More than 6,000 congregations have been given the approval to leave the United Methodist Church over the past four years amid a schism within the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States over whether to change its rules against homosexuality.
According to numbers compiled by UM News, the number of UMC congregations granted disaffiliation passed the 6,000 mark earlier this week, with 6,182 as of Thursday morning.
While the number includes all churches that have disaffiliated from the UMC since 2019, more than 1,800 came in 2022 and more than 4,000 in 2023.
The UM News count derives from a "review of U.S. annual conference reports, publicly available journals and reports of special annual conference sessions held in 2022 and this year."
"The General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination's finance agency, is collecting the official data on disaffiliations and church closures," the outlet added.
"But the finance agency's count of disaffiliations lags behind UM News' data because it must wait for annual conferences to submit official reports."
The number of churches granted disafiliation from the UMC passed the 5,000 mark earlier this month. Several hundred congregations were given the green light to depart over the course of one week alone.
On Wednesday, the UMC Mississippi Annual Conference voted to approve the disaffiliation votes of 189 churches, representing a little over a fifth of the regional body's member congregations.
Mississippi Bishop Sharma Lewis told the assembly after the vote that "this disaffiliation process has been tough" for the regional body and that she wanted "all of y'all to stay."
"But I have to have the faith that clergy, laity and faith communities took the time to pray about their next steps. Also, if we are honest, it has been tense. I wanted this to be a time and a space we could put all of that down," Lewis said.
Over the past few decades, the UMC has had an internal debate over whether to change the rules in the Book of Discipline prohibiting the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.
Although efforts at General Conference to change these rules have failed, theological progressives within the denomination have often refused to follow or enforce the rules. Last year, the UMC Western Jurisdiction voted to make the Rev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth of the California-Pacific Conference a bishop, although he is in a same-sex marriage.
The willingness of some leaders to disregard the Book of Discipline's stance has inspired many theologically conservative churches to leave the denomination.
In 2019, at a special session of UMC General Conference, delegates voted to add Paragraph 2553 to the Book of Discipline, which created a process for allowing churches to leave the denomination over the longstanding debate. The process is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
Many departing congregations have joined the Global Methodist Church, launched last year as a theologically conservative alternative to the UMC.
Last week, a Colorado-based UMC Mountain Sky Conference, led by Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is also in a same-sex marriage, approved the disaffiliation votes of 38 congregations.