GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Thousands of Methodists in North Carolina will log into a virtual meeting on Saturday and ask that they be granted a divorce from the United Methodist Church because of irreconcilable differences about how their traditional values are being interpreted by the denomination’s leadership.

The North Carolina Western Conference of UMC set the meeting so that 192 congregations – about 69 of them from the Piedmont Triad – formally can submit their requests to leave the denomination, some after long and deeply developed relationships have been eroded by decades of debate.

The session begins at 10 a.m. on the conference’s website, UMC’s Facebook Live and via Zoom. Delegates are comprised of each church’s licensed clergy and an equivalent number of its members, who will hear and consider the applications for separation and discuss UMC’s significant financial requirement to compensate for releasing property deeds to those churches.

A gay pride rainbow flag flies along with the U.S. flag in front of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. Congregations are leaving the United Methodist Church and some are affiliating with Global Methodist Church, which includes a doctrine that does not recognize same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

The delegates’ yes-and-no votes will be recorded by 5 p.m. Saturday or postmarked by Monday. Results will be delivered in a letter from NC Western Conference Bishop Ken Carter that will be posted next Friday on that same website.

Much of the discussion for all of this has been couched in the denomination’s positions on same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ clergywhich some churches already routinely defied, but some Methodists whose churches are disaffiliating and even some who are not say the issues are more complex than simply those.

A member of a United Methodist Church sings a hymn during a service. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The dispute actually took root in 2019, when the UMC General Conference adopted a “Traditional Plan,” which reinforced language in the Book of Discipline that stated “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and included penalties for performing same-sex marriages or ordaining gay ministers. The two conferences that oversee Methodists in North Carolina voted to reject that plan.

The 192 congregations petitioned those conferences under Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline to withdraw from association with UMC. Although this process was approved in February 2022, the conflict about doctrine, property and exit terms has continued to fester.

That includes a significant dispute about the deeds to the properties in which many church families have worshipped their entire lives, from christening to marriage and perhaps even to burial in a plot on church grounds.

A legal dispute about the deeds is working through the courts after a judge in Iredell County rejected claims by 36 churches that they should retain the deeds to their property if they leave the church without having to meet the financial obligations dictated in the separation process. An appeal is planned.

The 192 churches have about 36,183 members and represent about 15% of all membership in the NC Western Conference, which represents about half of the state and operates independently of the Eastern Conference, where 249 congregations disaffiliated last year.

But the actual effect is that more than 1 in 5 (21%) of those who routinely attend these churches will be finding a different affiliation, based on WNCUMC figures, and UMC will be replacing the 14% of contributions to the conference they have represented in the past five years.

“We grieve to see any church leave, especially as we believe that we all share the core mission of bringing people into the life of Christ, his love for us and his teaching that we love one another.” Carter said in a statement released last month by the conference. “Nevertheless, the issue of human sexuality has become an irreconcilable difference among us, and some are choosing to leave.”

He also wrote a letter sent to church members in April that cited same-sex marriages and ordinations of LGBTQ+ clergy as an “irreconcilable difference among us.

“It is important to note that the Conference has never and will not force any church to host a wedding they do not wish to host. Nor will we send an LGBTQ+ pastor to a local church which is not receptive to them.”

But some Methodists who requested anonymity, because they couldn’t speak for their churches, told WGHP the issue is much more complex than that.

Dan Lyons, the senior pastor at Maple Springs UMC in Winston-Salem, which isn’t leaving the denomination, said the UMC “has one view of what this is all about. They want to put this all on sexuality.

“For us on our side, we understand that these conflicts as to what we believe about God and what Scripture says. Homosexuality issue is just a catalyst that is moving us in the direction at this time.”

One man’s story

Lyons, who has been the senior pastor at Maple Springs since 2017, describes himself as a cradle-born Methodist who grew up in the church and was ordained in 1996. He is a local man, educated at Appalachian State and Duke, and he says this issue is much more about how God and Scripture are interpreted.

Dan Lyons, senior pastor at Maple Springs UMC. (MAPLESPRINGS.ORG)

“It’s about our understanding about who God is …. about how God’s revelation to us has been … about how we interpret that revelation. What is His Holy Spirit?” Lyons told WGHP.

He said Maple Springs, a church with 800 members on the books, about half of them active, went through a process to discern its future course, including a “season of prayer.” He said there was no formal vote, that “We straw-polled the congregation. There was a lot of pride in the denomination. They decided to stay.”

Lyons said this dispute is so long-running that he knew about it before he was ordained 28 years ago. He also has faced it as a pastor.

“When I arrived, a group wanted us to move in full affirmation of that [same-sex weddings etc.],” he said. “I did not understand that to be where the church was or where I was. … I was not willing to lead them in that direction.”

And now, although his church is staying with the denomination, Lyons is reconsidering his lifetime relationship. “I’m scheduled to take a leave of absence to determine my next place of ministry outside of UMC,” he said.

Who is disaffiliating?

The churches that filed paperwork to leave the denomination are spread across eight districts in the conference. There are 13 churches in the Northern Piedmont District, which includes Guilford and Rockingham counties, and there are 15 from Randolph, Davidson and Montgomery counties among 37 in the Uwharrie District. But the biggest impact is in the Yadkin Valley District, in which 41 congregations from Forsyth, Davie, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin counties have asked to leave.

There are another 41 churches in the Western Conference that had disaffiliated between 2020 and 2022, and there were 12 in the Triad among those 249 approved in the Eastern Conference.

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. 

The Western NC Conference represents 44 counties, grouped by those eight geographic districts, and Carter is the bishop. Connie Mitchell is bishop of the Eastern Conference, which is based in Garner. 

The cost of leaving

If a church plans to exit and wants to ensure that it retains title to its property deed – a relationship based on the “trust clause” of church doctrine – members are required to fulfill a perhaps expensive formula that is outlined in the Book of Discipline.

This includes paying all apportionments – think of those as dues – for the past year, paying another year’s worth of apportionments in advance, covering unfunded pension obligations for clergy at the church and repaying the amount of any grants received from the conference or one of its divisions in the past 10 years.

“The Conference Apportionment Funds for 2022 have been calculated for each local church based on the church's average ‘net expenses’ for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020 as reflected in the annual reports from the churches and pastors,” Aimee Yeager, spokesperson for WNCCUMC, wrote in an emailed response to a question from WGHP. “Each of the apportionments is calculated separately for each individual church and is rounded to the nearest dollar. This formula is presented for approval to the Annual Conference each year in June.”

The deed issue

The heart of a legal dispute about who owns church property – the denomination or the bodies of members who paid the costs for maintenance and upgrades – is found in what the UMC calls its “trust clause.” This clause specifies that the property where churches operate would continue to be used “exclusively” by the denomination.

Legal documents drawn up when churches became affiliated included the trust clause, UMC said, and if for some reason it was omitted, the terms are implied based on “prevailing legal opinion by the courts.”

In March, Iredell County Superior Court Judge Richard L. Doughton, citing the religious protections of the First Amendment, dismissed a lawsuit brought by 36 churches that wanted him to grant their freedom from UMC and to release their deeds.

The National Center for Life and Liberty, which has represented those 36 churches, is appealing that ruling, attorney David Gibbs told WGHP in an email. The appeal will be filed with the North Carolina Court of Appeals, but the paperwork has not been submitted nor has a case number been logged.

A statement provided by Gibbs says that NCLL asked that Judge Doughton recuse himself because he also serves as treasurer on the administrative council of Sparta United Methodist Church, which is not among those who have petitioned to leave UMC.

The statement also alleges that the district superintendent who oversees that church, Lory Beth Huffman, is married to one of the conference’s attorneys. Doughton denied the request for recusal. NCLL says it believes that the decision was in error, which is the basis for the appeal.

What next?

Three members of the United Methodist Church react to the defeat of a proposal that would allow LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage within UMC. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings, File)

“To those departing, we wish you God’s peace,” Carter said in his letter to members. “To those remaining, we draw strength from the gifts of grace, connection, and holiness.”

Some of the 192 churches that plan to leave UMC are affiliating with the Global Methodist Church, which launched a year ago to support that “Traditional Book of Doctrines and Discipline.” Its Transitional Leadership Council includes elders from Africa, Russia, the Philippines and Bulgaria, as well as the U.S.

GMC is continuing to form and accept new members – there is a simple form online for asking to affiliate – and says it will be in transition “for the next 12 to 18 months.” A church conference will be convened after that.

It’s unclear how many of those churches might move to GMC or are considering a move. Kari Howard of Asheboro, described as a representative of that denomination working with churches in the Triad, didn’t respond immediately to a voicemail left for her.

UMC officials, though, are being aggressive in trying to retain individuals and groups who want to remain in the denomination.

WNCC announced it was “commissioning a fleet of Lighthouse Congregations,” which are described as groups that serve members whose churches left the denomination but they want to remain affiliated with UMC.

The Lighthouse Congregations would present the church’s sacraments, such as baptism and communion, and UMC said about 60 churches had voted to move into that status.

UMC said that in other areas it would in June send out “a new cadre of community pastors who will serve them.”