By Walter B. Fenton
Less than four months from its origins, the Global Methodist Church continues to welcome local churches into the new denomination and is now witnessing the coalescing of congregations into provisional annual conferences. Two provisional annual conferences have already formed, one in Bulgaria and another in South Georgia, U.S., five transitional conference advisory teams are exploring the creation of provisional annual conferences in their areas, and additional teams are coming together in eleven other regions.
“We’re further down the road than we thought we would be at this point” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the Church’s Transitional Connectional Officer and its Chief Administrator. “Despite significant challenges and major roadblocks, theologically conservative United Methodist congregations are making their way to the GM Church, and they’re already connecting with others about their future together. We’re doing all we can to facilitate that kind of coordination.”
Early this year many local UM churches anticipated separation from the UM Church would happen in an amicable and orderly fashion after the denomination’s scheduled General Conference adopted the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. The Protocol created denomination wide standards that local churches, and even whole annual conferences, could use for parting ways from the UM Church.
However, when the UM Church decided to postpone its General Conference for a third time and pushed its convening date out to 2024, many theologically conservative United Methodists believed UM Church leaders were trying to stave off a separation likely to be much larger than they anticipated when they originally endorsed and promoted the Protocol in January 2020.
With the third postponement of the General Conference, the GM Church’s Transitional Leadership Council (TLC) decided to launch the new denomination on May 1, 2022, knowing the pathway for local UM churches to join it would be far more complicated. Without the Protocol, local churches are now trying to navigate the terms annual conferences are setting forth for their disaffiliation. In some situations, the terms are fair and amicable, while in other conferences theological conservatives find them to be unduly onerous and even punitive.
While a number of local churches have voted to disaffiliate and many others are exploring the option, they all must await the approval of their UM annual conferences. Some annual conferences have scheduled special sessions later this year or early next year to approve disaffiliation requests. Many others will not consider requests until their regularly scheduled gatherings in May or June of 2023.
“Given the often arduous pathways and sometimes confusing timelines for disaffiliation, I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of local churches that have already managed to join the GM Church,” said the Rev. Dr. Leah Hidde-Gregory, the TLC’s Chairwoman. “These local churches are pushing us forward and they’re doing a great job of resourcing and assisting others who want to join them.”
In June, the TLC started recruiting GMC Organizers in various regions to act as advocates, allies, and resource persons on behalf of local UM churches trying to disaffiliate from the UM Church and join the GM Church. As the organizers talk with other clergy and laity in their regions, they are also tasked with assessing when it might be appropriate for a critical mass of local churches to explore the formation of a provisional annual conference.
“I’m very thankful for the pastors and laypeople who have stepped forward to serve as GMC Organizers,” said Boyette. “We’re all in uncharted waters as local churches and pastors in one denomination are trying to move to another one as soon as possible. Our organizers are faithful, experienced pastors and laypeople who understand our present circumstances, and are equipped to offer sound advice to local churches looking for direction.”
GMC Organizers are also working with pastors and laypeople to form Transitional Conference Advisory Teams (TCATs) in various regions. Among numerous responsibilities, TCATs work hand-in-hand with the TLC to determine when an area has a critical mass of local churches and leaders to form a provisional annual conference, set-up transitional boards and committees, and create websites and leverage social media platforms to make people aware of the potential formation of a provisional annual conference in their area.
“It’s encouraging to see how fast a number of our TCATs have moved forward. Several are on the cusp of forming provisional annual conferences,” said Hidde-Gregory. “As some UM Church annual conferences hold special sessions later this year to approve local churches seeking disaffiliation, we anticipate the number of affiliation requests will increase beginning in the fall of this year and continue to rise throughout 2023.”
At the UM Church’s special 2019 General Conference, a provision was adopted allowing local churches to disaffiliate according to specified terms through December 31, 2023. While the provision stipulated basic standards for disaffiliation, annual conferences can include additional requirements. Given the additional terms proposed by some annual conferences, it is possible some local churches will be hard-pressed to complete the disaffiliation process before the provision’s expiration date.
Boyette and Hidde-Gregory are encouraging local churches seeking to disaffiliate from the UM Church and affiliate with the GM Church to write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to contact a GMC Organizer in their area for advice and guidance. If there is not an organizer in their area, GM Church staff will assist them.
As more provisional annual conferences come into existence, local churches seeking to join the GM Church will be able to contact people in their areas for assistance and guidance. Provisional annual conferences are authorized by the TLC, fully incorporated, and during the GM Church’s transitional period will, with far fewer boards, committees, and agencies, function like annual conferences most local Methodist churches are familiar with.
“While we are a fully functioning denomination now with ordained clergy and local churches meeting on a weekly basis, we’re still at the very early stages of the GM Church’s development,” said Boyette. “And we are very excited about our future as we joyfully seek to fulfill the Great Commission Jesus gave to the church universal.”
The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer.