June 20, 2023
By. Rev. Jay Therrell
Over May and June, the American annual conferences have their regular meetings. One of the most significant agenda items has been voting on the ratification of disaffiliating congregations. The meetings are not complete, but as of this writing, there have been 5,861 churches approved for disaffiliation. By the end of June, we expect to be approaching 6,000 disaffiliated churches which will represent approximately 20% of the denomination in the United States. One of the best places to track disaffiliations across annual conferences is the tracker the United Methodist News Service has put together.
Special Annual Conferences in the Second Half of 2023
While we believe there may be one or two additional special annual conferences called before the calendar year ends, as of now, we know of 17. The first begins on August 5 (Florida) and the last is December 9 (Mississippi). It is difficult to know exactly how many churches will be approved at those special annual conferences, but we think it could be as many as 1,000. If that estimate comes to pass, then approximately 7,000 churches will have disaffiliated by the end of 2023 representing approximately 23% of the U.S. congregations.
The Usage of 2549
Four annual conferences have stated they will allow churches to continue to disaffiliate using the closure provisions found in paragraph 2549 of The Book of Discipline. Those annual conferences include South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama-West Florida, and South Georgia. South Carolina’s usage of the paragraph seems to be open-ended. Mississippi is allowing it through the adjournment of its annual conference in 2025.
Alabama-West Florida and South Georgia, both led by Bishop David Graves, are allowing it through the end of 2024, however, that recently has been called into question. At its recent meeting, the Alabama-West Florida Conference adopted new rules for disaffiliation that include a church demonstrating its reason of conscience for using paragraph 2553. The specific new language includes the following:
“The Church Conference of the local church that seeks to disaffiliate must adopt a statement of eligibility that demonstrates the current and specific disagreement(s) that the local church has with the changes to the Book of Discipline made in 2019. This statement must specifically say what “change in the requirements and provisions of the 2019 Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference”, delineated above, and/or their ‘reasons of conscience’ related to the ‘actions or inactions’ of the AWF Annual Conference related to the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Eligibility cannot be based on other reasons not specified in ¶2553.”
These changes call into question whether additional churches will be able to use paragraphs 2553 or 2549 in Alabama-West Florida. South Georgia has not adopted such a provision, but one wonders since Bishop Graves leads both annual conferences, if that might not be in the works.
With the large number of disaffiliations, we must not forget our brothers and sisters who continue to face onerous and punitive disaffiliation provisions. One example includes the Cal-Pac Conference which is charging a requirement of 50% of the church’s fair market value of its real estate. With the prices of California real estate, so far, no churches have been able to disaffiliate. At their annual conference over Father’s Day weekend, multiple traditionalist churches and laity peacefully protested the requirements so far to no avail.
The Eastern Pennsylvania and Greater New Jersey Conferences are more such examples. Both conferences are led by Bishop John Schol and both conferences have set disaffiliation requirements that are so outrageous that only five and eight churches, respectively, have been able to complete the 2553 process. WCA Global Council member, the Rev. Jo DiPaolo, recently wrote an article detailing the heavy-handedness of this year’s Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. A lawsuit by multiple churches in Eastern Pennsylvania continues to move forward in Pennsylvania courts.
Churches in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference also have an ongoing lawsuit because of that conference’s high bar to disaffiliation. So far, only 25 churches in that conference have been able to afford its high costs.
The Job Isn’t Over
With more special sessions of annual conferences coming up and the UMC General Conference being only 10 months away, our job isn’t over yet. We have more churches to assist including our brothers and sisters overseas who have been unfairly denied the ability to use paragraph 2553. Please continue to pray and support the Wesleyan Covenant Association as we carry out our mission of contending for the faith entrusted to us and helping churches to get to the theological home that fits them best.
The Rev. Jay Therrell is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Global Methodist Church.
East Ohio WCA is not affiliated with the East Ohio UNITED METHODIST CHURCH.
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