Methodist Split’s Messy Creativity

Mark Tooley on March 13, 2023

This year’s process for United Methodist congregations to exit their denomination has been predictably messy, but the results are often creative. Some churches fall just short of the two thirds congregational vote required, ensuring a congregational split.

One recent example is Collierville United Methodist Church outside Memphis. Several weeks ago 64 percent of the church voted for exit, falling 24 votes short of the needed two thirds, 773-493. The defeated majority could have given up and scattered. Instead the following Sunday 342 met at a nearby funeral home, effectively founding a new traditional Methodist congregation. They outnumbered total worshippers at the old church. Their new name is First Methodist Church Collierville.

So, liberals and institutionalists “won,” but their victory is empty.

The old church is stuck with a large modern church property it can no longer fill plus its old historic downtown sanctuary, and a large debt of several million dollars that’s possibly unsustainable. I spoke at this church 11 years ago when it had an evangelical pastor and clear direction. Subsequent pastors have been more liberal, and the current pastor tragically opposed exit, guaranteeing a calamitous division. It’s a miracle that traditionalists got 64% despite the pastor’s opposition.  When I spoke at the church over a decade ago, there were 1500 worshippers, which subsequently fell by two thirds. A traditionalist pastor could have avoided this once great church’s demise.

Yesterday the new church worshipped together for the second Sunday, and they’re attracting refugees from other United Methodist churches.

Avoiding some of this acrimony, a United Methodist church in Arkansas, with an average 1886 worshippers, voted to divide itself into three congregations. Liberals at Fayetteville’s Central United Methodist Church, the largest United Methodist congregation in the state, will keep the main property. Its satellite campus in South Fayetteville, with 300-350 worshippers, will become independent, buying its current property, an old Methodist sanctuary, for one dollar. And the current pastor and church staff will found a new congregation, funded by $500,000 from the old church. A leader in the new church said they’re “excited about launching a new Wesleyan orthodox theological church.”

There are other creative examples across Methodism, where traditional believers are founding new congregations that can achieve what churches in the old denomination could not. They are losing old properties but gaining so much more. The old congregations are stuck with unsustainable properties and perhaps will not survive, or at very least face a grim future.

United Methodism in the coming years will be closing and selling thousands of church properties. In some cases, maybe new traditional Methodist congregations will buy some of those properties, returning them to their original purpose of Wesleyan Gospel proclamation. Most discarded old United Methodist churches will likely sell to nondenominationals, or be demolished by developers, or become condominiums, restaurants or microbreweries.

Historic Methodism began as a renewal movement that evolved into a new church for new times. The cycle continues. At least 3,000 churches so far have voted by the needed two thirds margin to exit United Methodism, taking their property, and winning their freedom. Perhaps 1,000-2,000 more will do so before this year’s fast approaching deadline. But many new congregations also are emerging from old churches that declined to exit.

Amid messiness, division and death there will be new life. United Methodism, founded in 1968 as a large national bureaucracy committed to liberal Protestantism, has declined every year of its existence. That decline will now fast accelerate. Traditional Methodism will endure and prosper in new contemporary situations, becoming “new” by reaching people in practical ways.

  1. Comment by Bill on March 13, 2023 at 4:35 pm

    My congregation voted to disaffiliate in August 2022. We transitioned into the GMC on January 1, 2023. Since the transition, it feels like I’m the pastor of a very different congregation. Attendance is up…new member additions are up…and giving is up. We see new faces virtually every week too. There is a new spirit of worship pervading the church as well. Our energies are focused on supporting foreign missions in Africa and the newly reorganized (and disaffiliated) Wesley Foundation at a local University. We have two young men who are formally in the discernment process to enter vocational ministry and a young woman is also pondering that call. While we had a high percentage who voted to disaffiliate from the UMC (95%), we did not lose any ACTIVE members. Only two persons requested a change in membership as a result of disaffiliation, but they were people who hadn’t been active in many years. The Holy Spirit is moving! I pray that is true for other congregations that have disaffiliated!

  2. Comment by Gary Bebop on March 13, 2023 at 4:49 pm

    These novel splits are Methodism’s version of March Madness. In some cases, underdogs will prevail. Local churches that play like a Johnny Wooden team (stressing the fundamentals of the gospel) have an advantage over local congregations merely trying to preserve the status quo.

  3. Comment by Reynolds on March 13, 2023 at 5:17 pm

    Our church voted to leave this week. We are independent church for at least one year. hopefully will stay that way

  4. Comment by Steve on March 13, 2023 at 6:33 pm

    The flip side of this story is true too. Some churches have voted to leave and a large chunk of the “old money” left to form new UMC congregations. I know of several here in the South. Also, there are a lot of churches disaffiliating and either joining the GMC or remaining independent that have so few members they will never be able to pay their bills and pastor. They are not sustainable congregations. If they joined the GMC they would probably have a fighting chance, but they have too many “anti-denomination” members. Plus, I am sure we all know, there are churches with power-hungry clergy that do not want the oversight of a denomination. However, when they go, so will the church’s ability to be sustainable. This situation has really brought out some horrible clergy and lay leaders – on both sides.

  5. Comment by David on March 13, 2023 at 9:03 pm

    I have looked in UMData at many congregations that have held disaffiliation votes. One point stands out: membership numbers are grossly inflated. A disaffiliation vote is an extremely important important event in the life of a church. Yet, many of these votes see half (or fewer) of reported membership show up. The Collierville, TN church was one example: 1,266 votes were cast, but UM Data shows the membership at 2,693 for 2021.

  6. Comment by WILLIAM AMERSON on March 14, 2023 at 2:04 pm

    I certainly wish my congregation would have had the foresight to do something creative like these churches. Our vote failed 54-46 and over 100 members have scattered all over the place. I helped lead the disaffiliation movement and tried numerous times to take a straw poll but the pastor and the church council opposed such a vote. We should have never voted and we had no backup plan. Kudos to the churches featured.

  7. Comment by Jay Westfall on March 20, 2023 at 4:05 pm

    My church, Resurrection Katy, was the result of a failed disaffiliation vote, too. We now have close to 500 members on 3 months!

    Sometimes, you get sent out like Jesus did with the Apostles: with just your sandals and a tunic.

  8. Comment by JoeR on March 20, 2023 at 5:37 pm

    Sandals and a tunic sounds good to me. It sure beats this screwed up mess.

  9. Comment by George on March 20, 2023 at 9:32 pm

    Wow, you mean there were elections where half or fewer of the eligible voters showed up?
    We are use to seeing those numbers in elections here in the US. And that’s without mail in, drive through, and vote harvesting. Also required 2/3s to separate with heavy financial cost to the congregation. Taking all that into consideration, I believe the woke liberal UMC congregations took it on the chin. May God bless and help grow those Methodists who dusted off their sandals.

  10. Comment by Rick on March 21, 2023 at 9:51 am

    This may not be the most popular comment you see today.

    Though I consider myself a ‘Bapti-metho-costal’, I have chosen to worship with – and be faithful to – Methodist congregations for the past 40+ years. I am currently managing information dissemination about a church-wide vote to determine if our desire for disaffiliation. Just typing that caused me to chuckle – we’re in the North Georgia Conference and the out-going bishop ‘paused’ all disaffiliations until after the 2024 General Conference – so much for paragraph 2553. We are going to be prepared regardless.

    As I read this article, I was struck that nearly 20 times methodist/methodism/Wesley was mentioned, and not once was Christ mentioned. I know this is a Methodist denomination issue, but those that support the split (like me) must remember that our denomination is always of less importance than the Gospel. By the way, I don’t believe in a ‘Wesleyan Gospel’, I believe in the Gospel of Christ, and I trust the commentary presented by John Wesley and his vision of a connectional structure.

    Let’s be careful not to give those who may be watching our denominational struggles the idea that John Wesley and Methodism are of equal value to our triune God.

  11. Comment by Karen Mc on March 22, 2023 at 1:03 am

    We have successfully disaffiliated, our attendance has doubled, can’t say anymore than that!

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