With denomination’s postponed session and talk of divide, congregations ponder future

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United Methodist congregations in Hancock County are weighing options as their denomination’s future takes shape, and as its global General Conference has been postponed to 2024.

On March 12, members of Mt. Comfort Church voted 72-4 to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, effective June 30. Curry’s Chapel Church dropped the United Methodist from its name after a November 2020 vote to disaffiliate.

Representatives from several other churches in the area said they either do not plan to disaffiliate or are still contemplating what, if any, moves to make.

In recent years, the denomination has presented plans for the UMC to continue and yet allow churches who wish to exit to do so. Among such churches, there is talk of forming a new group, the Global Methodist Church.

Some trace the push and pull over the UMC’s future to a Special Session of its General Conference, called in 2019. Delegates considered the Traditional Plan; it left points of the denomination’s Book of Discipline largely unchanged. The Book of Discipline states “All people may attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments and become members in any local church in the connection.” It also stipulates that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

That plan passed, but not by any landslide — 438-384. “Those results indicate the diversity of thought United Methodists have on these issues,” reads a report about the 2019 session on the denomination’s website, umc.org. “This also means it is likely there are people in your church who agree with the outcome and others who do not.”

Also passed at the 2019 session was a plan for disaffiliation. It includes a formula of financial obligations for churches who leave; a large chunk of the money pertains to the pension fund for retired clergy.

The regular General Conference, which takes place every four years, was set for May 2020 in Minnaepolis, but it did not convene because of COVID-19. A few weeks ago, it was postponed a third time, to 2024, in part because as international travel rebounds, some international delegates needed time for visa approvals.

Meanwhile, those forming the Global Methodist Church said it will launch May 1.

With a denominational debate and divide looming, Mt. Comfort Church did not want to be defined by it, said the Rev. Ethan Maple, the church’s pastor.

“Anytime sin becomes the emphasis, no matter what you believe on that issue, the enemy wins and the kingdom (of God) loses,” Maple said. “There’s going to be lines drawn that does the kingdom no good … (instead, let’s) focus on the healer of sin.”

Some within the denomination say who stays and who leaves is more complex than how a church felt about the Traditional Plan. Maple cited his church’s desire to not be focused on that debate, and “some of the churches, I think, are also concerned about other issues,” said the Rev. Larry Van Camp of Trinity Park United Methodist Church. Those include a “trust clause” about who owns church buildings and the appointment process by which the denomination pairs pastors with churches.

Van Camp said Trinity Park has not made any decisions about disaffiliation.

Also affecting churches’ decisions will be whether they can meet the financial obligations outlined in the disaffiliation plan. Maple estimates it will cost Mt. Comfort $300,000 to exit under that formula; someone offered a matching gift to help shoulder part of that.

The Rev. Stephen Ellis, a retired pastor serving Curry’s Chapel Church, said the cost for Curry’s Chapel was about $50,000. The church had saved up for a few years, he said.

“I still love the Methodist Church, and I think they’re kind of at a crossroads where they’ve got to make a decision about what’s happening and why it’s happening,” Ellis said. “I don’t condemn people … my job is to point to the way God said we’re supposed to do it. … The Bible has to be our standard, or we’ve got really no standard.”

Ellis said after about 170 years of Curry’s Chapel’s affiliation, “splitting away from the Methodist Church is no small thing.

“My heart goes out to those who stay and try to work through it, and those who leave and try to work through it.”