NC Conference of United Methodists may lose 1/3 of churches to new denomination
A split in the United Methodist Church, North Carolina’s second largest religious denomination, has seemed increasingly likely the last few years, and now at least 260 churches in the state’s 779-church eastern conference, known as the N.C. Conference, have voted to disaffiliate or plan to next year.
This is according to Rev. Jerry Lewis, the North Carolina organizer for the Global Methodist Church (GMC), the new denomination formed by traditional Methodists who oppose the direction of the wider UMC on issues of sexuality and biblical authority. Lewis, who is church administrator for Trinity United Methodist in Jacksonville, said that 180 churches have voted to leave in 2022.
Churches in the N.C. Conference had until Oct. 10 to set a date for a vote on whether or not to disaffiliate in 2022, which the GMC is calling the “first wave.” Those who miss this deadline will be given another opportunity in 2023, the “second wave.” Lewis said another 80 have indicated to his team that they intend to disaffiliate in the second wave.
Altogether, these 260 churches would make up 1/3 of the N.C. Conference’s 779 churches, and there is still plenty of opportunity left for churches to decide before the end of 2023, when the disaffiliation agreement negotiated by progressive and traditional factions of the UMC expires.
In terms of how many churches in the end are going to disaffiliate, Lewis said based on what they’re seeing so far, “We believe the percentage is going to be much higher than folks assumed. We’re delighted at the sheer amount in what we called the ‘first wave.’ To have 180 in this first phase is kind of mind boggling in regards to everything they had to accomplish to reach this state in such a short amount of time. The disaffiliation process wasn’t even known to us until May of this year.”
Of the 180 churches that have already voted in the “first wave,” more than 150 tell Lewis that they plan on joining the new Global Methodist denomination. The remaining are determining whether to join GMC, look for another denomination, or remain independent.
Derek Leek, communications director for the N.C. Conference, told CJ he does not have official numbers yet that can confirm whether those Lewis and the GMC state are accurate. But with the Oct. 10 deadline passed, they plan to gather those in the coming weeks so people can see them before a conference-wide vote in November.
“Coming up in Nov. 19, we have a special-called session of our annual conference, which usually just meets once a year in June, but because there are churches that wish to disaffiliate, the annual conference actually has to ratify that vote,” Leek said. “Once a church has done all their compliance information based on their agreement, turned in their archives, pay their two years of apportionment, their unfunded pension liability, the whole list of things, then they are eligible to actually disaffiliate by the 31st [of December].”
Leek also said that they’ve heard a rumor that people think their churches have to disaffiliate by the end of 2022, and that may explain a rush from some churches to immediately disaffiliate. But Leek said churches can use this process all the way until the end of 2023.
There could be a hangup for a church, though, if voting members of the annual conference don’t believe that the church is disaffiliating for the specific reasons laid out in the 2019 agreement, Leek added. This agreement in paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline only allows for these disaffiliations if the church is doing so for issues of conscience surrounding sexuality and church doctrine.
Lewis told Carolina Journal that while issues of human sexuality have been the most debated and public leading up to the split, they are only a symptom of a much deeper issue for those aligned with his movement.
“The aspect of human sexuality is only one part of the discussion. For the majority of us, the key element is not tied to that specific issue,” Lewis said. “The key issue is directly tied to the authority of Holy Scripture. Because once you accept and believe in the authority and centrality of the Word of God, it helps address many of the significant aspects of the culture wars we experience.”
Lewis was chosen to be the North Carolina organizer for the new denomination by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which is the conservative faction within the United Methodist Church that is starting up the GMC. The Transitional Conference Affiliation Team (TCAT) that Lewis leads has decided not to maintain the two conferences that the UMC has but to proceed as one statewide conference.
“It’s made of 16 members — eight from the Western Conference and eight from the North Carolina Conference,” Lewis said of the TCAT team. “But after a week gathering together, we felt that the future was better grasped in a sense of unity among us. So we are working together to hopefully stand up a North Carolina Provisional Conference of the Global Methodist Church come Jan. 1, 2023… And we’re very thrilled about that.”
When asked if there is a simple process for disaffiliating churches to keep their properties and pensions, Lewis said, “I don’t think anybody would want me to comment that it is simple, because the process is not anywhere close to being simple. But bottomline, the answer is yes: if the churches go through the process as outlined by their conference leadership,” they will be able to keep the buildings and pensions.
He said the pensions are really not a big part of the equation, since the system already accommodated for disaffiliation. But they are working on different insurance-related questions that are a bit more complicated.
Because a majority of overseas churches in Africa and Asia sided with the Wesleyan Covenant’s more conservative views on sexuality, they are hoping these churches will also join the new GMC denomination. This vision is what led them to choose the name Global Methodists.
But Leek offers a word of caution to those wanting to jump ship and join the GMC.
“Although they’ve formed a denomination, they’ve not yet had a meeting; so all their stuff is transitional,” Leek told CJ. “So really, there’s not way for anyone to join the GMC right now. They have to actually meet and get all that formal stuff in place. So yes, people may have indicated that they want to [join the GMC], but that process is yet to be determined for how they do that.”
The N.C. Conference set up a webpage with detailed information on how churches can go through the process of disaffiliating, but they are not shy about stating that they would prefer these churches to remain United Methodists.
Leek said overall that the bishop, the conference staff, and a majority of the conference as a whole “want these churches to be United Methodist” and not to disaffiliate. He said it’s not about any financial impact it may have to the conference but because of the deep grief and harm caused by these separations.
“We’re looking toward the future, but we have this sadness and frustration because we want these people to be part of our community and to go forward together and to be actually united,” Leek said.
Aimee Yeager, communications director for the state’s other UMC conference, the Western N.C. Conference, said they are doing the same process as laid out in paragraph 2553, but unlike the N.C. Conference, they are not having an additional special session of their annual conference.
“We will not be voting on any additional disaffiliations until our annual conference in June of 2023,” Yeager told CJ.
Without any 2022 deadlines, it’s more difficult to gauge how many western churches may decide to disaffiliate before December of 2023.
“Between 2020 and 2022, there have been 41 churches that have disaffiliated in that time,” Yeager said, adding that they “don’t have an estimate on how many will disaffiliate in the future” as the process wraps up at the end of next year.
Lewis said the leaders in the eastern conference “have been more gracious than what our brothers and sisters in the western conference are dealing with.” While he did not specify what has been less gracious in the western part of the state, Yeager said she believes Lewis was likely referencing the conference’s decision not to have a special called session for 2022.
If a similar portion of western N.C. UMC churches choose to disaffiliate as did eastern N.C. churches, then about 320 churches of the 959 western churches may leave. In a single statewide GMC conference, these 320 combined with the 260 of the eastern churches would create a 580-church conference, a similar number of churches to those that would remain in either of the state’s UMC conferences.
Yeager said only three churches have voted to disaffiliate so far this year, though, so it’s also possible that a much smaller proportion of western N.C. churches will choose to go through the process.
Both UMC and GMC spokespeople told CJ that this process of separation has been painful for all involved.
“We all grieve, and are sad, to be involved in the process that you and I are discussing today,” Lewis said. “There are very hard feelings that we all have, and whatever the vote, there are people that are going to be pleased and displeased.”