The South Georgia Conference (SGA) of the United Methodist Church (UMC) approved the disaffiliations of 193 local churches that voted to leave the denomination during a special session on May 21.
As CBN News reported in November, the UMC is accelerating its moves to become more accepting of LGBTQ lifestyles, despite biblical prohibitions, leading to deeper divisions and more departures from the denomination.
The splintering of the UMC, the second-largest denomination in the U.S., continues as thousands of local churches have left their regional conferences.
In a statement, SGA leader Bishop David Graves called the occasion of the churches’ departure “a day of sadness.”
“Today is a day of sadness in the life of the South Georgia Annual Conference. We grieve in saying farewell to the 193 churches disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church and wish them the best in ministry. Many of these churches have dedicated clergy and laity who truly desire to serve God and their communities. We pray for these churches as they navigate ministry in a new season,” Graves said.
The bishop also had a message for the 274 churches that have chosen to remain in the conference.
“I especially want to express my appreciation for the 274 churches who have chosen to remain United Methodist and those who heard my call to refrain from holding discussions around leaving the denomination until we have more information,” Graves added. “I appreciate their faithfulness to their call and covenant all while leading their churches in a most difficult season.”
Steps are already being taken to start new congregations and ministries in areas where current United Methodist congregations are leaving, the SGA Conference said.
According to the United Methodist News Service, at this point, 3,838 congregations across the entire denomination have completed the required steps and withdrawn under paragraph 2553 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. That’s about 11.7% of U.S. churches since the law took effect in 2019.
Georgia County Judge Lifts Disaffiliation Pause on 185 Churches Who Want to Leave Their Conference
Meanwhile, a Cobb County Georgia superior judge has ruled 185 churches in the North Georgia (NGA) Conference can move forward with UMC’s disaffiliation process, according to UM News.
As CBN News reported in April, the group of churches want to leave the denomination with their church property and filed a lawsuit against the NGA Conference and its leaders who made the decision late last year to temporarily suspend the denomination’s disaffiliation process due to what they called “defamatory” misinformation.
Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge J. Stephen Schuster announced his decision in court on May 16 saying the 185 churches can proceed with a process that would allow the congregations to vote on whether or not to leave the denomination, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Schuster said the conference must let the plaintiff churches take the required steps in the church exit process — starting with a congregational vote, according to UM News.
“I believe that the North Georgia Conference has an affirmative duty to assist them in holding a vote if a church makes a call for a church conference to have that vote,” he said.
The conference “has an equal right to make sure it’s done properly within the contours of the Book of Discipline,” the judge said.
The underlying issue is The United Methodist Church’s trust clause, which states that all church property is held in trust for the entire denomination. Methodism’s founder John Wesley instituted the church’s first trust clause, which The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained since the 18th century.
According to The UMC Book of Discipline paragraph 2553, any “decision to disaffiliate” from the mainline denomination “must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.”
The local churches must also meet certain financial and procedural obligations by Dec. 31, 2023, in order to leave the denomination with their property.
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Schuster acknowledged that it will ultimately be up to the North Georgia Annual Conference voters whether to approve the church disaffiliations, according to UM News.
“Whether the conference gives them an up or down vote is not for the court to decide,” he said.
Schuster also said he saw no signs of bad intent on either side in the case. He welcomed attorneys for both the plaintiff churches and the North Georgia Conference to file additional motions before he renders his final ruling.
In response to the judge’s ruling, the UMC NGA Conference issued a statement saying the conference is exploring the opportunity to appeal.
“While details of the order are yet to come, once they are received, the Conference Board of Trustees in conversation with Bishop Dease and the Cabinet will communicate plans and timelines. Leaders of the Conference remain committed to handling this matter in a fair, transparent, uniform, and good faith manner,” the statement said.
The NGA Conference has scheduled its next annual conference for June 1-3.
UMC Texas Conference Sues 40 Churches for Not Following Disaffiliation Process
UMC News also reported the leaders of the Rio Texas Conference have filed a lawsuit in Bexar County against 40 churches that are trying to sidestep the exit process other congregations have already followed.
Conference leaders said they turned to litigation only as a last resort because the churches refused to engage in the approved separation process.
“We remain prayerful that these churches will return to the table and meet their moral obligations to the Conference and its member churches,” said Bishop Robert Schnase who leads the Rio Texas and New Mexico Conferences.