UMC North Georgia Conference blocks churches from leaving, pauses disaffiliation process

View of the stage during the United Methodist Church's special session General Conference inside the Dome at America's Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.
View of the stage during the United Methodist Church's special session General Conference inside the Dome at America's Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. | United Methodist News Service/Kathleen Barry

A United Methodist Church conference in Georgia will temporarily block member churches from disaffiliating from the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States amid the denominational schism over homosexuality.

In an email sent to member churches, the UMC North Georgia Conference announced a decision to "pause" the disaffiliation process, claiming "many local churches have been misled about the disaffiliation process and have been presented with information about the process" and about the UMC leadership "that is factually incorrect and defamatory."

"We have significant concerns about this misinformation and are well aware that it has the potential to do irreparable harm," the announcement reads. "We do not have confidence in the validity of upcoming church conference disaffiliation votes."

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The UMC North Georgia Conference says the misinformation has come "in the form of printed materials, PowerPoint presentations, websites, videos, emails, and social media posts" that constitute a "breach of integrity." The email didn't name those responsible for sharing the alleged misinformation. 

The North Georgia Conference, which has over 700 member churches, said disaffiliation will not happen until the next session of the United Methodist General Conference, which will be held from April 23 to May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"This pause will allow churches to gain more information about the real, rather than the false or hypothetical, future of our church."

In June, the conference ratified the disaffiliations of 70 congregations representing 9% of the denomination's churches and 3% of its members, just as hundreds of other congregations nationwide left the UMC over the ongoing debate over the church's official stance on homosexuality.

The UMC Book of Discipline labels homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching" and prohibits the blessing of same-sex unions or the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.

However, many theological liberals in the UMC adamantly oppose the Book of Discipline's biblically-based stance, and some leaders in the denomination have refused to enforce the rules.

In January 2020, a theologically diverse group of UMC leaders agreed to advance a proposal at the next General Conference to create a new Methodist denomination for those who oppose changing the Book of Discipline.

Although General Conference had been scheduled for later in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led the UMC to postpone the churchwide legislative gathering multiple times. The UMC decided to again delay General Conference to 2024.

In May, the Global Methodist Church launched as a theologically conservative alternative to the UMC, which has attracted hundreds of churches.

In its email, the UMC North Georgia Conference pushed back against "Church leaders communicating that North Georgia Conference leadership is not following the Book of Discipline."

"In fact, the North Georgia Annual Conference and its leaders have taken no actions in conflict with the Book of Discipline," the statement reads.

Earlier this month, more than 400 congregations in Texas voted to leave the UMC, with most planning to join the GMC.

The total number of departing congregations includes 294 of the 598 churches belonging to the Central Texas Conference and 145 of the 201 churches belonging to the Lubbock-based Northwest Texas Conference.

The departing congregations constitute nearly half of all UMC congregations in Texas, joining hundreds of churches in other states that have had their departures affirmed by their regional bodies. 

At a special called session of the UMC North Carolina Conference last month, delegates voted 957-165 to approve the disaffiliation votes of 249 congregations seeking to leave the denomination.

According to a statement from the North Carolina Conference, the number of departing congregations represented 32% of the regional body's member churches and about 22% of its membership.

The Western North Carolina Conference has also reported that 41 of their 990 congregations voted to disaffiliate earlier this year, with at least seven others recently beginning the process of discernment for disaffiliation.

Fifty-eight churches disaffiliated with the UMC Louisiana Conference during a special session last month. 

Some churches seeking to disaffiliate have faced resistance from their regional bodies.

In June, over 100 churches filed a lawsuit against the UMC Florida Annual Conference, alleging they weren't given fair terms for leaving the conference. 

In Arkansas this month, the First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro sued the UMC Arkansas Conference after its vote to disaffiliate was rejected by the conference in November. 

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