Disagreement over same-gender marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons have prompted six churches in the Great Plains Conference — all in Kansas — to begin the process to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.
Emmanuel Church in Abilene, The Benton Church in Benton, Aulne UMC near Marion, Esbon UMC, Burns UMC and Cassoday UMC all have begun the process. The churches are in various stages of the process, which includes a vote by the congregation with a 66% threshold and a majority vote by a session of annual conference, the next of which is scheduled for May 27-30, 2020, in Topeka. Churches that choose to disaffiliate will be required to pay their share of unfunded pension liabilities, unpaid mission shares for the previous 12 months as of the disaffiliation date, an additional 12 months of mission shares at the amount assigned as of the local church’s vote to disaffiliate, and any unpaid liabilities owed to the conference, such as worker’s compensation insurance, property liability insurance and clergy pension billing.
“We are beginning to experience the realities of our deep divide over the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons within the life of the Church as congregations take concrete steps to self-segregate and disaffiliate from the denomination,” Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. said. “Disaffiliations fracture our unity in Christ, our united sense of mission, our commitment to each other, and diminishes our missional witness in the world.”
Wichita East District Superintendent Mitch Reece said The Benton Church has grown weary of what they consider to be disobedience to the denomination’s Book of Discipline.
“They are a congregation that sees The United Methodist Church becoming increasingly theologically misaligned with who they are as a local congregation,” Reece said. “Congregational leaders report persons who have left or will not attend as long as they are part of The United Methodist Church.”
Hutchinson District Superintendent Dennis Livingston said the Aulne UMC congregation has grown weary of the back-and-forth arguments and publicity surrounding the denomination as the debate over LGBTQIA+ inclusion continues.
“They have tired of answering questions about United Methodist issues and of being associated with an entity that fights itself,” Livingston said. “They want to do their work as a congregation to their mission field.”
District superintendents in the Hutchinson, Salina and Wichita East districts reported that interactions with leaders in these congregations have been cordial and not adversarial in all but a few instances.
“The congregation has treated me well and has demonstrated its willingness to work with me and abide by conference requirements,” Livingston said of the Aulne church. “It has repeatedly demonstrated the spirit of Christ.”
Reece said The Benton Church’s leaders have been respectful, and congregational leaders have done a thorough job of ensuring parishioners have remained informed throughout the process.
Salina District Superintendent Dee Williamston said her conversations with Emmanuel Church and Esbon UMC have focused on the process for disaffiliation.
“People have been calm in both of these churches and incredibly patient with the time it has taken to develop a disaffiliation process,” Williamston said.
Bishop Saenz acknowledged that churches may see some perceived advantages with disaffiliating from the denomination.
“For example, some congregations disaffiliate to end their association with a denomination in inner strife,” the bishop said. “Congregations believe that they can reach more people by disassociating from a denomination with a negative public image. There is freedom to self-organize and self-direct the spending of operational and missional dollars. And they have the ability to only associate with congregations that maintain their theological accuracies, doctrines, and personal values.”
But Bishop Saenz also noted disadvantages to leaving the denomination.
“Finding pastors to serve congregations — small-membership congregations in particular — may prove to be a challenge,” Bishop Saenz said. “The value of appointing clergywomen and clergy of color called by God and equipped for ministry may be lost and overlooked for appointments where church members vote on who their pastor will be. An independent congregation will have to develop new structures of belonging. And, independent congregations will not have the same access to trainings, resourcing, support, supervision, and accountability provided by a denomination.”
The denomination’s ongoing debate on LGBTQIA+ inclusion will be the central issue in the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. With the wide range of legislation that will be considered, nobody can say for certain what the result will be. But Scott Brewer, conference treasurer and director of administrative services, told the Connecting Council at the group’s fall meeting in October that while it is purely speculation, he believed it was likely that churches that want to leave will benefit by waiting until after the 2020 General Conference, particularly churches that choose to affiliate with some form of a connection.
“I think there will be a difference between a church that wants to leave the United Methodist Church to be independent and a church that wants to leave the United Methodist Church to join another expression of Methodism,” Brewer said. “My broad assumption is that for people who are going to go in a new form of connection, the price tag likely will be lower.”
The district superintendents said they hold all of the congregations in their prayers — particularly if they follow through with the disaffiliation process — that they will continue to work diligently to reach new people and make new disciples of Jesus Christ.
“I hope that both churches will continue to immerse themselves in their mission field,” Williamston said of Emmanuel Church and Esbon UMC. “My dream is they engage in issues of social justice with open dialogue and hearts of compassion even if they do not agree with a particular area or topic of social justice. I pray these communities will look at the broader community, and I pray they will not take on a club mentality but become even more serious about making disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Livingston said he hopes the Aulne church continues to grow and develop disciples into mature followers of Christ.
“I pray that the congregation will move through disaffiliation with unobstructed clarity about what disaffiliation means for the congregation now and as much as possible in the future,” he said.
Reece said he recognized that The Benton Church had a long history of engaging its community with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
“Their voice at the Methodist table will be missed,” Reece said. “I pray they experience continued fruit for Christ’s kingdom as they seek to be faithful to God.”
Contact Todd Seifert, communications director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.