UMC Conference overwhelmingly approved disaffiliation for some

June 2, 2022  Athens - Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson (on screen) speaks before delegates in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church vote to ratify the disaffiliation agreements during the 2022 North Georgia Annual Conference at the Classic Center in Athens on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Delegates in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church voted overwhelming Thursday to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference as a result of their disagreement largely over the issue of full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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June 2, 2022 Athens - Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson (on screen) speaks before delegates in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church vote to ratify the disaffiliation agreements during the 2022 North Georgia Annual Conference at the Classic Center in Athens on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Delegates in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church voted overwhelming Thursday to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference as a result of their disagreement largely over the issue of full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Bishop urged them to make disciples for Jesus and wished them well.

Delegates in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church voted overwhelmingly Thursday to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference as a result of their disagreement largely over the issue of full inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

The delegates voted 1176 to 91, with 55 abstentions, to allow the churches to disaffiliate from the conference. About 1,800 people are attending the annual meeting — with the theme “A Place for You at the Table” — which runs through Saturday in Athens.

Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson struck a somber tone as she prepared delegates to vote.

“It breaks my heart.”

After the vote, she asked those who wanted to disaffiliate to stand then asked those gathered to pray for them. “This is hard and this is a time we lament and grieve that the circle in not unbroken,” She urged them to make disciples for Jesus and wished them well.

Charles Savage, pastor Sardis United Methodist Church in Buckhead, said a new name would be decided later.

For now the church will be independent.

Savage, 75, is cradle United Methodist “from birth.” At least four generations were Methodists.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said after the vote because “it’s something I’ve been a part of all of my life. For me and my church, it’s the right thing right now.”

Jeff Fuller, a home missioner for the North Georgia Conference, hoped that those who wanted to leave the denomination will be allowed to “graciously leave by having a healthy benediction.”

The overall goal, he said, “is for us to focus on Christ. Ultimately, we don’t want to force anyone to go against their personal theology or convictions.”

Mike Malone, a delegate from Walker UMC in Greensboro,

hadn’t heard of the issue of disaffiliation until a few weeks ago. “It seems like everything in the country is changing,” he said.

“I look at it this way, a church is supposed to be open for everybody,” Malone said Thursday prior to the vote. “I wouldn’t want to exclude anybody. Let people do what they want to do to as long as it’s within the law. I’m not a member of that community, but I don’t shun members of that community.”

Combined ShapeCaption
June 2, 2022 Athens - Delegates pray after they voted overwhelming to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference during the 2022 North Georgia Annual Conference at the Classic Center in Athens on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Delegates in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church voted overwhelming Thursday to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference as a result of their disagreement largely over the issue of full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

June 2, 2022  Athens - Delegates pray after they voted overwhelming to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference during the 2022 North Georgia Annual Conference at the Classic Center in Athens on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Delegates in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church voted overwhelming Thursday to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference as a result of their disagreement largely over the issue of full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
June 2, 2022 Athens - Delegates pray after they voted overwhelming to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference during the 2022 North Georgia Annual Conference at the Classic Center in Athens on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Delegates in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church voted overwhelming Thursday to allow about 70 member churches to voluntarily leave the conference as a result of their disagreement largely over the issue of full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Sybil Davidson, a spokeswoman for the North Georgia Conference, said the date for disaffiliation is June 30.

Haupert-Johnson said she expects that over this year and next between 20% and 25% of churches would choose to sever ties with the annual conference, which covers an area north of Macon. The North Georgia conference, before disaffiliations, had about 800 churches.

The churches that leave the conference will pay any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months immediately prior and an additional 12 months of apportionments, plus unfunded pension obligations, direct-bill obligations and other liabilities. They depart with assets and property.

The issue of sexuality has been brewing for decades within the denomination.

In 2019, during the UMC’s General Session, delegates approved a plan upholding and strengthening prohibitions against the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ clergy and performance of same-sex marriages.

It drew complaints from more progressive United Methodists but also from more traditional congregations and clergy who feared eventually the denomination would be more centrist or lean more progressive.

Some plan to become independent Methodists congregations or join other denominations, including the newly launched theologically conservative Global Methodist Church which launched May 1.

“What they’re seeing in their church is a mirror issue of the culture wars in the country,” said Lenny Lowe, a religious studies professor at the College of Charleston. People are operating, he said with “a different set of values, a different understanding of truth, a different understanding of what God says, what God means and what God wants.”

Most of the churches that plan to disaffiliate are small, with an average membership of between 10 to 50. It represents roughly 3% percent of members and about 10% of churches in the conference.

Next week about 18 churches plan to leave the South Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, according to Kelly H. Roberson, assistant to the bishop of the conference, which is comprised of 562 churches with a membership of 98,000.

The Rev. Griff Jones, 82, the outgoing pastor of Mt. Gilead UMC in Sharpesburg, said the membership voted to leave. The feeling, he said, was that the North Georgia conference “was going away from their traditional values and Scripture.”

Jones, who will retire soon, has led the rural 106-member congregation for four years. He said members were unhappy that the UMC was leaning “more towards social justice. They are really buying into what society says instead of what Scripture says. They felt, and I feel, that we ought to be impacting culture and not culture impacting us.”

He insists he and others are not homophobic, and that God loves everyone and everyone - regardless of sexual orientation - is welcome in the church, but he doesn’t want to perform same sex marriages .

“The church has to stand for values,” he said. “Some things just don’t change.”