By Jessica Brodie
Nearly two months after Annual Conference voted to allow 113 churches to separate from the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, questions abound: Which pastors left? How much did the conference receive in funds? And what’s next?
Few of these answers are available as of press time.
The somber and historic vote, held June 6 just before 3 p.m. on Day Three of the 52nd session of Annual Conference, enabled the churches to leave the denomination officially. Some will remain independent, while others are deciding now whether to affiliate with another denomination, including the newly formed Global Methodist Church. The 113 churches comprise almost 12 percent of the 958 total churches in the conference come from every one of the 12 districts in the conference.
Each church that left first had to go through a conference-authorized Local Church Discernment Process, including a churchwide vote, as well as handle a number of financial obligations.
These financial obligations include a tithe of 10 percent of the appraised value of all church property and liquid assets; all unpaid apportionment giving for the prior year, as well as for the year of closure up to the date of the Annual Conference vote to close the church; an additional 12 months of apportionment giving; all unpaid salary and benefits due to clergy appointed to the church; a withdrawal liability equal to the church’s proportional share of any unfunded pension obligations; and other financial considerations and legal liabilities of the local church, such as the disposition of any debts, loans, leases, endowments, foundations and cemeteries.
The discernment process was open to churches who believe the UMC has not upheld its stated doctrine on issues of human sexuality. 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” though the church “implores families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.”) While the 2019 General Conference added Para. 2553 as a pathway for exit to the Discipline, South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston said that provision only applies to those churches that disagree with the Discipline’s current language on human sexuality. (You can read about the full process at https://www.umcsc.org/discern.)
The Rev. Mike Wood, chair of the Conference Board of Trustees, said his board is scheduled to meet Aug. 8, and the amount of funds from these churches and whether or how to legally release this information is on their docket. The conference chancellor, Kay Crowe, has been out of town, and they want her to weigh in on what and how to release the information before they act.
“We’re not trying to keep anything a secret,” Wood said. “We just want to be sure we’re correct. We’ve never done something like this before.”
Wood said that was also the case with the release of the names of the churches who wanted to separate; those names were kept in full confidence until the day of the vote, June 6, to preserve the integrity of the voting process.
Wood said the process was “not a rubber stamp process,” and some churches required three to four meetings to make sure all their obligations were met before they were officially added to the final 113 that were approved to separate.
“We’re just trying to be careful with what we do,” Wood said.
Wood noted there will probably be no final decision as to disbursement of funds when they meet.
“That will be a process,” he said.
The Rev. Mitch Houston, chair of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration, said CF&A has no information on this dollar amount.
“CF&A has no report on how much each church gave,” Houston said. “That is the trustees’ information if they choose to release it.”
Houston said he has requested that the trustees meet with CF&A to discuss funds to help with the transition.
“But ultimately it is the trustees’ call,” Houston added.
As for pastors who wished to leave the UMC in the wake of the separations, they had until June 30 to turn in their credentials.
However, Rev. Mel Arant, coordinator of clergy services, said the names are not public.
“Clergy status is a personnel issue and, therefore, the identities of all clergy who enter the withdrawal of membership or discontinuation of relationship processes remain confidential until after their presentation in the business questions during the Clergy Session at the next scheduled Annual Conference,” Arant explained.
As for what’s next, Bishop L. Jonathan Holston has repeatedly called for United Methodists in South Carolina to join him in prayer as the church waits for General Conference, slated for May 2024 in Charlotte.
General Conference is the highest legislative body in The United Methodist Church. It usually meets once every four years to revise church law, adopt resolutions and pass plans and budgets—including the question of whether the church wants to modify its existing language on human sexuality, which has been up for debate the last several sessions. Lay and clergy delegates from every conference in the UMC—including eight South Carolina laity and eight clergy—attend and vote on the matters.
To view the list of the 113 churches that separated from the South Carolina Conference, go to https://advocatesc.org/articles/churches-separate.