Churches Leaving, But UMC Still Has ‘Strong Presence’ in Northwest Texas

Links to related Spirit of Abilene articles:
Aldersgate Leaves UMC; Conference Forms Online Missional Church
https://spiritofabilene.com/2022/11/12/aldersgate-leaves-umc-conference-forms-online-missional-church/

Methodists Must Decide: Will We Stay or Will We Go?
https://spiritofabilene.com/2022/05/27/local-methodists-informed-about-decisions-on-whether-to-stay-or-leave/
St. Paul to Remain United Methodist
https://spiritofabilene.com/2022/10/17/st-paul-to-remain-united-methodist/
Local Methodists Not United on Future
https://spiritofabilene.com/2022/10/10/local-methodists-not-united-on-future/
Q&A With Dr. Sandra Harper, McMurry University President
https://spiritofabilene.com/2022/06/03/qa-with-dr-sandra-harper-mcmurry-university-president/

By LORETTA FULTON

“We’re finally past the fighting,” a relieved Jeff Fisher said following the departure of 145 United Methodist Churches from the Northwest Texas Annual Conference. 

Fisher is director of transitional ministries for the conference and also serves as conference secretary. On Saturday, Dec. 3, a special called meeting of the conference was held in Lubbock to grant approval to the 145 congregations that have voted thus far to disaffiliate from the historic United Methodist Church. 

Most will be affiliating with a more conservative branch of Methodism, the Global Methodist Church, which launched May 1, 2022. The split in the denomination is over same-sex marriage, ordination of LGBTQ+ individuals, and theological differences.

Prior to the vote on Saturday, the conference consisted of 200 churches spread over a vast part of West Texas, including the Panhandle and South Plains, and the Abilene and Midland areas. Now, it is down to 55 churches, with more expected to disaffiliate before the deadline at the end of 2023. Fisher said the remaining congregations are spread among smaller and larger communities.

“It’s a good mixture,” he said. 

As bleak as the numbers sound, conference leaders like Fisher are optimistic. Not only is the fighting over, but a new reality is taking shape. 

“There is a stronger presence than what that 145 churches indicates,” Fisher said.

In Abilene, only St. Paul and St. James remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church, while many others have disaffiliated, including Wylie, Aldersgate, Elmwood West, and First Methodist. Those congregations are expected to affiliate with the new Global Methodist Church.

The future in the Northwest Texas Annual Conference will look somewhat like the original Methodist Church, which was led by laity. Circuit-riding ministers visited communities occasionally to perform sacraments of the church. Today, remaining UMC members will still have some brick and mortar churches to attend or they can transfer their membership to the new online missional church that the conference recently launched. Membership transfer forms are available on the conference website. Click here to access instructions for transferring membership to the missional church. 

Jeff Fisher

Even with the online missional church option, Fisher said, physical worship gatherings will become available in the future, led by retired pastors. Those might be held in private homes, at apartment complexes, or in a church of another denomination. 

“We want to make sure we can get communion to everyone,” Fisher said.

Other reports and resolutions also were approved at the Dec. 3 meeting:

  • A report from the Conference Board of Trustees regarding the transfer of the deed for Ceta Canyon Campgrounds.
  • A report from the Mission Advancement Team (MAT) on the request of discontinuance from The United Methodist Church for the three Wesley Foundations of the conference: The Wesley Foundation of Texas Tech University, The Wesley Foundation of South Plains College, and The Wesley Foundation of West Texas A&M.
  • A resolution for funding a reserve trust for clergy benefit plans.
  • A resolution for providing grants to retired clergy and contributions to active clergy UMPIP accounts.  

The vote on transferring the deed of the Ceta Canyon Campgrounds means that the 315-acre camp located in the Panhandle will now be owned by the 501c3 nonprofit organization that operates it. The deed transfer isn’t related to disaffiliation, Fisher said, and the camp will continue to identify as a United Methodist camp, although it is open to other groups, too. 

Camp Butman, another United Methodist campground in western Taylor County, is still in the UMC fold, Fisher said. If that changes in the future, the campground will revert to Butman family ownership. 

The Northwest Texas Annual Conference also voted to discontinue Wesley Foundations at Texas Tech University, South Plains College, and West Texas A&M. Those campus ministries will have to adopt new names, Fisher said, and will be independent. The new names may have some reference to Methodist roots but won’t be called Wesley Foundation. 

McMcMurry University in Abilene is not affected by that vote. Dr. Sandra Harper, president, said in an interview with Spirit of Abilene in June that McMurry was voted into being at the annual session of the Northwest Texas Conference of the Methodist Church in October 1920. But today, only 6 percent of the student body identifies with the UMC and only 4/10 of 1 percent of the university budget comes from the annual conferences and churches. Most of the funds from the churches come from individual congregants within the churches, Harper said. 

Dr. Sandra Harper

“The McMurry University Trustees have been monitoring the situation in the United Methodist Church and its possible impact on McMurry for at least the last three years,” Harper said in the Q&A interview. “We are hopeful that the impact on funding and enrollment at McMurry regarding the split will be minimal.”   

The conference also voted on Dec. 3 to downsize its number of district superintendents from four to two. Rev. Felicia Hopkins will remain as superintendent of the Abilene District. Rev. Don Boren will remain as superintendent of the Lubbock District. Boren also will step into the role of director of mission and administration in the conference office. 

Fisher, director of transitional ministries for the conference, said another special called meeting of the conference most likely will be held in early January to reset committees. The conference’s annual session will be held June 1-3, 2023, at a place to be determined. 

The Northwest Texas Annual Conference is part of a larger governing division called the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ), which includes annual conferences in eight states. The SCJ will meet in 2024 and most likely will redraw boundaries for the annual conferences in the jurisdiction due to the large number of churches choosing to disaffiliate from the UMC. Where churches in the current Northwest Texas Annual Conference will land is unknown at this time. But Fisher offered assurances.

“We will always be a part of some conference,” he said. “We’re not left out in a desert alone.” 

Loretta Fulton is editor of Spirit of Abilene

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