Historic North Carolina church trying to leave UMC shuttered by regional conference

Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church of Wilmington, North Carolina. | John S. Lerma

A small historic congregation in North Carolina planning to hold a vote to possibly disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church was closed down by a regional body in a surprise move, citing declining attendance.

The UMC North Carolina Conference announced on Sunday the closure of Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church of Wilmington, which has existed for around 170 years.

The decision was conveyed to the congregation at a Sunday evening meeting that featured the local district superintendent and Bishop Connie Mitchell Shelton.

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News of the closure shocked church members, who expected the Sunday meeting to be about their plans to possibly disaffiliate from the UMC.

The congregation's leadership had already voted in February to begin the process of disaffiliation, following the route that over 240 congregations in the conference took last year.

Fifth Avenue member Justin Williams Pope emailed The Christian Post a statement from the congregation, saying they were "led to believe the informational session Sunday evening had been scheduled by the District Superintendent as part of an authorized disaffiliation process."

The headquarters for the North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church located in Garner, North Carolina.
The headquarters for the North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church located in Garner, North Carolina. | (Photo: Bill Norton)

"Instead, the members were informed that the local church was closed, effectively ending Fifth Avenue's opportunity to disaffiliate," noted the church's statement.

"Fifth Avenue never asked for, agreed to or wanted the closure, nor were its members ever given a chance to participate in the decision to close the church down."

The congregation noted that they "are all still in shock over the matter" and have asked Bishop Shelton to "reconsider this ill made decision and return the church to its congregation."

"We are playing by the conference's own rules, but now appear to have been completely shut down. It's sad and it breaks our heart to be treated this way," the congregation stated.

Jim Seay, an attorney first hired by the church to help them through the disaffiliation process, told CP that the congregation is "still exploring all of our alternatives."

"I was there the night they closed them down. I thought it was going to be an informational session," he added. "It's an absolute shame that this dispute couldn't have been kept between us at the local church and the bishop at the greater church."

The Rev. Tara Lain, who serves as superintendent of the Harbor District, which includes Wilmington, told CP that the reason for closing Fifth Avenue UMC was its declining attendance.

"Membership and missional activity of Fifth Avenue has recently declined, and the Church has a current membership of 205 and average weekly attendance of approximately 20 members," Lain stated via email.

"The North Carolina Annual Conference wants all our churches to thrive and make disciples of Jesus Christ. We believe this closure leads to rebirth, and we plan to use this space to meet the local community's clear, present, and pressing needs."

Lain said plans for the property include "a gathering space for senior adults and persons with disabilities," a place to "provide shelter and assistance following major storms" and "a welcoming space for worship and study for one or more new United Methodist faith communities."

"All members of Fifth Avenue will be transferred to a local UMC congregation. Each congregant has the option to transfer to a congregation of their choice. The clergy will be cared for by the NC Conference Bishop and Cabinet," she added.

Over 1,800 churches left the UMC in 2022, largely because of the yearslong effort by theological progressives to change the denomination's stance prohibiting the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.

Although these efforts have failed, many progressive leaders within the UMC have refused to follow or enforce the denominational rules on LGBT issues. Last November, the UMC Western Jurisdiction voted to make the Rev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth of the California-Pacific Conference a bishop, even though he is in a same-sex marriage.

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