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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – The separation of dozens of congregations from the United Methodist Church, couched publicly in matters of religious doctrine, theology and political ideology, also is a conflict of dollars, deeds and deity – whether the Bible or state courts is the ultimate authority. 

Perhaps you saw reports earlier this week that North Carolina’s Eastern Conference of UMC recently approved the request of 249 churches – 12 of them in the Piedmont Triad – to disaffiliate from membership, a formal process that involves the completion of regular annual payments, contributions to pension and benefits funds and the transfer of property deeds on completion of both. 

But in the Western Conference, where 41 churches disaffiliated between 2020 and 2022 and 16 more are seeking final approval to do so, 38 churches have hired an attorney and are suing UMC, saying the rules were changed, their property has been taken hostage and the conference’s leadership is guilty of fraud in deterring their pursuit of religious freedom.

Ed Rowe (left), Rebecca Wilson, Robin Hager and Jill Zundel, react to the defeat of a proposal that would allow LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church at the denomination’s 2019 Special Session of the General Conference in St. Louis, Mo. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings, File)

Some of these churches have been around for centuries, and members who have been loyal their entire lives say they are leaving because of the denomination’s positions on same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ clergy that some churches routinely defied. The Associated Press reported that some conservative churches launched a new Global Methodist Church to maintain and enforce bans on those positions and want out of UMC.

More than 100 congregations in Florida and North Carolina have filed or threatened lawsuits to force divorce, and among them are the members of the UMC’s Western NC Conference, who sued on Nov. 10 in Iredell County Circuit Court to expedite and alter their separations. 

Sixteen churches from the Piedmont Triad are among those 38 that signed onto the suit filed by attorney David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty, a nonprofit legal ministry in Clearwater, Florida.

That suit, which names Western Conference Bishop Kenneth Carter in his capacity as bishop and the Board of Trustees for the Western Conference, claims church property is being held unlawfully until churches agree to payments that some find extraordinary and unnecessary. Carter and the trustees are named individually in claims of “constructive fraud” and “breach of fiduciary duty.” 

The plaintiff churches want the UMC to revert to its pre-2019 process for separating, and they have demanded a jury trial. Their suit does not mention damages or fees, because, Gibbs said, “The churches just want to do what is right.” 

They want UMC to adhere to the spiritual and religious standards in the Book of Discipline and to withdraw fees that for some churches could total in the millions. They also want the denomination to release its claim to property that they say their congregations bought and maintained and that the church has no ownership.

The 33-page lawsuit is rich in detail about the relationship between churches and a denomination that in North Carolina encompasses about a half-million adults, claiming about 6% of the state’s religious population, the largest mainline protestant denomination other than Baptists. 

The North Carolina conferences 

The United Methodist Church in North Carolina is divided into Eastern and Western Conferences that are separated along county lines on a north-south axis from the Virginia border to South Carolina. That line meanders between Rockingham and Caswell counties, along the eastern edges of Guilford and Randolph counties and western Montgomery County ending on the eastern limits of Mecklenburg County. 

Each conference comprises hundreds of member churches, grouped into districts, covering hundreds of thousands of congregants. Each has its own headquarters and staff and is led by a bishop and a board of directors.

The Western NC Conference of UMC is based in Huntersville, and Carter is the bishop. Leonard Fairley is bishop of the Eastern Conference, which is based in Garner. 

Some churches disaffiliated years ago, when the UMC’s policies were more restrictive than those churches wanted. But when fears that the policies involving gay rights might change in the Book of Discipline, more started to talk about disaffiliation because the policies were becoming too lenient. 

“The majority of churches who have chosen to disaffiliate from The UMC have done so because they view The UMC as moving closer towards full-inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons in the life of the Church, including ordination and marriage,” Aimee Yeager, spokesperson for the NC Western Conference, wrote in an email to WGHP. “The United Methodist Church, however, cannot change the doctrines laid out in the Book of Discipline without a vote of the global General Conference, which will not happen until 2024.

As Bishop Carter states in his letter [on the WNCCUMC website], ‘From the perspective of The Western North Carolina Conference, our doctrinal standards have not changed and will not change, even as we continue on a journey to be a church that serves all people.’” 

Those that left UMC 

Ten churches from the Triad were among 41 that had disaffiliated in the Western Conference from 2020 through 2022, but no churches in the Eastern Conference had completed the separation package before last month’s convention, UMC officials said. 

Those churches in the Triad that have been through the process of disaffiliation from the Western Conference: (among those approved in 2020) Hardison of Mocksville and Mount Pleasant of Thomasville; (in 2021) Mount Gilead of Randolph County and Withers Chapel of Belews Creek; and (in 2022) Burnett’s Chapel of Greensboro, Cornatzer and New Union of Mocksville, Lineberry and Pleasant Grove of Denton and Maple Springs of Ramseur. 

The 12 in the Triad among those 249 approved in the Eastern Conference are Carr, Friendship, St. Luke’s and St. Paul’s, all of which are in Burlington; Love Joy, Macedonia, Troy First Methodist, Ophir and Uwharrie, all in Troy; Hebron in Mebane; Camp Springs in Reidsville; and Parson’s Grove in Candor. 

“This is the first opportunity churches within the NC Conference of The United Methodist Church have had to disaffiliate under Paragraph 2553 of The Book of Discipline.” Derek Leek, spokesperson from the Eastern Conference, wrote in an email to WGHP. 

But the Western Conference has taken an entirely different approach. Rather than having a special called conference to consider disassociations, it will consider the next 16 that have begun the separation process during its annual conference in June. 

Yeager said the conference wouldn’t disclose those churches’ names until after their deadline of April 1 to complete their separation agreements. 

 “The process of disaffiliation is a sensitive matter, and there is deep grief on both sides,” she said. “Even after a church has voted to move forward with disaffiliation, that process can be halted and walked back at any step.” 

WGHP reached out to pastors at several of the churches who have completed separation or are party to the lawsuit. None of them responded, although one member of a church not named thus far did offer background about the issues it is facing. Another sent anonymous emails to explain various perspectives.

The churches filing suit say they want to disaffiliate to pursue “deeply held religious beliefs” because UMC has “recently adopted doctrines, usages, customs and practices radically and fundamentally opposed to the long-held characteristic doctrines, usages, customs and practices of the UMC” and those churches. They say they are “compelled by their faith to worship elsewhere.” 

The disaffiliation document 

All UMC churches are governed by the denomination’s Book of Discipline, and the disaffiliation agreement in use is based on Paragraph 2553, which was adopted by international conference in 2019. This passage requires church members to vote by a two-thirds margin to leave UMC. An annual conference then must approve that request. 

“The only reason a church can use Paragraph 2553 to disaffiliate is ‘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, or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow,’” Leek wrote to WGHP.

The passage covers 16 pages and provides blank spaces for amounts of apportionments – the “dues” a church pays every year – a special payment for pension obligations and contributions toward the previous year’s health and pension cost for ministers assigned by UMC to serve a congregation. 

Churches operate without financial support from UMC, Gibbs said. Other than licensing materials and use of the Methodist flame logo, all expenses are borne by the congregation, including the salaries of those ministers.

Those churches that disaffiliate no longer can use the UMC’s logo on its signs and literature, and some, Gibbs said, have been required to remove stained-glass windows that included that logo.

“It’s almost laughable in how they manipulate this,” he said. “They drape it in spirituality.” 

The agreement also specifies under item No. 7 that “on the Disaffiliation Date, Local Church will have full ownership of the property and assets listed in Exhibit B attached to the Disaffiliation Agreement. … Any costs resulting from such transfers or other transactions shall be borne by Local Church.” 

A blank quit claim deed is part of the document, as well. 

The lawsuit 

That deed and how the UMC came to control it is at the essence of that lawsuit filed by those 38 churches, which the suit claims comprise 10,000 members. Among those churches are 16 from the Triad: Groometown, St. Andrews and Vickrey in Greensboro; Mitchell’s Gove and Fairfield in High Point; Mount Carmel and Shady Grove in Winston-Salem; Chestnut Grove in King; Wesley Chapel in Hamptonville; Central and West Bend in Asheboro; Gray’s Chapel in Franklinville; Delta in Sandy Ridge; and Bethesda in Lexington. 

Gibbs, who filed with his co-counsel, Bobby Higdon in Morrisville, is involved in 42 similar suits in an estimated 35 states. He said not every separation is contentious.

“Most conferences work with churches and are trying to be agreeable,” Gibbs said. “Unfortunately, some are different.” 

The churches in their suit say they filed their paperwork to separate in August and that the Book of Discipline provides for “multiple pathways … for local churches in this situation to disaffiliate without paying a financial ransom for their church property.” 

But the lawsuit says that UMC refused that request. In a letter written Aug. 17 UMC established the churches had “placed their church property in trust for the benefit of the UMC denomination” and that “local churches have no right to disaffiliate and cannot leave the UMC to pursue their religious beliefs without permission” and a “release from denominational trust.” 

The suit contends that when the churches submitted their requests on Aug. 23, UMC told them that all pathways to disaffiliation were closed except for paragraph 2553, which remains open until December 2023. After that, they will be barred from disaffiliating. 

The churches contend that the paragraph was added in 2019, after they were members, and that it requires the churches to “fulfill burdensome and previously non-existent ‘financial obligations’ and other requirements.” They say that the financial obligations are “excessive, punitive and unappealable … and completely unnecessary.” 

There is an issue with unfunded pension liability that UMC asserts as a basis for at least some of the financial requirements. A longtime member of one petitioning church, who was not authorized to speak on the church’s behalf, suggested that the payment covered the pensions of the church’s current and prior ministers. 

The lawsuit asserts that the UMC’s pension fund is at $29 billion, which is “sufficient to cover pension liabilities for current enrollees for decades to come.” The churches say that, if not, the UMC has been guilty of “grossly negligent financial mismanagement.” 

Gibbs said these terms really “make these churches struggle. The conferences want the money to have it. The pension is the excuse. They may not need it [the money].” 

That’s largely why the suit asserts Carter and the board are guilty of “constructive fraud,” because members paid millions in apportionments and contributed their real property to be used by UMC, that those leaders did not act in “good faith” and seek to “extract a ransom” to “unjustly enrich themselves.” 

The suit also accuses those leaders of making false statements and says that they mismanaged the pension fund and did so without informing the member churches. 

The property issue 

The churches say in their suit that they own their buildings and land and have owned that property since before 1968, when UMC was formed. Gibbs said that over the years that UMC “slid” the deed issue into the Book of Discipline. 

The churches cite in their suit the example of Vanderburg UMC in Mooresville, which was organized in 1871 on the property at 1809 Charlotte Highway that was donated by the Vanderburg family. The suit says the church has held title to that property since then, paying for all repairs, without any assistance from UMC. 

But the provision asserted by UMC would grant UMC title over that property, although Vanderburg’s deed doesn’t mention the trust, the suit says. 

Unless the court intervenes, the suit says, the churches will be prevented from disaffiliating, and their property will be “held hostage.” They ask for declaratory judgment to release their property from UMC’s oversight. They also want to designate them as trustees of the UMC’s alleged trust and to be able to terminate that trust. 

Gibbs said the negotiations he has seen vary from state to state. In Texas, he said, it’s very friendly because “Texas says the trust clause is a joke. Some are more aggressive. Bishop Carter is more aggressive.”   

Western Conference response 

Carter writes in that letter posted on UMC’s website, that “an abrupt separation creates significant issues that could damage benefits and pensions for retired pastors and their spouses who devoted their lives to service.” He also says withholding contributions damages the church’s outreach programs.

The conference responded to the lawsuit in a statement issued by Yeager: 

“The Western North Carolina Conference is aware of a lawsuit filed by 38 churches aligned with The National Center for Life and Liberty seeking to depart The United Methodist Church outside of the process approved by the denomination, as well as statements from these churches encouraging others to withhold tithes and missional giving, and the bringing of complaints against individual leaders and authorized bodies of The United Methodist Church. 

“We are a connection of over one thousand local churches, fresh expressions, and campus ministries; we are in ministry with camps, retirement communities, persons with disabilities, food ministries, and children’s homes across the western half of North Carolina. We give thanks for the power of God working through the people of The United Methodist Church. As faithful stewards of this mission, we will respond with grace and fairness toward those in the authorized process of disaffiliating from the denomination.” 

The higher calling 

One decisive factor could be who in fact can decide what happens. The lawsuit says that the UMC considers all decisions are “ecclesiastical in nature and thus unreviewable by any North Carolina court,” including the one in Iredell County where the suit was filed. 

Ecclesiastical Law, related in name to the book of poetry in the Old Testament of the Bible, refers by definition to the Christian church’s hierarchy. Such law – sometimes called “canons” – governs “the doctrine of a specific church.” Ecclesiastical courts sometimes are established to hear these matters. 

And the U.S. Supreme Court routinely has confirmed that the First Amendment guarantees that state courts can’t interfere in the ecclesiastical review within churches.

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“If you do wrong against real estate and people, the courts are there for fairness,” Gibbs said. “We’re not asking the court to interpret the Bible or deliver religious viewpoints. We want to ask for the court to separate businesses. 

“They could say bless you, brother, and let them go in peace. They don’t want to do that.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article omitted the names of two churches in High Point that were among the 16 plaintiffs from the Triad in the suit against the UMC. Mitchell’s Grove and Fairfield were listed in the lawsuit document.