Churches continue to leave UMC after disaffiliation provision expires

A worship service at St. John's United Methodist Church of Aiken, South Carolina, on November. 12, 2023.
A worship service at St. John's United Methodist Church of Aiken, South Carolina, on November. 12, 2023. | Screengrab: YouTube/St. Johns UMC of Aiken

Congregations within the United Methodist Church continue to leave the mainline Protestant denomination, even after an official disaffiliation process expired at the end of last year.

From 2019 to 2023, the UMC Book of Discipline included a measure known as Paragraph 2553, which created a process for disaffiliating from the denomination due to its years-long debate over whether to bless same-sex unions and ordain noncelibate homosexuals.

Paragraph 2553 expired at the end of 2023, with over 7,500 congregations successfully disaffiliating from the UMC through the process, according to numbers compiled by UM News.

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However, congregations like St. Paul’s Waccamaw United Methodist Church of Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, have held votes to depart from the UMC since the end of 2023.

St. Paul’s Pastor J.R. Virgin told The Christian Post that his congregation decided on Jan. 21 to disaffiliate from the UMC in a vote of 110 to 38, roughly 74%.

“The church decided to leave the UMC due to a perception that the Book of Discipline was being blatantly violated in a number of areas,” said Virgin. “There was also concern that there were little to no repercussions for these perceived violations.”

According to Virgin, the UMC South Carolina Conference was allowing congregations to disaffiliate via the Book of Discipline Paragraph 2549, which centers on the disposing of a closed church property.

Many of the congregations that left under Paragraph 2553 have since decided to affiliate with the Global Methodist Church, a theologically conservative alternative to the UMC launched in 2022.

Virgin told CP that, as of last week, “there has been no decision made on whether or not St. Paul's Waccamaw will join the GMC.”

A similar wait-and-see approach was found with St. John’s United Methodist Church of Aiken, South Carolina, which voted 788-109 to disaffiliate from the UMC earlier this month, or 87.8% in favor.

St. John’s UMC Senior Pastor Tim McClendon told CP that his congregation "will wait until the dust settles on our church decision, and ponder how best we can connect with others."

“We are related to many across the GMC, the Foundry Network, and others. We will ponder this for quite some time. It is simply too soon to make this decision,” he said.

McClendon told CP that, as with the expired Paragraph 2553, the process requires a two-thirds majority vote of church members to support disaffiliation, and those seeking to leave must pay 10% of the appraised value of all church property, liquid assets and other expenses.

As with St. Paul’s UMC, McClendon’s church decided to disaffiliate because the denominational leadership often refused to follow or enforce the rules of the Book of Discipline.

In recent years, many theologically progressive clergy in the UMC have either officiated same-sex weddings or approved the ordination of individuals in same-sex marriages.

In 2022, for example, the UMC Western Jurisdiction voted to make the Rev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth of the California-Pacific Conference a bishop, even though he is married to a man.

These examples continue even after a 2019 special session of the UMC General Conference, in which a majority of delegates approved a measure known as the "Traditional Plan," which reaffirmed the denomination's biblical stance on LGBT issues. 

“'Discipline' is a hugely important word for Wesleyans. It underscores our distinctive emphasis on sanctification,” McClendon told CP. “Since 2019, when the General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan, there have been many denominational leaders who have been and continue to be in open defiance of that decision.”

“We are not even close to being connectional anymore; there is no ‘Big Tent Methodism’ that has room for liberals and conservatives. The tent has collapsed, and we want to get out and hold fast to longstanding doctrinal and Disciplinary standards.”

South Carolina churches that have voted to disaffiliate from the UMC still have to wait for the annual conference meeting in June, when the regional body will vote on whether to recognize their decisions.

South Carolina Conference Communications Director Dan O’Mara explained to CP that, in 2022, regional leadership adopted a measure known as the “Local Church Discernment Process.”

“While similar to the disaffiliation process found in Paragraph 2553, the Local Church Discernment Process is grounded in Paragraph 2549 of the Discipline, which is typically employed when a local church is closed because it no longer serves the purpose for which it was organized,” noted O’Mara.

According to O’Mara, even when Paragraph 2553 was in effect, churches that disaffiliated last year did so under the Local Church Discernment Process instead since “they did not profess to disagree with the human sexuality language in the Book of Discipline or how the South Carolina Conference has interpreted it.”

“On June 6, 2023, members of the 2023 South Carolina Annual Conference approved the closure of 113 local churches whose members had voted to separate,” he added.

“These churches completed the Local Church Discernment Process, having determined that they could no longer function as a United Methodist church because they firmly believe that the denomination has not consistently upheld its stated doctrine on issues of human sexuality.”

O’Mara declined to comment on how many congregations within the South Carolina Conference were seeking disaffiliation under the process, citing confidentiality and a desire “to protect the integrity” of the process.

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