Stanly churches vote to disaffiliate with United Methodist Church

The national discussion in the United Methodist Church (UMC) regarding the role of LGTBQ+ individuals has forced churches in Stanly County to disaffiliate.

According to Aimee Yeager, Director of Communications for the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, three Stanly County churches have voted to leave: Salem UMC, Matton’s Grove UMC and Union Chapel UMC. Boyd Furr, chairman of Salem’s communications committee, confirmed Salem’s vote. (Note: The preceding paragraph was edited from the print version to correct the three churches who have voted, per Ms. Yeager. Ms. Yeagar’s title was also mistakenly listed as communications ministry assistant for the Uwharrie District of the UMC in print. Her correct title is listed above.)

As of Jan. 25, a total of 25 churches in the Uwharrie District, which includes Stanly, Rowan, Anson, Union, Davidson, Randolph, Montgomery and Cabarrus counties, have followed the process of disaffiliation with the UMC, and 61 in the Western NC Conference overall. (Note: This paragraph was edited from the print version to account for the updated numbers as of Jan. 25). 

The process of disaffiliation is set forth by paragraph 2553 of the church’s Book of Discipline. That paragraph states in part: “Because of the current deep conflict within The United Methodist Church around issues of human sexuality, a local church shall have a limited right, under the provisions of this paragraph, to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference.”

Churches must have a two-thirds majority vote of its professing members in order to disaffiliate. They must also pay in full within two years the church’s apportionment commitment as set by the conference and the church’s pension liability.

“Disaffiliation has only been an option for United Methodist churches since 2019,” said Yeager, mentioning when the paragraph was created. “This is the only pathway, and accepted justification, for churches choosing to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.”

“While it grieves us when any church decides to disaffiliate, we also celebrate the good work and ministry of each of those churches, whether that ministry is done under the United Methodist banner, that of another denomination, or as an independent church,” Yeager said.

“As faithful stewards of this mission, we will respond with grace and fairness toward those in the authorized process of disaffiliating from the denomination,” she added.

Yeager said any church which votes to disaffiliate has until April 1 for the process to be “halted and walked back at any step.” Churches are not officially disaffiliated until approved by the WNCC’s annual conference in June.

According to Yeager, 36 other churches outside the Uwharrie District but within the WNCC have voted to disaffiliate.

While the paragraph in question speaks about “issues of human sexuality,” others say the reasons for disaffiliation go beyond the questions of same-sex marriage or LGBTQ+ ministers.

The Stanly News & Press received confirmation from Rev. Kevin McCormac, who pastors Bethel and Palestine, that both churches voted in favor of disaffiliation.

Both churches have also joined a lawsuit against the UMC, which Yeager said means they will not be in the process of disaffiliation. Yeager said the churches are attempting to disaffiliate with paragraph 2458.2, and added a ruling by the UMC’s Judicial Council states 2553 “is the only pathway for disaffiliation.” The Judicial Council of the UMC comprise nine members, clergy and laity, elected by the UMC General Conference. (Note: the preceding two paragraphs have been edited from the print edition to include the ruling of the council.)

McCormac said one problem churches are having with the UMC is “adhering to the Word of God as the people of God.”

He cited the example of the response given when Bible passages are read in church services. The minister will say, “This is the word of God for the people of God,” to which the congregation responds, saying, “Thanks be to God.”

“To want to change or say the Word of God pertaining to multiple issues is not going to be valid anymore is going away from a Christian tradition,” McCormac said.

“As people of God, that’s not for us to change that,” he added, referring to the Bible.

“The second biggest problem that magnifies the corruption in the UMC and the disruptions is this: the leadership of the UMC has no problem picking parts they want to change in the UMC discipline to suit their agenda,” McCormac said.

He said the church’s mission is to “help the people in the community and to help win people to the kingdom of God. That’s what we’re about. All these other distractions…are undermining the mission of the church and creating issues for the name of the UMC.”

Cliff Hall, an elder with a church in northern Iredell County, said he, like a number of Methodist ministers, would be transferring his credentials to the new Global Methodist Church (GMC). GMC, which  formed in May 2022, uses a more strict interpretation of the Bible and Wesleyan teachings.

Hall said the official UMC position for clergy and lay members is “celibacy in singleness and fidelity within the bonds of holy matrimony between one man and one woman.”

He said the “progressive leaders of annual conferences” have refused to uphold that standard “even though it was officially approved and reaffirmed in 2019.”

Hall said the conference passed a petition in 2019 which said “the traditional position of the church” was “evil, unjust and oppressive.” Churches, he added, have resisted implementing the official position.

The opinion of one professor of religion at a school affiliated with the UMC suggests the problem may be more about local control of a church as well.

Kevin Taylor, an associate professor for religious studies at Pfeiffer University, said the Global Methodists “are trying to suggest larger cultural things, that we need to go back to the way the things used to be.”

Taylor said it is about “local control,” noting churches would have more control over who serves as their pastor and would not have to pay the same apportionments. He said GMC was promising churches “more freedom.”

The UMC, Taylor said, has a hierarchy and is like the military, where bishops appoint pastors to churches. He said the process is more collaborative now, but said churches may feel disaffiliating is a chance “to get away from being controlled by a larger denomination.”

Taylor said the LGBTQ+ issue “is a lightning rod” which shows some fissures in the church, saying some may be using the issue as a “means to an end” to have more local control.

“The issue of homosexuality became a way to challenge these other lingering issues,” Taylor said. “We’re in a time when people don’t like institutions.”

Taylor noted other Christian denominations, such as Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, went through similar discussions 15 to 20 years ago.

He said several decades ago, about 30-40% of Americans regularly attended church, a much higher percentage than people in Europe. However, those numbers “have drastically changed,” he added.

“We are like Europe; less and less people go to church,” Taylor said.

Taylor also noted many marriages do not take place in church anymore.