When the Rev. Chuck Griffin is asked about the split of 264 churches in Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and North Georgia from the United Methodist Church, he often compares it to a painful divorce that’s been a long time coming.
Usually, the question would come from a conservative church member who wanted to know why they had to be the ones to leave.
“I would say, ‘Imagine you’re married, and your spouse says, ‘I know we took all those vows together a few years back, but I’m not going to live by them anymore. Oh, and by the way, I’m not leaving the house and I’m not giving you a divorce. What would you do in that situation?’
“And everybody always said, ‘Well, I’d pack my stuff and move out of the house,’ and I’d tell them, ‘That’s what we’re doing. We’re packing our stuff and moving out of the house,’” said Griffin.
He’s the pastor of Holston View Methodist Church, which has about 250 members in the Scott County town of Weber City, population around 1,500.
On April 22, Holston View was one of the churches that voted to leave the denomination during a special session of the Holston Annual Conference held in Knoxville, Tennessee. The meeting drew nearly 1,000 people.
The disaffiliations, which took effect May 29, left 578 churches in the Holston Conference. The total membership dropped from 148,580 to 117,378, representing 21% of members who departed.
The Methodist church is the second largest major Protestant denomination in the U.S., but differences — many centered around same-sex marriages and LGBTQ+ clergy members — have led nearly 4,000 churches in the U.S. to break away in recent years.
“The decision of some ‘traditionalist’ congregations to separate from the denomination was triggered by long conflict over issues around human sexuality and other matters,” states a news release issued by the Holston Conference after the vote. A church law expiring at the end of 2023 allows U.S. congregations to exit with property if they also meet other financial and procedural requirements.
Most of the churches that left were considered smaller by the Holston Conference UMC, which said that 66%, or 175, of the 264 disaffiliating congregations have fewer than 100 members. Out of 25 Holston churches with more than 1,000 members, 23 will remain United Methodist, the release states.
The number breaking from the UMC continues to grow. As of May 22, annual conferences had approved 3,838 disaffiliations, representing a loss of about 12.5% of U.S. congregations since the church law took effect in 2019, according to a May 22 UM News story on the UMC website.
And on May 27, another 249 congregations in North Carolina voted to disaffiliate, and more are expected to do the same as congregations try to get out before the Dec. 31 deadline.
Disaffiliation takes about six months to complete, according to the UMC website.
A ‘scripturally based disagreement’
The congregation at Holston View is traditional and conservative, according to Griffin, who became pastor there in July 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There was already talk of disaffiliating when he arrived.
He said the differences that led to the disaffiliation boil down to “a scripturally based disagreement related to homosexuality, specifically whether to ordain homosexuals as ministers, practicing homosexuals as ministers, and whether to allow homosexual marriages to be performed by clergy and happen in our sanctuaries.”
And although there has been more talk about those differences in the last few years, the basic issues can be traced back about 30 years, he said.
But the conflicts came to a head in 2019, when the UMC held a special General Conference, where the business of the church is conducted, to settle the issue, according to Griffin.
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, described as the “fundamental book outlining the law, doctrine, administration, organizational work and procedures” of the church on its website, clearly states that same-sex marriages cannot be performed, and ordinations of practicing gays and lesbians are not allowed, he said.
During the conference, the majority, though not an overwhelming majority, voted to keep the Book of Discipline as it is, Griffin added.
“But even though the conservative side prevailed at General Conference, we had a huge part of the church that just began ignoring the discipline, saying we’re going to do it anyway. So, as far as we were concerned, any real bond that we had was broken at that point,” setting the disaffiliations in motion, he said.
The Rev. Tim Jones, who is communications director for the Holston Conference of the UMC, said in response: “There are people in other conferences that have gone against the Book of Discipline. However, Bishop [Debra] Wallace-Padgett has made it clear that we, Holston Conference, will continue to follow The United Methodist Book of Discipline.”
Scott Burke has been a member of Holston View for more than 30 years. He grew up in an “old country evangelical Methodist church” where the worship service involved “scary, loud yelling and screaming.” He found the UMC because his wife’s father was a minister with the United Methodist Church.
He grew to love the calming, orderly nature of the church and the uniformity he found when visiting other Methodist churches while on vacation.
But in recent years he’s grown disillusioned over what he feels is a flouting of rules and regulations and the Book of Discipline, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues.
“It just seems like people were doing what they wanted to do anyway,” he said.
He doesn’t think the leader of the church should be gay and he doesn’t want same-sex marriages to be performed in the church.
But he added that as a Christian he loves all people and those who are LGBTQ+ are welcome to worship at the church.
A move away from bureaucracy
About half of the Holston churches that disaffiliated, including Holston View, have chosen to become part of the new Global Methodist Church, or GMC, which launched May 1, 2022. Others are choosing to be independent.
Griffin, of Jonesborough, Tennessee, has taken a leadership role throughout the process, serving for about five years as president of the Holston chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the theologically conservative advocacy group involved in setting up the new denomination. The chapter will close at the end of May.
Currently, he is a member of a short-term committee called the Transitional Conference Advisory Team, which is setting up a GMC conference that will cover Southwest Virginia, parts of West Virginia, Kentucky and middle and east Tennessee. Griffin, who is an ordained elder with the GMC, said they hope to have a convening conference by this fall.
Another Southwest Virginia church that has decided to join the Global church is the small congregation of about 30 at Forest Church of Ivanhoe, in Carroll County.
Pastor Sandy Whittaker, who joined the GMC before her church disaffiliated from the UMC, said the issues surrounding same-sex marriages and LGBTQ+ pastors were factors for her parishioners, but they saw that as a “presenting symptom of a larger issue.”
The larger issue involved the huge church bureaucracy and a lack of accountability for the bishops who govern the church, said Whittaker, who is a student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
“How do you keep supporting a system that’s breaking its own rules and bylaws and doctrine and discipline?” Whittaker asked. “That’s kind of how they felt. So, they started to feel powerless. I think that’s the best way I can explain how the people at my church feel. Betrayed was another feeling that they expressed to me.”
Matthew Gabriel, a professor and chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, said there is a tendency among American congregations these days to want to move away from larger, bureaucratic church organizations.
“I think what’s generally happening is religion is becoming increasingly localized, tied very specifically to individual parishes rather than larger communities,” he said. “So, rather than people calling themselves, for example, Methodists, they’re saying that they belong to this church on this street with this pastor. They’re breaking apart and reforming in different affiliations, and you’re seeing this across the mainline Protestant tradition — Methodists, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Baptists. So, this is part of a larger trend in which political and cultural affiliations are becoming much more important than any sort of adherence to a larger bureaucratic religious community.”
For more than 40 years, Tim Brown has been a member of the small congregation at Eatons Chapel in Staffordsville, in Giles County. His church, which has about 40 members, also disaffiliated and is going with the Wesleyan Church, a Methodist denomination founded in 1843.
Brown said his church decided to go with the Wesleyan Church because “they gave us a different offer, so to speak, than Global. You actually get 10 years of a kind of feeling-out period and you’re under their umbrella, but not fully. So, you’re more independent. It gives the congregation flexibility to see if the Wesleyans are a good fit,” he said.
The church believes that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are immoral and sinful, according to a position paper on its website.
He added that there wasn’t one issue that led the church to leave the UMC, but he said there is a history of the church not following the Book of Discipline and a lack of accountability.
“There’s a quote from Ronald Reagan, who said he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, they left him. We feel the same way about the United Methodist Church,” he said.
‘Be UMC Yesterday Today & Tomorrow’
One Southwest Virginia church that has chosen to remain with the UMC is Chilhowie United Methodist Church, whose pastor, Jacob Countiss, has prominently displayed that loyalty on the church sign, which still reads: “Be UMC Yesterday Today & Tomorrow.”
Countiss shared a photo of the sign with those at the Holston Conference of the UMC, who used it to illustrate a news release about finding new places for displaced church members.
The pastor said he came up with the idea for the sign because he was looking for a simple but meaningful way to describe his feelings.
“Most of us who are remaining United Methodist have a very deep connection with our denomination and a very deep love for our denomination,” he said. “And while there may be things we disagree about, things that we don’t see eye to eye on, we’ve in the past had great pride in being able to remain connected and have a healthy discussion about the things we might disagree about.
“I’m still committed to having those discussions, those healthy disagreements, since this is the way we can grow together to be a more complete and more perfect people.”
The UMC has always been a big influence in Southwest Virginia, according to Countiss, who said he feels strongly about the work done through the church with Project Crossroads, which is based in Marion and helps low-income families maintain and repair their houses, and the Mel Leaman Free Clinic, also in Marion, which provides health care to the underserved.
“We really enjoy those ministries that are part of the United Methodist Church, especially since it helps us on our mission to take care of our neighbors of all races and all situations,” Countiss said.
Asked whether he or his church members are concerned about the issues of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ clergy, Countiss said, “We don’t feel that it is helpful for our mission at large to create even further distinction than are already present among us. The goal is for us to serve our neighbors and to help each other out. Creating more division, creating more categories to fit people into or corner them is not helpful toward that mission and, in fact, I feel that it detracts from it.”
‘This is the path we need to be on’
Both Griffin and Whittaker say they and their parishioners are happy that the disaffiliation vote has come and gone, and their churches are looking forward to being part of the Global Methodist Church.
Griffin said he expects the transition to be smooth for those who work for the churches because the GMC has a pension plan managed by the same company that handles the UMC’s plan and there’s a health plan in place, so it’s just a matter of getting them moved over.
For the congregation, Griffin expects there to be more of a focus on local churches.
“I think we’re going to see a renewal of the traditions and Methodism that made Methodism so successful. We’re going to see a focus on scripture. We’re going to see a focus on discipleship and we’re going to see those things happening in ways that Methodists did so well since the 18th century; there’s a determination that we want to recover a lot of that,” he said.
He added that the UMC has gotten “top heavy” with agencies and boards, conferences with headquarters and highly paid bishops and district superintendents and “buildings full of staff.”
That will not be the case with Global, he said, although there will be bishops and people who may be called district superintendents.
“But the focus will very much be on the ground level, reaching into our communities and trying to spread the word of Jesus Christ to those who need to hear about Jesus Christ,” he said.
Burke said he believes that although Global is just a year old, it will be more like the Methodist Church he joined 30 years ago.
As for the UMC’s future, Jones, communications director for the Holston Conference, said, “Separating from friends and loved ones is never easy, but the silver lining is even though there have been disagreements surrounding human sexuality and biblical interpretations, we are all still working to build God’s kingdom. Our call now is to return our focus to the ministries God has given us as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Whittaker’s church is planning a “moving forward celebration” — a massive revival on the river with three days and nights of preaching, prayer, music and food. No date has been set, but it will be held in late July.
Griffin said he and his congregation are excited about the future.
“We see a lot of hope and a strong future ahead of us,” he said. “We want to bless the ones we’re leaving behind and pray they do well, too. But we believe this is the path we need to be on.”