DOVER — Divergent views on homosexuality and its relationship to the United Methodist Church prompted 11 local congregations to recently separate from their regional organization, Bishop Peggy Johnson said.
At the annual meeting of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference of the United Methodist Church, held virtually June 10-11, the departing member churches’ quest for disaffiliation was accepted.
The Sussex County and Eastern Shore of Maryland churches that disaffiliated included Long Neck, Rockawalkin, Gumboro, St. Martin’s, Carey’s, Line, Bethel, Providence, St. John’s, Grace and Hickory Hill. Attempts to reach several of the churches for comment were unsuccessful.
Bishop Johnson, who oversees the Pen-Del Conference, explained the congregations’ move.
“All were seeking to disaffiliate because of the more progressive direction of the denomination regarding same-sex weddings and the ordination of gay clergy,” she said.
According to Bishop Johnson, the departing church members objected to her not planning any church trials related to those issues.
The path to a church trial begins when there is a formal complaint based on the list of “chargeable offenses” in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the bishop said. Included on the list are performing a same-gender wedding and also being a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.
“If a formal complaint is lodged against a pastor for this, we enter into a ‘just-resolution’ process, trying to make peace, even using a mediator,” she said. “If that fails, a bishop can turn this over to the Committee on Investigations, and it can ultimately go to church trial, in which this pastor can be defrocked by the church court.”
Bishop Johnson continued, “I am willing ... to engage any formal complaints by a just-resolution process but not by trial.”
The synopsis of Resolution No. 22 at the annual conference described Salisbury, Maryland-based Grace United Methodist Church’s path to disaffiliation: “Whereas after much time spent seeking the will of God through prayer, discernment and consultation among our laity and our pastors, we the members of Grace United Methodist Church, hereby have resolved to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church for reasons of conscience,” the resolution began.
The resolution indicated a belief that the UMC “has noticeably drifted more and more to a secular and worldly view regarding the practice of homosexuality, ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, and conducting marriages of same sex persons, thus denying the clear teaching of Scripture, and promoting the above in opposition to the tenets of the 2016 Book of Discipline, as ratified as recently as the 2019 General Conference, we therefore see no other alternative but to sever our relationship with such entity.”
According to Grace’s congregation, while Bishop Johnson “is authorized to be shepherd of the flock and to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church by upholding the vows she took as bishop, ... (she) refuses to obey the clear direction of the Book of Discipline to call for and hold a church trial when a church or a pastor in clear defiance of the Book of Discipline conducts such a marriage (involving homosexuality).
“We, therefore, believe that rather than kick the can down the road another year, it is time for us to separate from the United Methodist Church.”
The members of Grace UMC resolved to “continue to preach the Gospel to the lost, to be in ministry to all persons — offering forgiveness of sins and salvation through Jesus Christ, and in so doing, extending the right hand of fellowship to all who would join us on our journey heavenward!”
Bishop Johnson, set for retirement Sept. 1, said she was “certainly dismayed about the disaffiliations, especially as it seems that I am blamed for it, at least on the surface. Any time people feel disenfranchised from a denomination or any part of the body of Christ, it is a sad thing.
“I believe that the decision was not only based on a single social issue but a complex mix of divisive things. I wish them all well and pray for their ministries.”
Though around 400 churches in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore remain in the conference, there’s a sense of loss regarding lower apportionment intake, fewer connections and shared ministry among neighboring churches, Bishop Johnson said.
Also, according to the bishop, “The departing churches lose the safety net of training, risk management, clergy appointments and regularized accountability that denominational ties provide.”
Monetary obligations for the disaffiliation were determined through a formula created by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.
“Funds go to help with future pension and health liability and (some) ministries,” Bishop Johnson said. “Churches that are disaffiliating also need to provide a good bit of legal work to establish themselves as a separate nonprofit entity and file appropriate paperwork with the courts before they can actually leave.”
The process can be easy, depending on the “sophistication of the church,” Pen-Del Conference Treasurer Bill Westbrook said.
“If a church has a lawyer in its membership, then the process can go pretty smoothly and quickly. If they don’t have anyone with a legal background, then they likely have to call my office just to get information on the process itself.
“Then, they will need to seek out a local lawyer who can manage their (business) affairs.”
Of the four churches who disaffiliated themselves in 2020, three have completed the work, according to Mr. Westbrook.
Overall, the conference often touched on its theme of healing, which Bishop Johnson said involved issues of “our divisions, racism, health concerns, mental health concerns, political divisions, trauma, etc.”
Also, she said, “There (was) a good spirit of love and cooperation in (the) conference.”
Among the activities were “a memorial/communion service for deceased pastors and spouses, setting the budget for the next year, electing new officers, approving various committee reports, reworking parsonage and housing policies, changing health insurance carriers. Scholarships were given to young people. There was a report from the disability committee on the improvements our churches have made on accessibility.
“The Native Americans gave a moving report about their voice in the world that needs to be heard, and our racism-dismantling committee reported on our progress.”