The United Methodist Church (UMC) faces a significant schism as over 7,000 congregations have parted ways since 2019, marking a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate over the denomination's stance on LGBTQ+ issues. Recent data compiled by UM News revealed a staggering count of 7,286 churches that have disaffiliated, with more than 5,200 departing so far in 2023.
The departure involves 366 churches from the Kentucky Conference, 349 from North Alabama, 334 from North Georgia, 326 from North Carolina, and 317 from the Indiana Annual Conference. Notably, during a special session called by the North Georgia Conference, 261 out of the 334 churches seeking disaffiliation were granted approval to depart.
Despite these exits, the North Georgia Conference maintains approximately 440 affiliated congregations, with four churches - The Fountain United Methodist Church at Sugarloaf, McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church, Trinity United Methodist Church of Rome, and Griffin First United Methodist Church - not gaining approval for disaffiliation.
The core contention revolves around UMC's doctrinal position, particularly regarding same-sex unions and the ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships. Although attempts to amend the Book of Discipline have failed, leading to friction between liberal and conservative factions, the denomination provided an avenue for churches to disaffiliate through paragraph 2553, set to expire by year-end.
Legal battles have ensued, with congregations contesting rejected disaffiliation votes or perceived procedural unfairness. Recently, a Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled against 42 churches in Alabama, stating that secular courts lacked jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters.
Amidst this division, thousands of departing congregations have found refuge in the Global Methodist Church, a theologically conservative alternative founded last year.
Meanwhile, the North Georgia Annual Conference ratified the departure of 261 churches in a solemn session. Rev. Carolyn Stephens presented the motion, acknowledging the departure while underscoring the remaining churches' commitment to the UMC's mission.
The disaffiliated churches have until November 30, 2023, to fulfill the terms of the agreement, which includes financial obligations. Post-separation, the North Georgia Conference anticipates the birth of new United Methodist faith communities and welcomes members of departing churches to affiliate with other United Methodist congregations or district rolls.
Additionally, UM News' count of disaffiliations, although comprehensive, lags behind the official tally collected by the General Council on Finance and Administration, awaiting reports from annual conferences.
In an evolving landscape, conferences like South Carolina and West Virginia have opted for different approaches, using church closure processes outlined in the Book of Discipline.