By Jessica Brodie
Several dozen United Methodist churches in South Carolina are completing the Local Church Discernment Process as this edition of the Advocate goes to press, a process created by the annual conference to enable churches to separate from the denomination if they desire.
Announced a few days before Christmas, the discernment process permits any United Methodist church in the South Carolina Conference to pray and then hold a churchwide vote about leaving the UMC if their members believe the denomination has not upheld its stated doctrine on issues of human sexuality. Churches must complete an intentional, 30-day discernment process; satisfy financial obligations, including all unpaid apportionment giving and unpaid salary and benefits due to clergy; satisfy or transfer of debts and other legal liabilities of the local church; and be in full communication to the district superintendent about all of this, among other steps required. Then, a churchwide vote must be 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.
While it is too early for many of those churches to have voted, many churches have notified the Advocate they are participating in the discernment process, while others have voted to steer clear of any paths that might lead to disaffiliation with the UMC.
If a church does vote to leave the UMC, the next step is for the matter to go before Annual Conference this June to vote whether or not to close the local church and transfer its assets to a new entity.
‘On to S.C. Annual Conference’
A group called the South Carolina Traditional United Methodist Lay Leadership Group has organized to discuss current issues in the UMC, how to educate their congregations on these issues and, now, how to help each other through the discernment process. According to Becky McCormack, lay leader at Chapin UMC, Chapin, they started last summer with about eight people representing four churches. Now they have close to 250 people from more than 100 churches involved.
While many of these churches are not pursuing discernment or disaffiliation, the group notes that more than 30 churches are currently engaged in the Local Church Discernment Process. Some have already held their churchwide vote, while others are slated to vote Feb. 26 and 27.
Grace Community Church in Fort Mill is one of these churches. Gregg Johnston, Grace’s lay leader, said his church began their 30-day discernment period on Sunday, Jan. 8, and concluded Feb. 6. At their charge conference Feb. 13, he said, they voted unanimously to separate from the UMC.
“On to S.C. Annual Conference,” Johnston told the Advocate.
Andy Harmon, lay leader at Pond Branch UMC, Gilbert, told the Advocate his church is in a discernment period for separation, and their vote is slated for Feb. 26.
The Rev. Webb Belangia said Mauldin UMC, Mauldin, began a 40-day period of discernment on Jan. 9, holding seven “town hall” type meetings prior to this period of discernment and one town hall meeting during this period.
Beth Ramsey, lay leader at Mount Vernon UMC, Hickory Grove, said her church is also participating in the discernment process, though they are struggling with the financial obligation required, which she said is extraordinarily difficult for small churches.
“Our church is in a very traditional setting,” Ramsey said. “We believe in the Bible and believe that the Discipline as it stands right now is in keeping with our Christian values. I know that amicable separation is the best for everyone so that we can get on with the work that Christ has set before us instead of all the discord we see.”
Several of the larger UMCs in the conference, including Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, and Chapin UMC, Chapin, are also in the process, as are some of the smaller churches, such as Bells UMC, Abbeville.
Staying United Methodist
A few churches have decided they will not engage in the discernment process. Bethel UMC, Charleston, pastored by the Rev. Susan Leonard, told the Advocate that at last month’s church council meeting, the leaders of Bethel voted not to pursue discernment and disaffiliation.
“I know that we needed only to vote should there be a desire to discern disaffiliation and needed to do nothing if this was not a path we wanted to pursue,” Leonard said. “However, with a commitment to a church that is inclusive of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, leaders here desired to express that as our intention by voting not to begin a discernment process at this time.”
She added that because there is so much misinformation circulating, Bethel is hosting a Sunday afternoon churchwide event at 4:30 on Feb. 26 called “The Future of the UMC: Fact or Fiction.” Leonard, who is also a South Carolina delegate to General Conference, will offer context and clarity around the issues of church discernment, disaffiliation and what it will mean to stay United Methodist in a potential “post-separation” church.
As well, the church council at Union UMC, Irmo, passed a resolution Jan. 21, which reads, “The Church Council of Union United Methodist Church hereby resolves that Union UMC will not enter any process that will lead to disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church.”
It also adopted a Statement on Inclusion in January 2022 noting, in an effort to live out the greatest commandment as taught by Jesus (Luke 10:27), they “believe that all persons are of sacred worth and dignity as part of God’s creation and demonstrated by the ministry of Jesus Christ. We therefore welcome all persons into the life and ministry of our congregation, without regard to race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, status, socioeconomic condition, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or faith history.”
Waiting for now
Still other churches have decided to wait.
The Rev. Bill Masciangelo, pastor of Smyrna UMC, Moncks Corner, said Smyrna has decided to wait until the findings of 2024 General Conference before making any decision.
“But the big topic continues to center around the punitive costs to leave for small, rural churches,” Masciangelo said. “‘We can’t afford to leave if we wanted to’ is what we hear, including Smyrna. All we can do is hope the criteria is reduced. You don’t want a church who wants to leave to stay for the wrong reasons.”
He also noted the topic of cemeteries further complicates matters, as some people will stay in a church no matter what because their close relatives are buried in that cemetery.
The Rev. Smoke Kanipe said that Shandon UMC, Shandon, is prayerfully discerning God’s way forward for their church. But, Kanipe said, “We are not currently in the conference’s discernment process.”
About the Local Church Discernment Process
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.
You can read about the full process at https://www.umcsc.org/discern.
Is your church discerning separation?
If your church is discerning separation, has voted to leave (or to stay) in the UMC, or is otherwise discussing or addressing this issue, please reach out to the Advocate’s editor, Jessica Brodie, at [email protected] or at Advocate, 4908 Colonial Drive, Columbia, SC 29203.
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.