A group of 36 United Methodist churches in North Carolina that had sued, seeking terms to sever ties to the denomination, have agreed to leave using a plan approved by church leaders in 2019, the Western North Carolina Conference announced.
The group, which includes some of the biggest churches in the conference (regional geographic body), will formally exit the denomination at a special session of the conference to be held on Nov. 4.
United Methodists across the U.S. are facing departures and splits over theological differences, mostly regarding ordination and marriage of LGBTQ Christians. A 2019 vote at a special session of the UMC’s General Conference passed the Traditional Plan proposal (strengthening an existing prohibition on the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ people) with a 53% majority but appeals of that vote, a UMC Judicial Council review, and the delay of subsequent votes due to the COVID-19 pandemic have left the matter unsettled. Some churches, particularly conservative ones, have opted to leave instead of waiting for a resolution.
A North Carolina Superior Court judge dismissed the 36 churches’ case in March, but the churches and the conference continued talking and reached a resolution in late August. The churches will leave the denomination using the denomination’s exit plan. That plan allows churches to take their properties with them but requires they meet some financial obligations before doing so.
The churches were represented by the National Center for Life and Liberty, a legal ministry representing thousands of United Methodist churches in multiple states. In May, the center won a lawsuit on behalf of 185 churches in Georgia that challenged a decision by the North Georgia Conference to pause the disaffiliation process.
In the North Carolina case, the center’s lead counsel, David Gibbs III, had argued that some churches needed to sue because the disaffiliation plan approved by the denomination was too onerous and amounted to ransom.
Suing to leave the denomination has not been the standard practice. Most churches wanting to break away from the United Methodist Church have followed the approved plan, known as Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline. That plan expires on Dec. 31.
Since 2019, 233 churches have left the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, a region that spans the western half of the state and includes 757 churches. A conference spokesperson said another 100 churches—including the 36 that had unsuccessfully sued—may leave in November.
While most of the departing churches have been smaller and more rural, the 36 now breaking away include two of the conference’s larger churches, Good Shepherd in Charlotte and Weddington United Methodist in a suburb of Charlotte. Two long-standing historic churches are also in the group: Wesley Memorial United Methodist in High Point and Long’s Chapel in Waynesville, adjacent to Lake Junaluska, a conference retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
From 2019 to now, 6,240 U.S. churches have departed the United Methodist Church, about 20% of the denomination’s 30,000 churches. The UMC is America’s second-largest Protestant denomination behind the Southern Baptist Convention.
It’s not clear if the departing churches will affiliate with another denominational body. The Global Methodist Church, formed in 2022 by some former UMC congregations and described as theologically conservative, has welcomed many departing United Methodist churches. As of July, the Global Methodist Church counted 3,100 congregations and 3,400 clergy.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, the Global Methodist Church’s chief executive, was unavailable to comment on the North Carolina churches due to travel.
c. 2023 Religion News Service