More than 400 congregations in Texas have voted to leave The United Methodist Church amid the mainline Protestant denomination's ongoing schism over LGBT issues.
Over the weekend, UMC regional bodies in Texas voted to approve the disaffiliation votes of hundreds of churches, with most planning to join the recently created Global Methodist Church.
The total number of departing congregations includes 294 of the 598 churches belonging to the Houston-based Texas Conference and 145 of the 201 churches belonging to the Lubbock-based Northwest Texas Conference, reported The Dallas Morning News.
The departing congregations constitute nearly half of all UMC congregations in Texas and are in addition to hundreds of churches in other states that have had their departures affirmed by their regional bodies.
The UMC has faced a divisive debate over its official stance on homosexuality, as laid out in its Book of Discipline, which prohibits the blessing of same-sex unions and bars the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.
Although theological liberals have failed to change the official stance, many leaders have refused to enforce or follow the rules, leading to much frustration among theological conservatives.
An example is the election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as bishop of the UMC Mountain Sky Area. While Oliveto is in a same-sex marriage and had her election declared invalid by the United Methodist Judicial Council in 2017, as of this month, she remains in office.
Mark Tooley, head of the theologically conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, put the tally of churches that have left the UMC in recent months to over 1,300 in a recent piece, with more expected.
"By the end of next year (the deadline for exiting with church property), at least 3,000 and possibly 5,000 churches are expected to exit," wrote Tooley the day before the Texas conferences finalized the churches' departure.
"Denominational agencies are preparing for a 38 percent drop in funding for 2025-2028, which implies an approximate expected membership loss of 2.3 million members from the nearly 6.3 million the denomination had in the United States in 2020. That is not a minor exodus."
The Rev. Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe, the senior pastor of St. Stephen's United Methodist Church of Houston, told The Texas Tribune he believed the departures reflect the overall divisiveness in the United States.
"It parallels this moment in the broader world," said Bledsoe, whose congregation plans to remain with the UMC. "It's a hard time to bring people together. We really reflect the brokenness of the culture and the world."
In May, the GMC was officially launched to serve as a theologically conservative alternative to the UMC, with many United Methodist congregations deciding to join the new denomination.
Last month, the UMC North Carolina Conference held a special session to officially approve the disaffiliation votes of 249 congregations, nearly a third of the conference's member churches.
"The future is bright, especially because God has something to do with it," said North Carolina Bishop Leonard E. Fairley in a statement. "We know the end of this story because of who Jesus Christ is. May you hold each other dear regardless of what we voted on here. Hold each other dear in your prayers."
Correction Jan. 4, 2023: The article mistakenly labeled the Houston-based Texas Conference the "Central Texas Conference." The Central Texas Conference is a different regional body located elsewhere.