TURES COLUMN: United Methodists really are better together

Published 10:30 am Saturday, July 15, 2023

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Back in December, I wrote in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer about how it was one of my toughest holidays, because my family was going through a divorce.  No, my marriage is fine, as well as those of my relatives.  As for my church family, it’s another matter.  But there are some recent encouraging signs that show there’s hope for many in the United Methodist Church.

The year 2022 was a tough one for my congregation.  We had several painful meetings at the church I joined more than 20 years ago (after having been raised Catholic) in LaGrange.  The pastor who brought me to Methodism, as well as the Methodist college president who hired me, were bitterly opposed by a lawyer brought in to argue for disaffiliation.  My mentors spoke to my heart, reminding me why I became a Methodist in the first place.  Their opponent played more to the courtroom, instead of as a congregation, as if trying to score a judicial win.  Two chose to preach, while the other elected to prosecute my views and those of my friends.

In another meeting among congregants, it sounded more like those angry over losses in the 2020 election, 2022 Georgia primary, and the 2022 general election, were looking for revenge.  I couldn’t believe some of the words said in the meeting hall.  It is truly a rare thing to leave me speechless.  I’m not ashamed to admit to weeping in the parking lot.

Throughout 2022, and 2023, my phone seemed to have developed a certain algorithm for putting in a daily news feed that included perhaps one disaffiliating Methodist church per day.  Here’s one in Florida that’s leaving, or two in South Georgia, or three in Arkansas, or four in Alabama.  I began to truly wonder whether anyone would be left in America’s United Methodist Church, when news is presented like this in your social media feed.  There have been 3,933 disaffiliations from the United Methodist Church, with perhaps another 900 likely to join them this year.

There’s been some debate about how many churches have disaffiliated, or might do so.  The numbers range from 2,000 to 6,000.  Either way, the majority of the 30,000 UMC institutions have chosen to remain united.

That’s good news at the macro level.  At the micro-level, changes are occurring too.  After being initially scared to voice their opinions publicly, others at our church who also feel that we really are better together and I have been able to talk.  They’ve shared stories with me similar to my experience.  It gives me hope that our congregation’s 2023 vote on whether to disaffiliate need not be a revenge ballot for the elections of 2020 and 2022.

And it’s not just about politics.  I bet the overwhelming majority of our congregation identifies as conservative, and votes Republican.  And there are many among this group, despite the ideological polarization and the politics of disaffiliation, who choose to remain a United Methodist.  They can see beyond partisan squabbles to get the bigger picture.

Many of these longtime congregants who spoke with me shared stories about how much the United Methodist Church means to them.  They’ve also rejected the arguments that they don’t believe in Jesus Christ’s divinity or the resurrection or virgin birth, just because they choose to stay with the UMC.  You can be someone who provides Christian love to others, honoring Jesus’ greatest commandments given in the New Testament (Luke 10:25-37 and Mark 12:28-34).

The Methodist Church in America split before the Civil War over the issue of slavery, and did not heal the bitter wounds until 1939.  Similar arguments have emerged over the role of women in the church, and segregation.  But the church was able to resolve such disputes.  Hopefully, many will choose not to make a similar decision to leave the United Methodist Church for what is politically popular in a particular region, and that we’ll be better together.