Two Stanly churches join lawsuit against United Methodist Church

With the choice of disaffiliation before many of the United Methodist Church locations worldwide, some Stanly churches have joined a lawsuit.

According to a document filed in Iredell County in the Superior Court Division, 38 churches filed against the Western North Carolina Conference (WNNC) of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Also named as a defendant in the suit was Kenneth Carter, Bishop of the WNNC.

Stanly churches mentioned in the suit include Bethel UMC of New London and Palestine UMC of Albemarle.

The lawsuit said the churches “wished to disaffiliate” with the UMC “to pursue their deeply religious beliefs.”

It further stated the defendants wanted to force the churches to “violate their beliefs, by holding their church buildings and property hostage.”

The UMC, the suit alleged, had to permit churches to disaffiliate along with “payment of a financial ransom.”

According to the WNNC website, churches were required to “pay to the Conference any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months immediately prior to the disaffiliation date, an additional 12 months of apportionments, plus unfunded pension obligations, direct-bill obligations, and other liabilities.”

The lawsuit further alleged in the past churches could disaffiliate “and retain church buildings without paying a ransom.”

Churches, the lawsuit said, “seek relief from the uncertainty, insecurity and controversy arising from (the UMC’s) refusal to allow them to disaffiliate…and retain their property. It also said churches seek reform of the original trust between UMC and a church “to conform to their original intent” and “protect the freedom to worship as they see fit.”

In the facts section of the lawsuit, it said the churches “owned their church buildings, centers and land long before affiliating with the UMC at the time of its formation in 1968.” The churches also “maintained their buildings, centers and land during the entirety of the time they have been in existence, and without any assistance from the UMC.”

Citing a letter from August 2022, the suit said the defendants argued that, when becoming affiliated with the UMC, churches “placed their church property in trust for the benefit of the UMC denomination.”

The suit called the financial obligations “excessive, punitive and unappealable” as well as “completely unnecessary.”

In a letter dated Nov. 29, 2022, Bishop Carter wrote that the WNCC “is committed to providing a gracious exit” to the churches. Carter further stated paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline was the only path for churches to disaffiliate.

The paragraph, entitled “Disaffiliation of Local Churches Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality,” said churches have a limited right to disaffiliate because of this issue.

According to the WNCC website, churches have until Dec. 31, 2023 to vote to decide to disaffiliate, and it must be with a two-thirds majority of the church’s membership.

Carter further stated churches seeking disaffiliation is “vastly different from our open and transparent process which occurs in church conferences and at our annual conference session. It is an attempt to undermine the core of the connectional commitments all churches and conferences in The UMC have to one another. And, it is outside the bounds of established church law, doctrine, and theology.”

He also asked in his letter, also on wnccumc.org, that groups or churches seeking disaffiliation “not cause pain, damage, or disparage other United Methodist churches, other members in their churches, other pastors, or the Conference.”

Holding back apportionment funds, he said, meant that the church’s ministries, like camps, campus ministries, natural disaster response projects, food and homeless ministries and missions abroad, “will no longer be able to flourish.”