At least 130 congregations have quietly walked away from the United Methodist Church in a schism over the denomination’s planned acceptance of same-sex marriage and homosexual clergy.
The breakaway congregations are keeping their church property thanks to a “conscience clause” enacted by the group’s legislative assembly in 2019.
The United Methodist Church General Conference, the church’s governing body, is expected this year to approve a separation plan that would create two denominations: one affirming bans on gay clergy and same-sex marriage, and one permitting homosexual clergy and same-sex marriage. That move has been postponed because of the pandemic and might be delayed again.
The denomination, formed in 1968 by a merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church, is the second-largest Protestant church in the U.S. after the Southern Baptist Convention.
Mark Tooley, a Methodist and president of The Institute on Religion & Democracy, said the departures show that the 54-year-old “experiment” that united the two liberal Protestant camps “has failed, and now we’re seeing the consequences.”
He added, “The old denomination is coming apart. And that’s, I think, irreversible.”
United Methodists are the largest contingent in the global Methodist movement. In 2018, the denomination reported 6.4 million members and 30,543 congregations in the United States, with an equal number of lay members in Africa, Asia and Europe, where the United Methodists have 12,869 congregations.
Although the loss of 130 U.S. churches may seem small compared with the total number of affiliated churches, the departures underscore the unease in many congregations about issues of sexuality and biblical interpretation.
The United Methodist Judicial Council, the church’s top court, released six rulings Wednesday to clarify and confirm several congregational departures, the denomination’s UM News reported. The rulings and the 2019 conscience provision help release congregations from a centuries-old “trust clause” stating that local church property is held “in trust” for the denomination.
Departing churches often have to pay for unfunded pension obligations for clergy retirees and repay any loans from the local conference, which is equivalent to a diocese.
They must also pay for the legal work in transferring title to properties and pay two years of “apportionments,” the contributions assessed of each church to support various global and national ministries.
The schism over LGBTQ inclusion isn’t the only problem facing the United Methodist Church. The denomination must also contend with sustainability issues, said Daniel Dalton, a Detroit-based lawyer specializing in church property disputes and denominational splits.
He said the average size of a United Methodist congregation is 75 members, which is widely believed to fall short of the number required to sustain expenses and a full-time pastor’s salary.
“The average age of a congregation is 60,” he said. “The average age of a pastor is 63. I think we’re going to see a lot of churches closing up simply because they can’t maintain themselves anymore.”
Many of the congregations are across the South and in New England, Ohio, Illinois, Texas and Florida.
Melissa Lauber, communications director for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, said none of the region’s 603 United Methodist churches has come forward to ask for disaffiliation under the conscience clause. She said none has asked to be on the agenda at the region’s annual business session in June.