Many Florida churches still deciding about disaffiliationGeneral Conference 2024 Inclusivity
As 2023 begins, the issue of disaffiliation remains unresolved for many churches throughout The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.
However, Bishop Tom Berlin has a message of grace and peace for churches and individuals who continue to grapple with whether to remain with The United Methodist Church or leave. The decision doesn't need to be contentious, even when churches and parishioners disagree on the best way forward.
And the ultimate decision should not hinge on their feelings about a single issue. The decision to disaffiliate has many ramifications.
|Bishop Tom Berlin|
"There are many benefits of being a part of a connectional, global denomination. Our mission is broad. Through the time and talent given to our connection and our apportionment giving, every pastor and local church is a part of planting churches, operating schools, hospitals, clinics, and other important ministries in the United States, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines where the hungry are fed, the sick receive care and the gospel is shared," said Bishop Berlin, who began his term as Florida's new Resident Bishop on January 1.
"The Conference also trains and deploys clergy to serve each local church when a transition occurs in pastoral leadership. Churches are covered under the Conference insurance coverage for property and liability."
For those churches that decide to leave, there is a clear and agreed-to pathway known as Paragraph 2553. Adopted in 2019 at the General Conference, it acknowledges "the current deep conflict within The United Methodist Church around issues of human sexuality."
It also notes, "The choice by a local church to disaffiliate with The United Methodist Church under this paragraph shall be made in sufficient time for the process for exiting the denomination to be complete prior to December 31, 2023."
A two-thirds vote of professing members attending a church conference must approve the choice to separate from the denomination.
Churches leaving now have financial requirements, including two years of apportionment payments and obtaining private liability insurance to hedge against future lawsuits that could unfairly impact the Conference.
"There is a process, and it is a fair process," said Rev. Alex Shanks, Assistant to Bishop Berlin. "This is not a process that is unique to The Florida Conference. It is this way throughout the denomination."
Since the 2022 Annual Conference, 13 churches throughout Florida have had in-house votes regarding disaffiliation. Of those, 10 churches voted to leave, although their departure won't become official until members of the Annual Conference approve that measure.
Three churches rejected the move to disaffiliate.
"We don't seek to stand in the way of a church that wants to leave," Rev. Shanks said. "But if your desire is to depart, there is a right way to do it.”
The process became more complicated in July 2022 when 106 churches joined a lawsuit to leave the Conference without making the agreed-upon exit payment.
Rather than allowing a clean separation for churches wishing to leave, the lawsuit could make the process more cumbersome.
That matter is pending.
"Paragraph 2553 is the process by which churches may disaffiliate from the Conference," Bishop Berlin said. "Churches who attempt to disaffiliate through a lawsuit will most likely find it the slowest, most expensive, and most difficult way to do so. A lawsuit cannot avoid the discernment process and vote required by the Discipline."
Prohibitions remain in place
The Book of Discipline, which sets rules and boundaries for The United Methodist denomination, currently prohibits the ordination of practicing gay pastors or performing same-sex marriages inside a UM church.
Although much has been discussed about removing those prohibitions, that can only happen by a vote at the General Conference. The next one is scheduled for 2024 in Charlotte, N.C. There is no guarantee that the Discipline will be changed.
That has apparently led to some confusion as churches grapple with their personal and biblical beliefs about this issue.
Rev. Emily Hotho, the superintendent of Florida's Gulf Central District, said she believes many individuals and churches have not considered all the ramifications of leaving The Florida Conference.
She recommended that churches contact their district superintendents for a presentation with leadership.
"For example, church members don't tend to be aware of the challenges of finding their own property insurance compared to our excellent and affordable Conference insurance program," she said.
"Churches often have not considered the ramifications of removing the cross and flame logo, changing their name, and re-branding all their physical and digital spaces. Most members are also not initially aware that, even if the Book of Discipline rules eventually change regarding homosexuality, it would only ever be to permit same-gender weddings, not to require a church or pastor to participate."
Rev. Hotho also said that when she explains the issue in detail to congregations, it tends to lower the temperature on both sides.
"When I speak with churches, I typically ask them how many same-gender weddings they've been asked to host in their church. The answer to my question has always been none," she said.
"I then tell them that, if ever this issue arises for their church, it will likely be regarding someone they know. A grandchild. A member they've worshipped beside for decades. It will be personal. That doesn't always change the outcome of the church's decision, but it certainly changes the tone of the conversation."
Rev. Magrey deVega of Tampa's Hyde Park UMC noted an interesting recent phenomenon.
"We are seeing people coming to Hyde Park from churches that have decided to leave," he said. "We are not actively seeking or recruiting people. We are simply focused on and excited about remaining United Methodists.
"Our church remains committed to being part of the continuing United Methodist Church. We have been reminding people of the beauty of being part of The United Methodist Church for the last several months. We have a beautiful heritage, a beautiful theology, and a beautiful witness."
Rev. Hotho has noticed that as well.
"In each disaffiliating church, we have seen several members, including some staff and leaders, seek a new church home. People have contacted my office for recommendations of area churches that will remain UMC," she said.
"I think many folks' greatest value is to remain connected to their congregation and pastor, but for some people, this is non-negotiable – they'll find a new church, a new denomination, or sadly, in some cases, stop attending at all."
Deciding to stay
The relatively small number of Conference churches deciding to disaffiliate is not lost on Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems, the South East District superintendent.
In her district, only two churches held votes on this topic. Just one of them decided to leave.
|South East District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems.|
"That tells me that churches in the South East District generally are comfortable with the direction of The United Methodist Church," she said. "Our churches have many challenges, and we also have many opportunities.
"I do think the future of The Florida Conference is more vibrant, more vital, more focused, and more mission-oriented. And I think that's good."
At Mandarin UMC in Jacksonville, there were strong opinions on both sides of the issue. That’s something Senior Pastor Rev. Britt Gilmore noticed quickly after arriving there in September 2021.
“In my opening months, it became evident that quite a number of people—including former lay leaders and members of our church council—wanted to explore disaffiliation,” he said.
The church took deliberate steps in that exploration, holding a series of church-wide meetings in 2022. Rev. Gilmore established a council with both perspectives to present the issue to the congregation.
“That journey was full of tension and was not smooth because people are passionate about it on both sides,” he said.
In September, the church formally by 60%-40% to remain with The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.
There was a backlash.
“There have been some who have chosen to leave,” Rev. Gilmore said. “People could have different motivations and perspectives. I wouldn’t want to say there was just one reason someone left. For some, human sexuality from both perspectives were important matters, but there were also broader concerns.”
After a time of healing and prayer over the final months of the year, Rev. Gilmore said his congregation looks forward to 2023.
“It was good for us to listen to perspectives and decide whether to remain United Methodists. That has relieved some of the tension, but there’s a sadness about those who departed,” he said.
“But we’ve had others re-engage after they took a break because of the tension. There’s a more relaxed atmosphere now about reaching out to our community and doing the work of God. With the new year, we look forward to refreshing our vision about where God wants us.”
As churches throughout the Conference move forward in 2023, there will be a sustained emphasis on outreach to their communities. But some churches will continue to grapple with the question of whether to stay with The United Methodist denomination or go.
It is a sensitive topic that requires patience, grace, and understanding from all involved.
"We want all churches to remain. The disaffiliation process, where members advocate with each other and vote to remain or leave the UMC, often divides congregations and should be prayerfully discerned before it is undertaken," Bishop Berlin said.
"Local churches who depart the Conference can return, following the pathway outlined in the Discipline. This can be accomplished when local church and Conference leaders collaborate with each other."
And as Rev. Alex Shanks said, the issue comes down to a fundamental question: "Do people really want to leave The United Methodist Church?"
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for FLUMC.org.
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