On Saturday, 261 Georgia congregations of the North Georgia Conference chose to leave the United Methodist Church (UMC) over a divide on LGBTQ+ issues. The churches departed in response to a deadline set after a 2019 decision by the national United Methodist Church to allow congregations to leave by the end of 2023. Their exit marked a “solemn day,” the North Georgia Conference of the UMC said in a news release.
So far, 7,286 congregations — many in the South and Midwest — have received approval to disaffiliate from the denomination since 2019, according to an unofficial tally by United Methodist News Service. Most of the disaffiliations — more than 5,000 — occurred this year. The schism over theological differences and the role of LGBTQ+ people in the church is “for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
Since the General Conference in 1972, the UMC has maintained the position that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. This draws a distinction between orientation and practice, or behavior. Sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. The United Methodist Church supports laws that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. with about 6.5 million members in the U.S. and at least that many abroad, according to its website.
Bishop Robin Dease, the leader of the conference, spoke out on the mass exodus, saying, “I realize how sad this time is for many, including myself. I just hate that those who are leaving us, I will not have the opportunity to meet or to be with.”
According to the UMC’s website, there are 700 UMC churches in the conference and more than 6,000 congregations of the more than 30,000 in the U.S. have been approved for disaffiliation since 2019. More than 100 congregations had sued the North Georgia Conference to have their disaffiliation requests heard. In a ruling on that case, the Superior Court of Cobb County, Georgia agreed “a church-level vote” must take place before the deadline.
After the close of regular meetings in June for the denomination’s regional bodies, it was determined that the UMC would lose more than a fifth of its congregations to the schism.
Church law forbids the marriage or ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” but many conservatives have chosen to leave amid a growing defiance of those bans in many U.S. churches and conferences. Many of the departing congregations are joining the Global Methodist Church, a denomination created in 2022 by conservatives breaking from the UMC. Others are leaving altogether. The exits of the 261 churches will go into effect at the end of November.
“In December, approximately 440 North Georgia Conference churches will continue the work of fulfilling the mission of the United Methodist church in our communities and beyond,” the conference said.
Under the terms of the disaffiliation agreement, churches leaving the conference can no longer use the “United Methodist” name or the denomination’s logo. They also must fulfill financial obligations and are prohibited from pursuing further litigation against the conference, according to the news release.
The church disaffiliations in north Georgia come after 193 congregations once belonging to the UMC South Georgia Conference left the denomination in May, also over the ongoing debate over LGBTQ+ issues.
A significant problem posed by the departing congregations is that so many of them are large, which means denominational officials will face major budget cuts in 2024. Also, according to the Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative caucus that has advocated for the exiting churches, the volume of those exiting is higher than expected. Departing congregations must pay for their property and other financial obligations.
United Methodist legislative bodies, known as general conferences, have repeatedly reinforced bans on LGBTQ+ marriage and ordination, on the strength of coalitions of conservatives in U.S. and overseas churches, notably Africa, where the UMC is growing. It is the defiance of those bans that has led to the exodus and to the establishment of the alternative body of the Global Methodist Church. The GMC says about 3,000 churches so far have affiliated with the new denomination and when UMC churches abroad can be disaffiliated — likely to happen in 2024 — that number will no doubt expand.
In addition, progressives in the UMC will argue for changing church law at the next General Conference in 2024 so that same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ+ people will be allowed in the UMC — the issues most defining the schism with conservative members. That will undergird the split.
In recent years, several of the traditional denominations have had schisms over homosexuality: the American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church USA.
In 2004, the United Methodist Church defrocked a lesbian minister in Philadelphia for violating the denomination’s ban on actively gay clergy. At that time, it was the first such decision by the church in 17 years.
A 13-member jury made up of Methodist clergy convicted the Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud on the second day of her church trial. Methodist law bars “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from ministry. Nine votes were necessary for a conviction and the jury voted 12-1 to find Stroud guilty.
It then voted 7-6 to defrock Stroud, the bare majority necessary in the penalty phase of the trial, though her supportive congregation in Philadelphia has said Stroud can continue performing most of her duties.
“I did not go into this trial expecting to win,” Stroud said. “I went into it knowing it would be a painful moment in the life of the United Methodist Church.”
Stroud said she was saddened by the verdict, but also saw it as a teaching moment that showed how divided her denomination is over homosexuality.
Stroud, then 34, was an associate pastor at Philadelphia’s First United Methodist Church of Germantown. Stroud had told her bishop and her congregation that she was living in a committed relationship with her partner, Chris Paige. Both were supportive, but the UMC still voted to defrock her.