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Dec. 31 Deadline for United Methodist U.S. Church Departures: Could an 'African Wave' be Next?

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The fracture of the United Methodist Church (UMC) is nearly complete as a quarter of U.S. congregations in the church have received permission to leave the denomination during a five-year window, closing at the end of this month. 

As CBN News reported, the UMC has been accelerating its moves to become more accepting of LGBTQ lifestyles, despite biblical prohibitions, leading to deeper divisions and more departures from the denomination. The splintering of the UMC, the second-largest denomination in the U.S. with 6.5 million members, is ongoing as thousands of local churches have left their regional conferences. 

Many conservative congregations wanted to leave the denomination because, despite the UMC forbidding the marriage or ordination of practicing homosexuals, some churches and clergy have defied those bans. 

According to the United Methodist News Service (UM News), over the last five years, 7,660 congregations, or about 25% of its U.S. churches have completed the required steps and withdrawn under paragraph 2553 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline that took effect in 2019.

But that temporary exit policy only applies to congregations in the U.S. and will expire on Dec. 31. This month, another 74 churches in Florida voted to leave, plus 51 more in Illinois, 152 in Mississippi, 8 in New Mexico, and 36 across three regions in Texas, according to Christianity Today

The outlet reported the UMC schism is the largest denominational divide in the United States since the Civil War. 

Of the 7,660 churches that have left the denomination, 5643 of those disaffiliations came this year. In 2022, 2,017 churches left the UMC, according to UM News. 

"We are sad about losing anybody," New York Area Bishop Thomas Bickerton, president of the United Methodists' Council of Bishops told the Associated Press earlier this month. "There's also — at the end of the year — grief and trauma, parishioners that have said goodbye to friends, pastors who have had relationships over the years that have ended."

He depicted the debates in the church as difficult, and said some who urged churches to disaffiliate used "falsehoods."

"This whole disaffiliation process has in large measure not been about human sexuality, it's been about power, control, and money. That's surprising and disappointing," Bickerton said. "It's time for this denomination to pivot" to focusing on mission rather than disaffiliation votes."

The New York bishop said he particularly laments the departure of many churches that are longtime, rural-area fixtures.

"When Methodism came to the United States, it went to where the people were. It was carried in the saddlebags of the circuit riders," he said.

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slider img 2As CBN News has reported, the departing churches are going various ways. Some are remaining independent, while others have joined the conservative denomination known as the Global Methodist Church. The new denomination was established by former conservative leaders from the UMC. It follows a biblical New Testament doctrine that does not recognize same-sex marriage.

The GMC has added more than 4,100 churches across the U.S. The church's transitional leadership council has announced its first General Conference will be held in September 2024

At least one congregation is waiting to form its network of churches. As CBN News reported last May, White's Chapel Methodist Church, a large Methodist church located outside of Dallas, Texas that left the UMC last year, has decided to start its own denomination. 

The church overwhelmingly voted last November to disaffiliate from the UMC over theological disagreements about same-sex marriage.

Historic Budget Cuts

The UMC reported having 30,543 U.S. churches as of 2019 and 6 million U.S. members as of 2021. It had at least one church in 95% of U.S. counties, more than any other religious group, according to the 2020 Religion Census, produced by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

UMC financial leaders are already preparing historic budget cuts to denominational agencies in anticipation of lower revenue from fewer churches. According to UM News, the General Council of Finance and Administration board is proposing a 2025-2028 denominational budget of about $370.5 million for next year's General Conference, the denomination's top policymaking assembly. That's about $3 million less than the budget the finance agency began working on last fall. 

The new bottom line marks a nearly 40% reduction of the budget approved by the General Conference in 2016. It also will be the lowest budget to come before the General Conference since 1984, according to the outlet. 

The UMC also reports having 7 million members overseas as of 2019, the majority in Africa, where more conservative sexual mores are common.

A majority of UMC bishops serving in Africa have already voiced their intention to stay in the denomination despite differences on the issue of human sexuality. 

"Notwithstanding the differences in our UMC regarding the issue of human sexuality especially with our stance of traditional and biblical view of marriage, we categorically state that we do not plan to leave The United Methodist Church and will continue to be shepherds of God's flock in this worldwide denomination," said the bishops in a statement released in September at the annual meeting in  Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Three of the 15 bishops in attendance at the meeting did not sign the statement.

However, Rev. Scott Field, president of the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has advocated for churches leaving the UMC, told the Associated Press he predicted "an African wave" of churches seeking to leave the denomination. 

Field also predicted many U.S. churches, despite missing the 2023 deadline, may try to exit under other church law provisions.

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CBN News is a national/international, nonprofit news organization that provides programming 24 hours a day by cable, satellite and the Internet. Staffed by a group of acclaimed news professionals, CBN News delivers stories to over a million viewers each day without a specific agenda. With its headquarters in Virginia Beach, Va., CBN News has bureaus in Washington D.C., Jerusalem, and elsewhere around the world. What began as a segment on CBN's flagship program, The 700 Club, in the early 1980s, CBN News has since expanded into a multimedia news organization that offers today's news headlines