Breaking up is hard to do
Two of the five United Methodist Church regional bodies in Texas met over the weekend and approved requests from 439 congregations to disaffiliate from the second largest U.S. Protestant denomination. Most of the departing churches plan to join the breakaway Global Methodist Church, a more conservative offshoot that disagrees with a sizable portion of the UMC on same-sex marriage and homosexuality, among other issues.
In all, about 546 of the 1,260 Methodist churches in Texas — or about 45 percent — are on the way out of the UMC.
The Houston-based Central Texas Conference on Saturday approved the disaffiliation of all 294 of its 598 congregations that had voted to leave the UMC. The Northwest Texas Conference, based in Lubbock, gave approval to all 145 churches that voted to leave, or about 75 percent of its 201 congregations. The Central Texas Conference already green-lighted the departure of 81 of its 185 congregations, and 44 of the Dallas-based North Texas Conference, with 276 churches, are in the process of leaving the UMC.
Conservatives in the UMC scored a doctrinal victory at the denomination's 2019 national convention, upholding bans on blessing same-sex marriage and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." But the delegates also approved a mechanism for churches to split from the UMC and keep their church buildings, if they take certain steps before the end of 2023.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed implementation of the plan for an amicable split, unveiled in January 2020, and many conservative congregations are unhappy about the delays. Before this weekend's 439 departures in Texas, 13 UMC regional conferences had approved the disaffiliation of 1,314 churches, according to the denomination's UM News service. "That disaffiliation tally still represents a small percentage of the more than 30,500 churches in the U.S.," UM News adds, but the financial fallout is hitting the UMC's budget pretty hard.
The schism is also "going to accelerate religious polarization because the mainline is going to be even more marginalized, and they were always the moderates," Ryan Burge, an Eastern Illinois University professor of religion and political science, tells The Texas Tribune. "They have always been the counterpoint to evangelicals."
"It's a hard time to bring people together," said Houston pastor Rev. Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe, whose St. Stephen's United Methodist Church is remaining in the UMC. "We really reflect the brokenness of the culture and the world."