Most United Methodists in Georgia plan to stay with the denomination

‘Whatever happens or whoever remains, it’s about mission,’
70 Georgia churches granted right to disaffiliate from United Methodist Church

70 Georgia churches granted right to disaffiliate from United Methodist Church

The Rev. Sharon Coley grew up Southern Baptist but found her spiritual home among United Methodists.

And that’s where the pastor of Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church-Summerville plans to stay “until I draw my last breath.”

For Coley, it’s about the mission of creating disciples for God, serving outside the walls of the church and building His kingdom.. Nothing else matters.

Nearly 40 % of United Methodist churches in Georgia have declared their intention to leave or been approved to do so over a variety of issues, largely though issues related to full inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

Still, while many are leaving, most are staying in the denomination.

Even as she witnesses a splintering of the denomination she loves, Coley is steadfast and optimistic about the future of the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

“Whatever happens or whoever remains, it’s about mission,” said Coley, whose church has about 75 members and more than that watching online. What will her conference and denomination look like going forward?

“That’s up to God,” she said. She’s discussed it with congregants. “We don’t focus on the rhetoric. We don’t focus on the hatred. We’re focused on the mission.”

On Nov. 18, the North Georgia Conference will hold a special called election to vote on 185 churches who want to split. Two Augusta churches that sued the conference to be allowed to continue the process after officials paused it last year, received the majority of votes to leave during the June meeting in Athens.

The disaffiliating churches have until June 30 to complete the process.

Before reaching the conference level for a vote, though, local churches would have to hold their own vote and receive a two-thirds majority of those present.

Coley was among 2,000 United Methodists who met in Athens June 1 through June 3 for the 157th Session of the North Georgia Conference of the UMC annual gathering.

Topics included ways to help historically Black UMC churches and introduction of a program to help United Methodists congregants who want to stay if their church decides to disaffiliate. There was talk of bridging the divide happening across the nation, the need for racial healing and justice and building the conference and spreading the Gospel.

Thursday night, more than 100 people gathered at Oconee Street United Methodist Church during a service with Reconciling Ministries Network. The networks works for the full participation of all LGBTQ people throughout the life and leadership of the Church, according to its website.. Those attending support full inclusion in their denomination.

Co-Pastor Andi Woodworth and Kylan C. Pew, director of restorative practices at Neighborhood Church, addressed about 100 people at Oconee Street United Methodist Church.

Credit: Jenn Von Essen

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Credit: Jenn Von Essen

The denomination has been divided over several issues, largely over the ordination of openly gay clergy and same sex marriage. But those are not the only issues. Some said they feared the denomination was moving away from biblical principles, distrust of leadership and was becoming more progressive.

Many of the churches that have disaffiliated have become independent or joined other Methodist denominations, including the conservative Global Methodist Church.

The conference is the first presided over by Bishop Robin Dease, who arrived in January.

Additionally, attendees learned more about the Harbor UMC, the congregation’s first exclusively on-line church.

The Harbor UMC, will be led by the Rev. Jessica Blackwood, and was launched earlier this year by the North Georgia Conference.

Methodism has been a big part of life across Georgia spiritual and cultural life for centuries. Many people said they couldn’t envision ever not being part of the Church.

Butch Kennedy has been a member of Winder First United Methodist Church for 63 years.

He plans to stay. “I believe everybody is God’s child,” he said. ”I don’t believe in discrimination against people.” Kennedy said his church voted no to even holding a vote on disaffiliation.

He said it wouldn’t matter to him whether the denomination decided to loosen its ban on same sex marriage or the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy.

At 75, “I’m old enough to not judge people. I’m too near to home, to Heaven.”

The Rev. Carolyn Moore, lead pastor of Mosaic Church in Evans, said she was grateful “for the calming and forward-looking spirit” that Dease brought to the gathering.

While her church does not plan to remain in the denomination, “I support her vision as a healer and peacemaker. As others have said, she is a ‘prophet of hope.’ I earnestly pray that she is empowered to carry out for her vision for this conference.”

During his remarks before the annual conference on Friday Nate Abrams, a lay leader, talked about the difficult times the denomination is facing.

“No matter where you stand on the issues, whether you are for or against, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive; no matter how you identify - these are difficult times for our church. But difficult times are not the end. This text and our theme are a promise from God.”

Abrams said one of the tasks of the prophetic witness in scripture is to energize the people with reminders and promises of God’s goodness. “we must carry with us into the difficult conversations and decisions in the days ahead.”

In her closing sermon on Saturday, Dease didn’t directly address the splintering or tension in the denomination. Instead, she talked about how people must stay focused on the mission of the United Methodist Church.

The Church, she said, encourages people to do things together that they cannot do alone.

" We are not a social club, we are a spiritual community” and is not a place that is cruel and drives people away because they don’t conform to your way of doing things.”

Then, in closing, she told those in attendance to “Go and make a difference for Christ.”

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church fields a question from a delegate prior to Thursday's vote on whether to allow 23 congregations to disaffiliate over LGBTQ+ issues. (Jonathan Pitts/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Bishop Robin Dease presides over the 2023 annual meeting of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Credit: Shelia Poole

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Credit: Shelia Poole