Churches contemplate discernment as March 1 deadline nears
By Jessica Brodie
Some United Methodist churches in South Carolina are contemplating separating from the denomination this month after conference leaders announced a Local Church Discernment Process.
The process was released in the January Advocate, via email and through district superintendents in all 12 districts of the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church.
In essence, it permits any church to engage in a discernment process about leaving the UMC if their members believe the denomination has not upheld its stated doctrine on issues of human sexuality.
There are a number of steps the church must follow in order to comply with this process, including completing an intentional, 30-day discernment process; satisfying financial obligations, including all unpaid apportionment giving and unpaid salary and benefits due to clergy; satisfying or transferring of debts and other legal liabilities of the local church; full communication about all of this from the church council to the district superintendent; and a vote taken before March 1 that indicates two-thirds of professing church members present agree to formally declare the church can no longer continue to function as a UMC.
If all of this happens, the matter will go before Annual Conference members this June, when they will vote whether to close the local church and transfer its assets to a new entity.
As the process explains, “A simple majority vote in favor of the resolution is the final step before the local church separates from The United Methodist Church, maintaining its property.”
You can read the full process in the January Advocate or online at https://www.umcsc.org/discern.
The process was developed by the Trustees of the Annual Conference and the Extended Cabinet, which noted it was needed because there was no other pathway to exit the denomination for churches that agree with the existing human sexuality language in the UMC Book of Discipline. (Currently, the Discipline states that, while persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth who need the ministry and guidance of the church, the UMC “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”)
While the 2019 General Conference added Para. 2553 to the Discipline, it only applies to those churches that disagree with the Discipline’s current language on human sexuality.
To date, a number of churches have indicated they plan to engage in the Local Church Discernment Process, while many have also indicated they do not plan to do so. Several letters to the editor (see Page 5-6) have criticized what letter-writers believe are overly stringent requirements to leave, and one church member on social media shared that her small church could not afford to settle their financial obligations in order to comply with the process. Others believe the process is fair, while still others think no churches should consider leaving the UMC, particularly before the matter is considered at the 2024 General Conference.
The Advocate will continue its coverage in the March edition and actively seeks input from churches on the matter.
Is your church discerning separation?
In the spirit of covering the current state of The United Methodist Church, including any churches that wish to separate from the UMC, the Advocate asks: Is your church currently discerning whether it will continue in ministry within the UMC or separate from the denomination via the newly released Local Church Discernment Process?
In order to do a fair and balanced article reporting on this, the Advocate needs your input to do so accurately. If your church is discerning separation and/or currently exploring the Local Church Discernment Process, please reach out to our editor, Jessica Brodie, at [email protected] or at Advocate, 4908 Colonial Dr., Columbia, SC 29203.
The article is planned for the March edition, after the discernment process has ended. The deadline for this article is Feb. 15.
We also invite you to share the results of your church vote when it takes place. The deadline for the April edition is March 10.
The Advocate’s mission is to connect United Methodists by independently reporting relevant news, engaging readers, providing a forum for dialogue and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We help give voice to churches and individuals in every corner of the state, with a commitment to excellent journalism and making sure all viewpoints are heard in a Christian and prayerful manner.
Thank you for helping us offer accurate and open news coverage.
Alabama-West Florida also plans alternative exit path while North Georgia hits pause
In addition to South Carolina’s new alternative exit path, the Local Church Discernment Process, another annual conference is also introducing an alternative.
While the Alabama-West Florida Conference has been using Para. 2553 in the Book of Discipline for disaffiliations, it also is making plans to use Para. 2549 for church exits after the other provision expires at the end of the year.
Para. 2553 enables churches to leave for reasons of conscience related to the denomination’s policies on homosexuality, though the South Carolina Conference has determined member churches inquiring about disaffiliation do not qualify for this pathway because they do not profess to disagree with the Book of Discipline’s homosexuality provisions nor how the conference is interpreting them.
South Carolina’s Local Church Discernment Process is grounded in Para. 2549 of the Discipline, typically used when a local church is closed because it no longer serves the purpose for which it was organized.
However, Alabama-West Florida Conference Bishop David Graves is asking churches to postpone any vote on separation from the denomination until after the 2024 General Conference.
“In these times of misinformation, assumptions, and fear mongering, we will have factual information following the 2024 General Conference to make prayerful and strategic decisions,” Graves wrote to the conference Jan. 3 (read his email at https://tinyurl.com/awf-graves-letter).
Meanwhile, the North Georgia Conference, which is largest United Methodist conference in the U.S., has put a hold on allowing congregations to disaffiliate from the denomination.
In a statement, conference leaders said they arrived at the decision because so much misinformation was being spread that they couldn’t trust the validity of congregational votes.
Read United Methodist News’ full article by Heather Hahn on North Georgia’s decision at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/north-georgia-hits-pause-on-disaffiliations.