How We Got Here
The United Methodist Church (UMC) has been increasingly divided over the question of human sexuality and the role of LGBTQ persons in the church’s life for the past 50 years. At the 2016 General Conference, our denomination reached a breaking point on the issue and was headed toward a major split between 1) those who wanted to continue the tradition of excluding “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordination and marriage and 2) those who wanted to allow the ordination of LGBTQ persons and same-sex marriage. That 2016 General Conference, which is the only group that can revise “The Book of Discipline,” voted to form a group called the Commission on a Way Forward.
The Commission on a Way Forward explored possible ways our denomination could remain intact, developed three plans, and presented those plans for review and action by a specially-called General Conference in 2019. Delegates at that called gathering voted 53% to 47% to approve “The Traditional Plan,” which not only continued conservative policies about homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of LGBTQ persons but also added more punitive measures to enforce compliance of those prohibitions. The 2019 General Conference delegates also created a disaffiliation plan, which provided guidelines for congregations who wish to leave The United Methodist Church “for reasons of conscience” regarding issues of human sexuality. The presumption at the time was that churches on the more progressive end of the theological spectrum would be the ones disaffiliating in the future.
Following the 2019 General Conference, there was a general assumption the UMC would split along conservative and progressive lines in the near future. That summer, Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone, West Africa, invited five persons from three constituencies—traditionalists, centrists, and progressives—to meet and share ideas about how the UMC might navigate the expected split. That group of people created the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation,” a document suggesting something akin to a divorce settlement for the denomination. Everyone expected the 2020 General Conference to debate and approve a version of that Protocol. However, the coronavirus pandemic postponed that gathering. It was rescheduled twice (late 2021 and 2022) but was postponed each time. That General Conference is now rescheduled for April/May 2024.
When the announcement about rescheduling General Conference was made, most people assumed plans to restructure or divide the UMC would have to wait for 2024. However, many of the denomination’s conservative leaders announced on May 1, 2022, that they did not want to wait for that General Conference to split the UMC. They launched a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, and encouraged conservative congregations to leave the UMC to join them. Since that time, churches wanting to disaffiliate have been using the legislation passed at the 2019 General Conference by the conservative majority.
That disaffiliation legislation instructed each Annual Conference to set up a system by which congregations in their area could use to leave the UMC, with the understanding that all congregations which disaffiliate would be up to date in their Annual Conference giving and pay their share of pastoral pensions. Our Holston Annual Conference leadership created such a system, and several Holston churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and Northeast Georgia have used that process to explore the possibility of leaving the UMC.
Where We Are
On Saturday, April 22, 2023, Bishop Deborah Wallace Padgett presided over a special session of Holston Annual Conference in order for delegates to complete that disaffiliation process for the churches in our Annual Conference who want to leave the UMC at this time. Delegates gathered at Central UMC in Knoxville and ratified the last step in that disaffiliation process, allowing 264 churches to leave. Most of the churches which disaffiliated were smaller, more rural congregations. Of the 264 churches leaving, only two have memberships of more than 1,000 congregants, 175 have memberships of less than 100, and 81 have memberships under 50. To put those leaving in perspective, 578 congregations, representing 79% of Holston’s former membership, have decided to remain in the UMC.
April 22 was a difficult, sad day in the life of the Holston Annual Conference and the Church. However, there was a sense among those who attended the session that both groups, those leaving and those who remain, will now be able to move forward in ministry, to turn their attention to something other than questions about human sexuality. Everyone agrees that those issues have occupied too much of our time and energy.
What Happens Next
General Conference will still take place in 2024, as planned. Considering how many twists and turns this story has taken, we should be cautious about making predictions about future events. However, since quite a few of the more conservative leadership have now exited the UMC for the newly formed Global Methodist Church, there are a couple of assumptions being made. First, since conservatives did not wait on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation to be an option, that piece of legislation will be dropped quickly. Second, since those who label themselves moderate and progressive will outnumber those on the conservative end of the spectrum for the first time in fifty years, people assume more progressive legislation will likely pass. Many people hope the delegates in 2024 will allow each local church to decide for itself whether or not same-sex marriages may be performed in their sanctuary. Finally, if that sort of progressive legislation does indeed pass, there will most likely be a few more congregations on the conservative end of the theological spectrum who will choose to leave our denomination.
Of course, only God knows what the future holds. Most predictions from 2016 turned out to be wrong. What we do know is this: our hope is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. God is with us and will not abandon us, no matter what lies ahead. It is that reassurance that allows us to trust God with our church, our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, now and in the unknown future.