Division of The United Methodist Church impacting congregations in the region

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. (WKRG) – These are turbulent times for members of The United Methodist Church. Congregations have until the end of the year to decide whether they want to stay with UMC or disaffiliate.

The UMC is the second largest Protestant denomination in the region. There are 173 Alabama congregations and 5 Tennessee congregations in the News 19 viewing area.

“It’s been the hardest thing, to see the church torn apart because of one opinion on one thing,” said UMC district superintendent Reverend Debora Bishop, who oversees all churches in the Lower Alabama and Northwest Florida.

In 2019, the UMC voted by a narrow margin to assert its position against same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

“It made it more traditional and more punitive when it comes to the issue of human sexuality,” Bishop said.

When the UMC decided to enforce its ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, it put in place a system allowing churches that disagreed with the decision to disaffiliate. The process has been delayed by the pandemic. Each congregation now has until the end of 2023 to vacate and retain ownership of church buildings and property. Disaffiliation takes a two-thirds vote of the congregation.

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The system was put in place primarily to allow more liberal congregations that opposed the ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy to leave. Surprisingly, however, it is the more conservative congregations in the South that decide to disaffiliate.

“Many pastors and church leaders are concerned about the direction of The United Methodist Church,” says Reverend Lester Spencer, pastor of St James – a large church in Montgomery that disaffiliated and joined the new Methodist church conservative world. Spencer is a regional spokesperson for the new denomination.

“We believe in The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline which is based on Scripture,” Spencer said. “We support the current Book of Discipline, but we know there are many trying to change the Book of Discipline and as a result many are trying to change the definition of marriage and what we historically believe about sexuality. “

Spencer predicts that more than half of the 480 UMC churches in southern Alabama and northwest Florida will disaffiliate by the end of the year.

In southern Baldwin County, the UMC of Orange Beach and the UMC of Gulf Shores voted to disaffiliate.

“I voted my conscience,” says Allen McElroy, a member of the Orange Beach church. “I feel good with the people here and with Christianity. I don’t want anyone to tell me how to go about it.

For now, Orange Beach is an independent church. Gulf Shores disaffiliated and decided to join the new conservative World Methodist Church.

Bishop says for many churches and members, the process has been like a painful divorce.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “These are people who accompanied you when a child died, or who served meals when your spouse died, who visited you in hospital, who sent you cards and who took care of you. And now, because of that, you can’t be here anymore.

“Oh, that was tough,” says Esther Jackson, who has been a member of Orange Beach for more than 20 years. She found that there were many there, and in Gulf Shores, who wanted to remain United Methodists.

“They were heartbroken,” Jackson said. “They felt like they had no home. They were just lost and I said it couldn’t happen.

Todd Dowdy, former music director at Orange Beach UMC, says he felt the same way.

“There are so many things The United Methodist Church does, and has done, and has done for so long, and has done so well,” Dowdy said.

So now Dowdy, Johnson and others who attended UMC Orange Beach and UMC Gulf Shores worship together every Sunday at an event center on Canal Road. The bishop preaches often. She says up to 70 people attended.

The goal is to create a new UMC on Pleasure Island. As painful as the process was, everyone involved says they harbor no ill will towards their former church members.

“We love our friends,” Jackson said. “There is no animosity.”

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“Whichever group you’re part of, I think both aim to be the body of Christ here in this region,” Dowdy added.

Bishop says churches that have decided to disaffiliate will be announced in May when they are officially ratified by the UMC. Many more congregations could split by the year-end deadline.


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