Seventy churches in Georgia split from the United Methodist Church (UMC) last week largely over LGBTQ issues, marking the latest in a growing divide within the third-largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The North Georgia Conference voted last Thursday to allow the churches, most of which were in rural areas, to disaffiliate from the UMC. The process for disaffiliation was laid out by the 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church through 2023, according to the North Georgia United Methodist Church Conference website.
In 2021, the Board of Trustees adopted a process and, along with District Superintendents, walked alongside the churches that requested to disaffiliate. The conference established ratification by the Annual Conference as the final step in that process.
During a special session in 2019, the UMC adopted a disaffiliation agreement allowing churches to leave the denomination through the end of 2023 "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."
The 70 churches that chose to disaffiliate represent 9% of the congregations in the Conference and 3% of the membership, according to the denomination. The date of disaffiliation will be effective June 30, 2022.
After the vote, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the members of the Annual Conference offered prayer for the departing churches, some of which will remain independent and others of which will dissolve.
"Bless these congregations as they depart," Haupert-Johnson prayed. "I pray that we will be partners in ministry and you will do your mighty work of healing division and overcoming rifts."
"Our denomination has a clear process for disaffiliation, and we are walking alongside the churches that want to take this path," Conference communications director Sybil Davidson said, according to local WSB-TV. "While we do not wish to see any church disaffiliate, we are committed to a clear and healthy process. Our hearts are with those who desire for their congregation to remain a part of the denomination, and also with those who choose to leave."
"It is painful when we have division in the church. We pray that, above all, the ministry of all churches will be fruitful and serve God well. The United Methodist Church will continue working to be agents of reconciliation in a divided world," Davidson added.
The Methodists trace their roots to 18th-century English evangelist John Wesley, whose followers split from the Church of England following his death.