By: Nathan Wilson
The United Methodist Church, one of the largest U.S. denominations, will see an exodus of 58 Louisiana congregations Dec. 31.
While the exiting congregations represent a small fraction of the more than 400 United Methodist Churches in Louisiana, the number has garnered attention.
Pastor Gary Willis of First United Methodist Church in Natchitoches explains the turmoil reflects ongoing discussions around a longstanding provision in the UMC’s Book of Discipline: the church’s standard of conduct. “Churches and pastors are not allowed to do same-sex marriages in our United Methodist Churches or while they are ordained,” he says. “They cannot be ordained if they are practicing homosexuals and they can’t perform (same-sex) unions.”
The provision has been part of the UMC’s Book of Discipline since 1972, and was last formally discussed in 2019 during a special worldwide meeting of UMC representatives known as the General Conference. As the Church’s legislative body, the General Conference discussed removing the rule, yet voted to keep it in place with an addendum. “(Paragraph 2503 allows for individual congregations, based on reasons of conscience, to choose to separate, disaffiliate is the term, from the United Methodist Church.” explains Willis. “They are basically becoming an autonomous, congregational church.”
Willis says Paragraph 2503 was not intended to be invoked in the manner that’s occuring. “There was a proposal put forth called the Separation Protocol. We never got to the point to vote on those,” he says. He explains that a General Conference scheduled for 2020 would have created a more structured process for congregations to leave, but was cancelled because of the pandemic. Travel restrictions continue to interfere with the ability to meet, but Willis anticipates the next General Conference will convene in 2023.
Discussions of Paragraph 2503 suggest it was created for use by congregations wanting to remove the prohibitions from the Book of Discipline. “They wrote (Paragraph) 2503 thinking that people who were dissatisfied with keeping the language that was in our church law, that they would choose to separate, and they needed a way to do that,” says Willis. “They didn’t choose to leave… They continued to fight for that language to be changed.”
Now, churches who voted for the status quo are opting to invoke Paragraph 2503 instead. “They came to the conclusion that this conflict will continue,” says Willis. ”The people who confirmed the language in the discipline as it has been since ’72, they’re deciding to disaffiliate.”
While the General Conference normally meets every four years, the disaffiliation process is handled by smaller, annual conferences, and Louisiana’s conference expedited the process for the 58 churches that will disaffiliate at the beginning of 2023. Willis believes more will follow. “Others are going through those discernment processes now,” he says. “(In) June we’ll see another round of churches that have reached the point that they’re ready to affirm their disaffiliation.”
After disaffiliating, churhes will pay dues to the United Methodist Church for two years, but will otherwise be independent. “The United Methodist Church does not determine what the congregation does once it’s disaffiliated,” says Willis. He expects many congregations to join a newly created church connection called the Global Methodist Church, while the clergy, who are supposed to remain neutral during the disaffiliation process, will then face a decision whether to leave with their congregation or remain with First United Methodist Church. “The pastors make their own decisions,” he says. “(It’s) a congregational driven process… the pastor should not be the one deciding or driving it.”
Willis says disaffiliation carries strong emotions, even for clergy and congregations who don’t leave. “This sounds like it’s all business, but it hurts. It breaks our hearts to see others leave the fold,” he says. “We’ve been able to hold the connection together until now, and that’s the heartbreaking thing.” He also offers an explanation for the division. “We’re a mirror of our country,” he says. “We are bound to have some of the same disagreements as the rest of our citizens do, so that part is not a mystery that we disagree on certain things.”
Disaffiliation impacts Willis on a personal level. “This kind of separation, in terms of individual colleagues choosing to leave, turning in their orders, is painful,” he says. “The pastors who are leaving are my friends, and always will be… Now we’ll be in different ships, (but) that doesn’t mean we won’t keep sailing.”
Willis offers a hopeful vision of the Church’s future and its relationship with disaffiliated congregations. “Most of us are trying our best to offer mutual blessing. We don’t want to see those congregations any harm or failing,” he says. “All of us trace our roots back to John Wesley.” He points to partnerships between churches of differing denominations as an example. “Local churches can collaborate on anything from mission opportunities to community outreach to choirs and Christmas programs and pastors may do pastor swaps,” he says. “We want them to serve Christ. They have just chosen to do it outside of the umbrella of the United Methodist Church, and we certainly hope that they wish the same for those of us who remain.”