact-checking. During the week of Jan. 30, a North Carolina clergywoman and a Missouri laywoman each published independent documents refuting much of the misinformation spread in their local congregations.
In the Western North Carolina Conference, interim minister Mary John Dye has developed a series of booklets that directly confront rumors and misinformation spread in her congregation, Triplett UMC in Mooresville, N.C.
“I poured my heart and soul into the pamphlet,” Dye told an online journal, United Methodist Insight. “I also had it double-checked and triple-checked by people in the conference to make sure it was correct.”
“They came from all across the U.S. — Oregon, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania and multiple requests from every conference in the Southeastern Jurisdiction (where her church is located),” Dye said.
In Missouri Annual Conference, a laywoman who asked to be identified only as Audra for fear of reprisals published a redacted copy of a letter she sent to her church’s leaders who have promoted disaffiliation.
“The more I learned about the leadership’s stated reasons for disaffiliation, the more my hesitation turned to shock,” Audra said in her letter. “My shock turned to sorrow. My sorrow turned to shame. Not shame because of the UMC. Shame because of the misleading rhetoric published on the church website.”
One of the most prevalent rumors about the post-disaffiliation UMC is that the church will disavow such historic doctrines as Christ’s divinity.
Audra’s letter extensively debunks out-of-context quotes from Bishops Oliveto and Carter, retired Bishops Robert Hoshibata and Will Willimon, and newly installed Bishops Kennetha Bigham-Tsai (Iowa Area) and Dottie Escobedo-Frank (California-Pacific Area). Audra said especially she found several bishops’ affirmations of orthodox Christian doctrines were deleted from information given to her congregation. One of the most prevalent rumors about the post-disaffiliation UMC is that the church will disavow such historic doctrines as Christ’s divinity.
Bishop Oliveto also touched on the issue of falsehoods in disaffiliation votes. A married lesbian who has endured controversy over the UMC’s human sexuality rules, Oliveto noted rumors about her administration and ministry have been rife. Western Jurisdiction delegates elected Oliveto as bishop in 2016 as a challenge to the UMC’s bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
“Each week I receive a handful of letters from people,” the bishop said. “They are all very similar in their content, basically: ‘Our pastor has given us reasons to disaffiliate and one of them is because of you. Is it true you use tarot cards to make conference decisions and don’t believe in the divinity of Christ?’
“I am grateful they have reached out to ask for themselves, but if I am receiving a couple of emails each week, I wonder how many more are not asking for themselves?” she said.
Bishop Oliveto also said her spouse, United Methodist deaconess Robin Ridenour, experienced misinformation’s vast spread when she recently attended her first gathering of the denomination’s Academy for Spiritual Formation.
“Robin off-handedly mentioned, ‘And my spouse does not use tarot cards.’ Everyone in her group said they had heard that rumor,” Oliveto said.
Another new bishop, Laura Merrill, who oversees the Arkansas Conference, posted a video to clergy and laypeople addressing the UMC’s splintering.
“Across the whole church and here in Arkansas, the disaffiliation process has been distressing and exhausting, whether you’ve been affected directly or indirectly,” Bishop Merrill said. “I’m not sure any of us could have anticipated the great pain we feel. … In far too many places, it has caused brokenness in long-term relationships. In others, it has weakened our ministries or community impact, and very often, it is hard to point at the good.
“Even so, our God is good, all the time, and we can trust that God is working for good, even in this moment, perhaps especially in our pain and brokenness.”
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.