In a vote Sunday, March 12, members of Statesboro First United Methodist Church (Georgia) chose to remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

A switch of just two votes would have changed the outcome.

According to an email sent Sunday afternoon from John Ashley Welch, chair of the Church Council, 418 voted for disaffiliation, 210 voted against and six abstained. Under the process set out by the United Methodist Church’s international, special General Conference in 2019, disaffiliation would require a two-thirds majority vote of members who attended the church’s specially called conference on Sunday.

The 418 “for” votes fell just short of the two-thirds threshold.

210 votes won the day.

What do the majority of the church members, who lost the vote to disaffiliate, do now?

The first thing they do, sadly, is recognize that their local church community is fractured. The second thing they do, reluctantly, is recognize that it might be time for them to move on. But, as Neil Sedaka reminded us so tunefully, “breaking up is hard to do.”

What about congregations in northern Illinois that want to disaffiliate…but can’t?

Whether it’s Georgia or Illinois or so many other places in the US, congregations are dealing with the checkered outcomes of “disaffiliation.”

Unlike some other annual conferences, Northern Illinois has relatively few congregations seeking to disaffiliate. Some United Methodist Annual Conferences have from a third to a half of the churches leave the denomination. Those conferences seem to be the exception, however. It isn’t like that in most places. The unraveling of the United Methodist denomination is a slow-moving, congregation by congregation, movement.

 If you are part of a congregation that has passed the hurdle of the 2/3 vote to disaffiliate, you are likely already on your way to associating with the Global Methodist Church or perhaps the Free Methodist Church or the Wesleyan Church. You are leaving the long-standing United Methodist internal conflict behind. You are already experiencing the excitement of a dawning new chapter of mission and ministry for your church. Praise the Lord!

On the other hand, it might be very different for you and the church of which you are a part:

  • The costs of disaffiliation are simply much more than your congregation can reasonably pay. You are “stuck”.
  • The leaders of the congregation are afraid that having a vote will split the church, so a vote has not and will not be taken. But more and more long-time members seem to be leaving, nonetheless. As always, a decision “not to the decide” is still a decision regardless.
  • You’ve had a congregational vote and didn’t reach the 2/3 majority required, so the congregation is going to remain United Methodist. Yet, despite the outcome of the ballot, those who voted to leave are still looking for an alternate way to move on from being United Methodists.

The Toothpaste Can’t Be Put Back in the Tube

The chairperson of the church council at First UMC in Statesboro, Georgia sent an email to the congregation saying that now, after the vote, the congregation should focus on unity. Based upon the Facebook comments from members of the congregation, that unity seems highly unlikely. I have not spoken to the people of Statesboro First UMC, but I have spoken to a lot of laity from many churches who have concluded that disaffiliation is their most faithful and promising pathway forward. Once they have considered the situation, looked at the alternatives, and come to the a prayerful, often emotionally difficult decision to leave, simply pretending that they didn’t really mean it in the first place isn’t an option. Their decision is anchored in deep and abiding convictions.

People desiring to disaffiliate, contrary to any accusations deriding their motives, have in most cases been longstanding, faithful, active members of their local congregations. They have concluded, however, in light of the theological wandering, organizational dysfunction, and administrative overreach of bishops, as well as the persistent dissent, disruption, and disobedience taken by and promoted by progressive leaders, the only faithful option is to separate from the United Methodist denomination. If the price of remaining United Methodist is the violation of your conscience and Christian commitment, then the price is simply too high. You’ve decided it is time to move on.

Failing to meet the financial requirements or reach the 2/3 majority vote does not change the decision or the dynamics. Though a formal disaffiliation may not be possible, the decision to leave the denomination does not change. If you, and perhaps some others you know of, are looking for a way to leave, how do you do it? You can, of course, find another established church nearby and become part of that community. But maybe there is something else, some Holy Spirit-given splinter in your soul that is moving you to something new.

Are You Leaving the UMC or are You Launching Something New?

You may be so worn out, so disillusioned with our denominational leaders, so weary of the hypocrisy, the word-games, the disaffiliation process, and the ongoing congregational anxiety of your “home” church, that you just want to be part of a church that seems certain of its mission, joyful in its worship, and connected in the community of Christ-following sisters and brothers. You may need to find a place of peace to recover from your recent experiences of United Methodism. You are leaving and seeking refugee status with a healthier congregation. Go in peace, sister. May the Lord guide you to still waters and green pastures, brother.

On the other hand, you may have an inner itch, a smoldering, deep-in-your-soul passion. You have a Holy Spirit-given conviction that the church, the ordinary local church, has the extraordinary mission, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to be part of the Jesus’ mission: sharing and living the gospel, seeking the healing of the world in Jesus’ name, not settling for anything less.

Somehow, by God’s grace, you have a sense that this ending of a relationship with the UMC opens the door to leave intramural church squabbles behind, shake off the sleepiness of nominal Christianity, reclaim the robust gospel-centered, Spirit-transformed promise of God from the culturally-accommodated and attenuated faith of our professionalized leaders.

You want to have a genuine impact, in your own life, the life of those closest to you, the community of which you are part, and the world in which we all live. You are leaving to LAUNCH something new. And now you are seeking to connect with others who may be experiencing the same kind of calling.

This is not just a “flip the switch” change of direction. As I have been observing it, the transition from leaving to launching often includes

  • re-grouping with others responding to the same calling.
  • recovering from the wounds, anger, disappointment, and disillusionment of the “disaffiliation process”.
  • reconnecting with the people and resources to help fuel this new community of fruitful and faithful Christ-followers.
  • re-visioning your purpose as a Christ-centered, called, and Holy Spirit-empowered community of believers.
  • re-launching in the place where you are located.

Are you done with trying to hold to something that is no longer worthy of the effort to maintain? Has the Holy Spirit already ignited a fire within you? Is there a new passion stirring for the things of God and the work of the Jesus mission?

What Should You Take with You?

As I have encountered so many Methodists who are tired of “church as usual”, and are edging toward taking the risk of launching into something new, the question of resources always comes up. There is indeed a lot to consider and, amazingly, resources already prepared to help.

But before you saddle up to head off toward a new horizon, a reminder:

Our own history of denominational departures and division provides a clue to the non-negotiable, essential, don’t-attempt-to-launch-without-it, foundation. You may not be able to take the church property, signage, hymnals, and church office computers with you, but what should you take?

An interesting word from our Methodist past provides an important directive:

In reaction to a Methodism that they believed was compromising its spiritual and doctrinal heritage, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the Church of the Nazarene was founded. The Church of the Nazarene currently numbers about 2.6 million members, in 162 countries, worshiping in 212 languages or tribal dialects, and publishing materials in 90 languages.

As congregations were departing from the Methodist Episcopal Church to the newly forming Church of the Nazarene over a century ago, one Methodist Bishop is purported to have observed,

“They are taking the fire and leaving the stove.”

It seems, by God’s grace, that a similar dynamic is underway among us now. Are you experiencing God’s nudge to move forward into something new?

Then gather the kindling and welcome the igniting flame of the Holy Spirit. Take the fire. You can leave the stove behind.

For more background information on the Statesboro situation and something dance-able, too:

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REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

Interim President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
1 Corinthians 15:58

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