HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (WGHP) – Nearly six dozen congregations in the Piedmont Triad have agreed to pay more than $3.7 million – some churches more than $200,000 each – for the right to take their more conservative doctrines and the deeds to the properties they have owned for generations and leave the United Methodist Church.

That’s the amount owed by 69 churches, roughly one-third of the 192 in the Western North Carolina Conference of UMC that have received final approval to disaffiliate from the denomination in which some of their families have worshiped all their lives and tens of thousands have been christened.

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)

There remain a few votes to be counted, but about 96% of delegates to a special meeting of the Western Conference of UMC approved their applications to depart through a process that was specified in February 2022 under Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline, which allows them to do so for reasons of conscience because of changes “in the requirements and provisions of the BOD related to the practice of homosexuality.”

Each church entered a petition specific to its members’ point of view – you can read them all here – that was required to be approved by at least two-thirds of those members who were convened at the church for that purpose.

Language in those petitions is basic, even if it varies based on the author, but the reasoning was very much aligned: The members don’t like the denomination’s leniency toward same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ members of the ministry. About 249 congregations in Eastern North Carolina also disaffiliated last year.

All that remains is the formal disaffiliation, a 60-day process that absolutely must be completed by Dec. 31, during which churches must compensate the denomination if they want to take possession of the deeds on their properties that UMC have held under the “trust clause” stipulated in their affiliation agreements.

That compensation requires the churches to pay two years of apportionment payments (which are their scheduled contributions to the denomination), to contribute to the account balances for those included under UMC’s retirement program, to settle any outstanding debts UMC may be holding, to reimburse the amount of grants the church may have received from UMC in the past 10 years and, in some cases, to pay property transfer fees.

Each church’s representatives signed a formal separation agreement – about 30 pages of contract language – that was mostly boilerplate, but the fifth page specifies the amounts that each church would have to pay. That’s where we learn that this was expensive for some.

Church costs

For instance, Tyro UMC in Lexington, a church of about 300 members on South NC 150, must come up with more than $240,000 just to cover the apportionment and pension requirements. That’s about $800 a member. Tyro’s pastor did not respond to an email seeking comment.

But the 100-plus members of Tabernacle UMC, on Methodist Road in southeastern Guilford County, must pay $237,445, or about $2,300 a member. Midway UMC, where more than 100 worship on Old U.S. 52 in Lexington, must remit more than $200,000, including about $2,500 to repay grants.

No church owes UMC money for a loan, but some had to come up with more than $31,000 to repay those 10-year grants, and Sandy Ridge in High Point is paying $5,000 for property transfer, one of only 14 required to pay that fee.

Aimee Yeager, the spokesperson for WNCCUMC, wrote in an emailed response to a question from WGHP that those grants were “funds to support ministry programs or to support the continued vitality of the churches.”

She said the varying transfer fees were for legal fees that occurred during disaffiliation.

There are 11 churches that will pay at least $100,000, and there are five that will pay less than $10,000, with Hatcher’s Chapel, a church of 19 in Claudville, Va., contributing the least, at $3,291.

Of the 69 churches, the average apportionment is $21,785, and the average pension contributions – which cover all members of clergy plus their spouses – is $30,894.

The overall average cost to disassociate is $54,310, with a median of about $118,458.

Among the nine churches that must reimburse grants, the average is more than $11,100, but 14 also must pay for their property transfers, ranging from $500 to $5,000, with an average of $857.

The bottom line is that each church is expected to pay that amount within those 60 days, and then the deed would be transferred.

“If more time is needed by a church, we consider that on a case-by-case basis and try to be as flexible as possible,” Yeager said. “Some churches have unique legal or financial issues that take more time for them to sort out.”

More churches suing

None of this includes 36 additional churches – 16 of them from the Piedmont Triad – that last fall asked a court to allow them to leave and have their property without being required to meet those terms, which WNCUMC Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr. had said are “about fairness and responsibilities the churches have to each other.”

Iredell Superior Court Judge Richard L. Doughton dismissed the suit because the First Amendment’s separation of church and state doesn’t allow the courts to intervene in disputes within those churches.

But those 36 churches are planning to appeal in the NC Court of Appeals, attorney David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty, a nonprofit legal ministry in Clearwater, Florida, that is representing them, told WGHP.

He provided a statement that said NCLL had asked that Doughton recuse himself because he also serves as treasurer on the administrative council of Sparta United Methodist Church, which is not among those that 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. Gibbs did not respond to a query from WGHP about the status of that appeal.

Why they are leaving

Some involved in this process have countered the comments by Carter in a letter to members in which he wrote that “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.” Some members say this dispute is about overall leadership and interpretation of Scripture.

But the agreements each church signed under Paragraph 2553 (2016 edition) state in their second paragraph the reason they were undertaking this disaffiliation:

“….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.”

Some departing members had said there were greater issues, such as overall church leadership and adherence to Scripture to which they objected, but this was the only reason listed in the separation agreements.”

A sampling of the disaffiliation petitions shows uniformly that each church took exception to the UMC’s discarding its “traditional plan” as discussed in 2019.

For instance, Mount Carmel in Reidsville wrote that the church’s delegates to the annual conference in 2019 faced actions that were “with prejudice toward traditional groups and seemingly complicit with progressive requests.” They included:

  • “Election of a progressive delegation for General and Jurisdictional Conference with Conference leadership helping to facilitate a group called ‘Sacred Witness’ to run the election.”
  • “Allowing for lay delegates from churches and districts to be ‘hand picked’ in order to vote in a progressive manner.”
  • “Allowing the petition entitled ‘Statement of Opposition to the Traditional Plan,’ as approved at General Conference 2019, to be substituted by the ‘Endorsement of UMC Next and Supporting the Full Inclusion of All People,’ allowing a vote which was approved by less than 15% of the conference delegates.”

Farmer Methodist in Denton cited disagreement with UMC and “its language regarding human sexuality and accountability to the church.”

Mount Zion in Stokesdale said it voted to separate because it was among congregations that “disagree with
the actions of the United Methodist Church and its language regarding human sexuality and accountability to the church.”

Tabernacle’s letter said that its members believe “the ‘traditional plan’ as approved does not sufficiently address the lack of accountability for Bishops and Clergy who openly disobey the Book of Discipline.”

Tyro UMC writes that its members disagree “with Petitions 21 and 22 that were passed by the 2019 session of the WNCC annual conference. Petition 21 requests that the next General Conference vote to remove the sentence ‘The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching’ from the Book of Discipline.”

But these issues have been festering for years. Dan Lyons, the senior pastor at Maple Springs UMC in Winston-Salem, who is taking a break for the ministry to figure out his future even though his congregation is not leaving, told WGHP earlier this month that 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.”

Impact on membership

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 eight geographic districts, and Carter is the bishop. Connie Mitchell is the bishop of the Eastern Conference, which is based in Garner. 

The churches that filed paperwork to leave the denomination are spread across those eight districts of WNCCUMC. 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.

UMC says these 192 churches 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 Rev. David Christy, the Catawba Valley District superintendent, said “85% of the membership of our annual conference (209,893) remained and 88% of clergy remains, even with 28 retirements.”

What’s next?

These departing churches may continue to call themselves Methodists. At least one, Pine Grove Methodist in Kernersville, moved quickly to delete “UMC” from its website and URL.

Some are aligning with the still-forming Global Methodist Church, which launched a year ago to support the “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. An organizer in the Triad did not respond to a phone message.

UMC officials say they will not let the departures deter them from their missions to spread their ministry, grow their membership and serve those who want to remain.

To that point, the 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.” Questions should be directed to the online UMC Collective.