GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – With about 50 paper ballots yet to be counted, the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church has approved the request from 192 churches to leave the denomination.

During a virtual conference convened on Saturday, approximately 96% of delegates in the Western Conference of UMC approved the churches to continue with their formal separations through a process that was communicated last year, the denomination announced.

WNCUMC Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr. (right) addresses church delegates during a virtual meeting also attended by Kim Ingram, the director of Ministerial Services/conference secretary. (WGHP)

Mail-in ballots had to be postmarked by Monday, and official and final totals will be released by the conference on Friday. These 192 churches, including 69 from the Piedmont Triad, have about 36,183 members (about 15% of all members in the NC Western Conference) who no longer will be members of North Carolina’s second-largest denomination.

The conference said in a release that the churches disaffiliated under Paragraph 2553 of the UMC Book of Discipline and cited that churches may do so for reasons of conscience because of changes “in the requirements and provisions of the BOD related to the practice of homosexuality.”

These churches last year had petitioned to leave UMC because of a variety of differences about the church’s future, but primarily its plan to conduct same-sex weddings and to ordain LBGTQ+ ministers. About 249 congregations in Eastern North Carolina also disaffiliated last year.

Some of the departing UMC churches have helped to form 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.

“This day is filled with a range of emotions and whose meaning we may grasp only over time… [T]his is a day I have invested a great deal of time, energy, prayer, and negotiation to avoid in hopes of finding some path of reconciliation for all involved,” Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr. wrote in a letter to the conference. “Nevertheless, a segment of our Conference seeks disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church due to their beliefs surrounding the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons within the UMC.

“To those who have requested to depart, I wish you the grace, peace and mercy of the Lord. By the action of this Annual Conference, you will be free to be an independent church or a part of some other denomination.  We trust you will find your way and continue to be a church of Jesus Christ.”

The separation process

The results had been expected to be announced on Saturday evening, but about 2,000 ballots were processed through the online voting system ElectionBuddy and each ballot required votes on each church, WNCUMC spokesperson Aimee Yeager, thus delaying the tally.

This process was approved in February 2022 under Paragraph 2553, but a conflict about doctrine, property deeds and exit terms has continued to grow.

The separation requires the churches to pay two years of apportionment payments (which are their scheduled contributions to the denomination), retirement for clergy and their spouses and reimbursement of grants the church may have received in the past 10 years.

When that is fulfilled, UMC would release the property deeds to the churches’ facilities that were held under the “trust clause” stipulated in their affiliation agreements.

Last November, 36 churches sued to ask a court to allow them to leave and have their property without having to meet those terms, which Carter had said are “about fairness and responsibilities the churches have to each other.”

An Iredell Superior Court judge dismissed the case because of the First Amendment separation of church and state, but those 36 churches sued are planning to appeal in the NC Court of Appeals.

Hearing the list

Before they received their links to vote on the churches and other issues on Saturday, Methodist leaders heard a roughly 26-minute presentation by Carter and other conference leaders about how this would work and their commitment and path to the denomination’s future.

The entire list of 192 churches was read during the session by the superintendents from each of the eight affected districts. The Rev. Bev Coppley named the 13 churches in Northern Piedmont District that want to leave, the Rev. Laura Auten listed the 15 churches from the Triad in the Uwharrie District, and the Rev. Sam Moore read the Yadkin Valley District, which has 41 churches in those 14 counties.

“It’s appropriate that we pause for a moment and to give thanks for the history of these churches as we prepare to continue in our response to their decision,” Carter said.

Behind-the-scenes shot from the virtual session of the Western NC Annual Conference

All but one of the presenters were at the site of the virtual meeting, which would presume to be the headquarters in Huntersville.

The Rev. David Christy, the Catawba Valley district superintendent, said, “We celebrate that, even in this ‘season of dissension,’ 761 of our 953 local churches remain with us through this transition.”

He said 85% of the membership of our annual conference (209,893) remained and 88% of clergy remains, even with 28 retirements. “We are strong,” he said. “And we will be even stronger as we continue to follow God’s direction and walk obediently on the path to God’s desired future.”

‘Opportunity to align more closely with God’

Mark Ralls, superintendent for the Blue Ridge District (WGHP)

Amy Coles, assistant to Bishop Carter, spoke to churches and members that may not want to disaffiliate. She touted the Lighthouse churches that had gone through training and were prepared to deal with those members who had lost their homes and to do so without talking about disaffiliation.

Perhaps it was Mark Ralls, superintendent for the Blue Ridge District, who delivered the most conclusive thoughts on what he called “a great time to be a United Methodist Church.

“Our work continues, but it is far from complete,” Ralls said. “We will continue pushing, and we will remain open to being pushed to bring God’s kingdom here on earth.

“Our wonderful, messy, imperfect, beautiful UMC, it is committed to fulfilling God’s purpose for God’s church, not a human purpose for a human church. Friends, we do not believe that we have to look alike or think alike or love alike.

“This season in the life of our connectional church is our opportunity to align more closely with God’s deep desire that we embody the beloved community of Jesus Christ.”

Not just N.C.

This disaffiliation process and legal entanglements hardly are unique to North Carolina. It is a confrontation that has been emerging for decades and has become international in scope, as churches wrestle with those issues and how they interpret leadership from the Bible.

In Georgia last week, a Columbia County Superior Court judge mandated that Methodist North Georgia Conference allow two churches in Augusta to disaffiliate. That conference had halted its disaffiliation process in December, the Chattanooga Times reported.

Those churches, Hill UMC and Mann-Mize UMC, were not part of a lawsuit brought by 185 churches to force the NGCUMC to continue its disaffiliation process and to challenge control property rights that would appear similar to the deed lawsuit in North Carolina.