by Jay Therrell
January 3, 2023
As a child of the 80s, I well remember both the movie The Final Countdown (Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen) and the song by the band Europe. Both garnered only minor success, but whenever I hear the phrase “the final countdown,” I immediately begin to hear the famous keyboard riff from the song in my head. As 2023 begins, I’m hearing it louder than ever.
Like it or not, by the end of this year, paragraph 2553 will sunset and there will be no more disaffiliation provisions in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The Council of Bishops, at its August, 2022 meeting, made the decision that there would be no extensions to the paragraph. A small handful of annual conferences have said they will allow churches to depart in 2024 using the closure paragraph 2549, but it requires enormous trust (which is in short supply) in the annual conference as the church will close during the process and not have any official manner of redress if something goes wrong.
Moreover, paragraph 2553 requires annual conference approval meaning that a church must have an annual conference vote approving their disaffiliation prior to the end of this year. As of the date of this writing, I am only aware of four annual conferences holding special-called meetings for disaffiliation in the fall: Virginia (October 7), Upper New York (October 14), Alabama-West Florida (November 12), and Tennessee-Western Kentucky (November 13). If your church is in one of the other annual conferences, you will need to have your vote completed in the regular annual conference season in early summer. For most churches that means the final countdown is only about six months to go.
As we look to the final countdown, here is some of what we anticipate:
We expect another large round of churches to complete disaffiliation by June of this year. To date, we have 2,000 churches that have disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church. It’s hard to estimate the numbers that will do so by this summer, but I think a reasonable estimate would be at least another 2,000.
Churches in Florida, Western North Carolina and several other annual conferences will continue moving forward with their lawsuits. Lawsuits are slow-moving, but it is possible there will be an outcome to some of them this year.
A greater number of churches outside the United States will continue to depart the UMC and simply move over to the Global Methodist Church. There are no unfunded pension liabilities outside the United States and in many countries the trust clause does not have the same force of law that it does in the U.S.
With the Judicial Council ruling that the delegates elected for the 2020 General Conference will serve in 2024, it most likely means that traditionalists will not have a majority at the Charlotte, North Carolina denominational meeting. That further likely means that centrist and progressive leaders will be able to change the 6,000-year Judeo/Christian definition of marriage, change the ordination standards, repeal the parts of the traditional plan passed in 2019, and make other liberal changes. With centrists/progressives getting everything they’ve always wanted, there is little incentive for them to work with theological conservatives.
Churches that cannot afford the disaffiliation costs or that don’t quite have enough votes to reach a 2/3 super majority will have to make the hard, prayerful decision whether to walk away and start anew. Later in the first quarter of the year, the WCA’s Pathways Task Force will have a report and resources to assist churches that find themselves in this circumstance.
Undoubtedly the next six months will be bumpy and stress-filled, but none of this is a surprise to our Lord. God is a God of order, not chaos. Regardless of what happens, Jesus is still on the throne, and He is working all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). We will get through this because Jesus has already gone before us.
Time is of the essence. For the vast majority of U.S. annual conferences that will complete their disaffiliation work by the end of June, churches will most likely need to enter the process sometime in the early first quarter of this year. (That does not apply to churches involved in lawsuits.) If you need help, please reach out to your regional chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. They have resources and will be glad to help you. If you don’t know whom to contact, please click here for a list of regional leaders.
The final countdown is on. Led by Jesus, arm-in-arm together, we will make it.
The Rev. Jay Therrell is 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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