Methodists Must Decide: Will We Stay or Will We Go?
The Northwest Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has created a section on its website with information to guide local churches as they decide whether to remain under the United Methodist umbrella or disaffiliate. https://www.nwtxconf.org/transition
By LORETTA FULTON
“Help us to see the way you would have us go.”
Those words from the opening prayer from Steve Patterson were especially meaningful to the approximately 300 people who gathered May 26 for the last of 11 transition information sessions hosted by the Northwest Texas Annual Conference, a regional jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.
The sessions were designed to inform Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas conference of the three paths before them:
- Remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church
- Join the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination of conservative Methodists that launched on May 1, 2022.
- Go independent or join another denomination
The launching of the Global Methodist Church on May 1 was the culmination of years of struggle among Methodists over issues dealing primarily with human sexuality such as whether to marry same sex couples and whether to ordain LGBTQ members.
Churches in the conference are being asked to go through a discernment process to determine their future affiliation. However, some smaller churches may not feel that process is necessary and choose not to partcipate. If so, according to the conference website, they will remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
“If they determine the vote is not necessary, then your church will continue as part of the NWTX Conference of the United Methodist Church with no further action needed,” the website states.
The May 26 meeting was held at St. Paul UMC in Abilene and drew Methodists from several area communities. Patterson is senior pastor of the church but has been appointed pastor of St. John’s UMC in Stamford effective July 1. He will be replaced at St. Paul by Benji Van Fleet, current pastor of First UMC in Stanton.
Leading the meeting were Abilene District Superintendent Felicia Hopkins, who is a former St. Paul senior pastor, and Jeff Fisher, who was appointed to the newly created position of Conference Director of Transitional Ministries effective April 18, 2022.
PATHS TO CHOOSE FROM
1. Remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church
2. Join the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination of conservative Methodists that launched on May 1, 2022.
3. Go independent or join another denomination
EFFECTIVE DATES FOR REMAINING OR LEAVING
Jan. 1, 2023
July 1, 2023
Jan. 1, 2024
EFFECT OF NO DECISION
“If they determine the vote is not necessary, then your church will continue as part of the NWTX Conference of the United Methodist Church with no further action needed.” From Northwest Texas Annual Conference website
“Tonight is an information session,” Hopkins said, and had the audience repeat the word “information” to keep everyone on track while discussing an emotional issue.
Fisher repeatedly referred to the Northwest Texas Annual Conference website, www.nwtxconf.org, where an entire section on “Transition Pathways” can be found. That comprehensive section, plus the 11 information sessions held across the sprawling Northwest Texas conference, have been noticed outside the area, Fisher said.
“Our conference has been a picture of grace,” he said. “Others are looking at us.”
The Northwest Texas Annual Conference and the South Georgia Annual Conference were set to consider resolutions at their upcoming annual gatherings to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church as a whole but were overruled by the church’s Judicial Council, its supreme court, on May 10. Only individual congregations, not the entire conference, can vote to disaffiliate, according to the ruling.
The Northwest Texas Annual Conference will meet June 16-17 in Lubbock and much of the business will focus on denominational transition issues. With many churches in the conservative conference expected to disafilliate with the United Methodist Church, major structural changes could be coming, according to the conference website.
“If the majority of churches leave the NWTX Conference, the remaining churches will likely be connected with another conference in the coming years, the website states.
Even though the entire Northwest Texas Annual Conference can’t disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church, it appears that many churches in the conference will vote to align with the new Global Methodist Church or become independent.
One of those expected to align with the new Global Methodist Church is Wylie UMC, led by Jeff Hatcher, pastor. Congregations will have three effective dates for their decisions–Jan. 1, 2023, July 1, 2023, and Jan. 1, 2024. Each church must go through a lengthy period of discernment and discussion before a vote is taken. Pastors can not vote and will have to decide whether to stay with their congregations when the vote is taken or align with another denomination. Hatcher left no doubt about his decision.
“I will not be a United Methodist pastor Jan. 1,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
And, he believes he will be right where he is now as all indications are that Wylie UMC will vote on Sept. 27 to align with the Global Methodist Church and leave the United Methodist Church. Hatcher said he has kept the congregation informed over the years as the formation of a new denomination became more likely. He believes he knows the congregation well enough to say how the vote will go.
“I have a pretty good indication,” he said.
Before the meeting ended, Hopkins, superintendent of the Abilene District, appointed Hatcher to be available to answer questions about disaffiliation with the United Methodist Church. Dot Lea, pastor of St. James UMC, was appointed to answer questions about remaining in the denomination. Both were stationed at the front of the sanctuary to answer questions.
Unlike Hatcher, Lea said she wouldn’t speak for her congregation about its upcoming decision, but she knows where she stands.
“I am remaining United Methodist,” she said. “My roots run deep.”
She said the turmoil that the church is going through has been “horribly painful” for her, a lifetime Methodist. But, she said that even with the division, the United Methodist Church is anticipating losing only about 13 percent of its members.
Churches that vote to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church would remain in their current location. Properties are owned locally but held in trust by the annual conference. Hatcher explained what happens if the congregation votes to leave the UMC.
“If a congregation votes to disaffiliate with the UMC and pay their 2022 Apportionments,” he said, “the Trust Clause will be removed and all the property will be deeded to the local church.”
If Wylie UMC votes to disaffiliate and Hatcher becomes a pastor in the Global Methodist Church, as anticipated, he also would retain his ordination as a United Methodist minister, Fisher, the transition director, noted.
“In the Northwest Texas Conference, a pastor will retain his or her ordination,” Fisher said. “A pastor leaving the UMC will be asked to surrender his or her membership in the Annual Conference of the UMC but will retain ordination upon leaving.”
The Northwest Texas Annual Conference has made the transition as simple as possible, Fisher said, but still it is a confusing and painful time for Methodists as they face monumental change.
“Grief is a natural result of change,” he said, and has been evident at all the information sessions.
The process designed by the conference, including the website and the 11 information sessions, hopefully will make the transition easier, he said. The process is specific:
- A two-week period of prayer and fasting by church leaders.
- A churchwide period of discernment and discussion, including departure dates if that path is chosen.
- Churchwide period of prayer and fasting
- A vote by the congregation (not pastors). A two-third’s vote of “professing members present” will determine the congregation’s future. “Professing member” means taking an intentional step, such as public profession of faith, to be a member.
Voting will be by secret ballot. An unmarked ballot will be counted as a “no” to disaffiliation. It will will recorded as a vote to remain as United Methodist.
Both Fisher and Hopkins repeatedly noted that their role is to present information and guidance, not make decisions for individual churches about which of the three doors to go through–remain United Methodist, leave for the Global Methodist Church, or become independent or join another denomination.
“Our job is to get you to the door,” Hopkins said, not choose a door.
Loretta Fulton is editor of Spirit of Abilene