Full disclosure: the Methodist Episcopal Church South is in my blood. My ancestor, Class Leader Goodrich Moore from Statesville, North Carolina, voted in 1844 for his church to join the ME South. My great-grandfather, Rev. Dosson Holland, was ordained MES in Rogers, Arkansas in 1920. He named my grandfather Emory, after the beloved southern school. My father, Rev. Dr. Ronald Holland, attended (in utero) the uniting conference of 1939 in Kansas City, Missouri. I received my 3rd-grade Bible in a former ME South church.
Despite my personal story, I am not excited to see history repeating itself.
The demographics of the 2023 disaffiliations show strong similarities to 1844—namely, that they are concentrated in the south, overwhelmingly white, and led by male pastors. Prior to the current split, the Southeast and Southcentral Jurisdictions combined to represent 52% of our churches and 63% of our membership in the UMC. Strikingly, of the disaffiliating churches, 70% of the churches and 77% of the membership are from the SEJ and SCJ. It is also disconcerting that churches disaffiliating are whiter (from 90% to 98%) and more likely led by male pastors (from 71% to 84%). These are not trends that point to a positive future. (See link to the full report below.)
The Global Methodist Church publicly blames its lack of presence in the northeast and west on its own onerous disaffiliation process. The reality is cultural. Most United Methodists in the United States are not interested in a litigious Book of Discipline that puts gay pastors and their allies on trial for making Disciples of Jesus Christ! The split in 2023 is not about “progressive” or “traditional;” it is about who is willing to live with difference and who is not.
Another key similarity to the ME South is this division is over a single issue. In 1844, Bishops in the South refused to give up slavery. Speeches on the floor of General Conference argued that the Bible shows slavery is God’s will. (It is not.) There were other euphemisms given for the split, but it was about one thing: slavery.
Despite all the noise to the contrary, the same is true today. Paragraph 2553 was written and adopted by “traditionalists” to clarify the ONLY reason churches may disaffiliate is disagreement on Biblical interpretation about homosexuality. To claim these current disaffiliations are about anything else is like claiming the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights.”
Despite the similarities, there are two significant differences between the 2023 secessions and those of 1844. First, this split is much smaller. In 1844, the ME South was a full 40% of the Methodist Episcopal Church. (See chart below.) Currently, there have been about 6,000 disaffiliations out of 31,000 churches in the USA. That is about 20% and will grow a bit before the end of the year. Notably, the GMC claims between 3,000 and 3,200 have signed up with them. Even if their numbers increase, they will likely represent no more than 15% of the former UMC. This reality is because many of those disaffiliating today—especially the larger churches—are doing so to become independent.
This leads to the second key difference: the ME South retained a Wesleyan polity. The Global Methodist Church has adopted a mostly congregationalist structure in an effort to attract as many disaffiliating churches as possible. The churches own their own property. Annual conferences hire and pay their own bishops. And, they are reducing apportionments from 10% (or more) of church budgets to between 3% and 6.5% (depending on which of their articles you believe is the most accurate.) With this reduction, and their commitment to a streamlined structure, there will be no connectional funding for a publishing house, seminaries, campus ministry, camping, equitable compensation, or global agencies. Clearly, many who left care little about even a very thin connectional ministry and simply want control of their property and assets. Ironically, “going Global” really means “going local.” (See articles below.)
We thank God for all the churches in the southern parts of the USA who have stood strong with the United Methodist Church! We are grateful to the movement of the Holy Spirit where new churches are springing up where disaffiliations have taken place. We thank God for those on the left and the right—across the connection—who are working to heal the political divisions in our country and not simply emulating them.
Bottom line: Mainstream UMC is working to move the Church forward into a new future, not to repeat the past! We embrace our Wesleyan connectional polity, and we support regionalization to allow for cultural differences, not just around the country, but around the world. We are committed to removing the harmful language from the Book of Discipline that targets our LGBTQ siblings. And, we need your help.
Rev. Dr. Mark Holland
Executive Director, Mainstream UMC
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Correction: This article has been updated. An earlier edition stated that the GMC churches hire their own pastors. That was originally true, but in April of 2022, they updated their provisional Book of Discipline to reflect an appointment system by the Bishops very similar to the UMC. In one place on the GMC website, they say apportionments are no more than 3% of church budgets. In another place, they say they will be 6.5%. Either reflects a significant reduction from UMC levels.
Read the entire Lewis Center Report about disaffiliations here:
From Methodist Union by W. P. Harrison, Nashville, ME Church, South, 1892
Methodist Episcopal Church 689,316 59.8%
Methodist Episcopal Church, South 462,851 40.2%
Read how the GMC wants to focus funding on the local church.
Read about how the GMC anticipates local churches paying less than half what they pay now for global ministries.