Delegates attend the day of prayer on Feb. 23, 2019, ahead of the special session of the United Methodist Church General Conference in St. Louis. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the '80s

(RNS) — Talk of schism in the United Methodist Church has prompted me to revisit the research I did in the 1980s as the Southern Baptist Convention was being transformed into the monolithically conservative body it is today. I wanted to know: How does a denomination arrive at and move through a split?

What I wrote about in my 1990 book, "Baptist Battles," may just have some enduring lessons for what we are seeing now.

Nearly a century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote "The Social Sources of Denominationalism,” and my research confirmed his contention that differences over theology or practice are rarely enough to split a denomination. The argument has to tap deeper social divisions.

It’s not that theology doesn’t matter. The Southern Baptist argument was begun by conservatives who claimed an inerrantist view of the Bible. They also definitely disapproved of the growing number of ordained women in progressive SBC churches. These were real theological differences between the parties, just as there are today between the traditional and progressive Methodists.

Those groups' differences were also social and political, however. Southern Baptist progressives — they called themselves moderates — were more likely to come from cities, to value seminary-educated clergy and to favor women’s and minority rights. Conservatives opposed abortion and welfare and were strongly anti-communist (remember, this was the '80s). They were more likely to have moved from rural to urban areas and to be somewhat less well-off.

The Rev. Austin Adkinson, right, and members of the Queer Clergy Caucus sing and greet attendees on the first day of the special session of the United Methodist Church General Conference in St. Louis on Feb. 24, 2019. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In a very large denomination, spread out across the country, even such socially different groups can coexist for a long time without a split. A split also requires an organized movement to “call the question.” That’s what happened to Baptists in the 1980s, and that is what has happened to Methodists over the last decade.

Now that the Methodists have reached the precipice, the very complicated organizational work of division has to get underway, and one thing is sure: Nothing will happen quickly. Whatever division happens will unfold at multiple levels over at least a decade. Denominations aren’t just individuals who share (or formerly share) a theology. They are complex organizations with national bureaucracies, regional branch offices, local congregations and individual members. Each of those parts of the whole will come apart in different ways.

How that happens is determined by the denomination’s “polity,” that is, the way it governs itself. Baptists don’t have bishops, but Methodists do. That means that it is harder for Methodist congregations or clergy members simply to do what they individually think is right. Most critically, Methodist connectional polity means that the congregation doesn’t own its property — although this recent conference seems to have opened the way for churches to leave without giving up their buildings.

Even denominations without bishops, however, have extensive national organizations with lots of influence over what happens in local churches. They develop programs, publish literature, organize mission efforts and educate clergy.

Bishops confer over the issue of whether the legislative committee can refer items to the denomination's Judicial Council for review during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis on Feb. 25, 2019. Clockwise from lower left are Bishops Thomas Bickerton, John Schol, David Bard, Julius C. Trimble and Cynthia Fierro Harvey. Photo by Mike DuBose/UMNS

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The conservatives who took over the SBC knew that this connective tissue was their real target. They replaced members of the governing boards, then replaced the staff and eventually transformed all the national institutions into supporters of conservative theological (and political) causes. If traditionalist Methodists prevail and progressive ones leave, we can expect to see just such a slow but inevitable transformation of their national bodies.

We may also expect to see a few Methodist organizations declare independence. Among Baptists, Baylor University’s cutting of its official Baptist ties was the most noted such move. For Methodists, some of the theological schools – especially those lodged in universities – may follow that path. It means developing new funding streams, of course, but it also means “rebranding” so as to keep a claim on one’s historic identity even as the organizational link is severed.

The most visible splitting among Methodists is likely to happen at the local church level. Individual congregations will have to decide whether to stay, and if not, where to go. In some cases, that decision may divide the congregation itself, with one faction leaving to start something new. Jimmy Carter’s Maranatha Baptist is one of the more visible Baptist examples.

Some progressive congregations will choose to stay and force the fight. My old church, Oakhurst Baptist, in Atlanta, stayed, forcing each of its Baptist associations to officially vote it out (which they eventually did). Other congregations may simply exit quietly. There are about 800 United Methodist churches that have identified with the movement to accept LGBTQ members and clergy. They are the ones to watch, but others may join them.

United Methodist delegates who advocated for LGBTQ inclusiveness gather to protest the adoption of the Traditional Plan on Feb. 26, 2019, during the special session of the UMC General Conference in St. Louis. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

When a church leaves, it can either join with others to form something new or join up with an existing denomination. Departing Southern Baptists formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, which are still going strong, but a few churches also aligned themselves with the American Baptist Churches, effectively mending the North-South rift that was created in the 1840s by slavery. The Reconciling Ministries Network may be the nucleus of a progressive Methodist alternative, but there are also overtures emerging from Episcopal and other denominations.

But what about individual Methodists? If they are like the Baptists in the 1980s, most haven’t been paying much attention to all the sound and fury. It is likely that they already attend a church that mostly matches their theological and political views, so most won’t notice much change, at least initially.

But there are sometimes crises that change that. When the issue of accepting LGBTQ persons becomes personal — a son or daughter, perhaps — individual Methodists may seek a new place to worship, and it may or may not be Methodist.

Perhaps more critically, young adults brought up Methodist are overwhelmingly on the progressive side of this issue. Their failure to pursue a clergy career — or even to stay in the church — is likely to further solidify a traditionalist future for the UMC.

The answer to how you split a denomination, then, is slowly, in hundreds of painful decisions. These will almost certainly result in multiple new, more polarized religious bodies with less diverse middle ground.

(Nancy T. Ammerman is professor of sociology of religion at Boston University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Net, net, in the USA it’s really going to be a conflict between those Methodists who support Republican talk on all issues and those who don’t. The tenth paragraph of this article appears to indicate that’s how the Baptists went anyway.

    Maybe there is a church person somewhere who is leftie on everything BUT rights and respect for ILGTQ people. But, you know? I never met one.

  2. The polity really does make a difference from the southern Baptists. The “traditionalists” truly expected to cause damage and then split off. Now they see a sliver of a chance of reenacting the SBC takeover, but their chance at that and leaving with free property are at serious risk because of the polity.

  3. “But there are sometimes crises that change that. When the issue of accepting LGBTQ persons becomes personal — a son or daughter, perhaps — individual Methodists may seek a new place to worship, and it may or may not be Methodist.”
    Christ said: “English Standard Version
    Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Matthew 10:37
    Christians mold themselves to be like Christ, they don’t expect Christ to forsake his teachings to follow them.

  4. The protestant denominations split over such trivial matters, whereas the various denominations of Mormonism don’t even worship the same Gods.

  5. In the case of the UMC the traditionalists will not be the ones splitting off.

    The SBC is doing fine and dandy, as is the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

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  7. Statistics suggest otherwise on the fine and dandy part. The Southern Baptists left me in the 1980’s when a leader said: “God does not listen to the prayers of Jews.” What about Jesus the Jew????

  8. The Hebrews became the Jews at the foot of the cross. Jews have rejected their Messiah. Jesus obviously does not reject Himself. Jesus was certainly not a Jew, as the term is understood today.

  9. No, no statistics suggest otherwise.

    Were you obliged to accept that leader’s comments?


  10. Anyone know the percentage of traditionalists in the UMC? I assumed the progressives are a small contingent.

  11. The Hebrew people were considered Jews long before the time of Jesus. The Jews are the desccendants of the southern kindom, dominated by the house of Judah. The northern Hebrews were carried away into captivity and no longer have a modern indentity. Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was a Jew sent to the Jews. Jews in Jesus’ day had a Temple in Jerusalem. He is said to have visited the Temple a number of times in his lifetime. No Jews then are as Jews today, who have no Temple and practice rabbinic Judaism.

  12. You are right that I didn’t have to accept his comments, nor you mine, or me yours. The comments did help me clarify my own beliefs about Jesus and prejudice and ignorance.

  13. Wow! Such torturous logic…. NOT. Jesus was a practicing Jew before, during and after the cross. Jesus was born a Jew…lived as a Jew and died as a Jew.

  14. The Atlantic claims it is split more or less 50/50 in the US, but overseas is predominantly traditionalist.


  15. Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman’s Baptist lens yields a remarkably superficial view of what can (or will) happen in United Methodism after the legislation of GC2019 is adjudicated by the Judicial Council.

    Although Dr. Ammerman teaches at Methodist-related Boston University, she has failed to dig deeply into the internal drama that culminated at General Conference. Instead, she merely dusts off her old research on the shift of the Southern Baptist Convention over time to fundamentalism.

    This is helpful as a roadmap for how fundamentalists can engineer a “takeover” within a denominational system in general, but it utterly fails to consider the meaning of our recent Methodist history, including the effort at GC2016 to “stop the clock” on pending traditionalist legislation and pending disciplinary actions for three years while a special commission attempted to craft a “Way Forward” that was endorsed by a large majority of the Council of Bishops and then rejected by the GC2019 in special called session. Nor does it take into consideration the global demographics of United Methodist polity, which is so very different from her Baptist model.

    In other words, Dr. Ammerman hasn’t done her Methodist homework.

    Maybe Dr. Ammerman was on extended sabbatical leave during the last three years. Or perhaps BU lacked the institutional incentives to send her as an observer to GC2019 or give her the means to collect significant social research.

    But the result is that she’s flogging her own academic credentials and research from the 1980’s rather than using her insights from her study of the sociology of religion to tell us something we don’t already know from an insider’s perspective.

    This article may be useful to non-Methodists who know next to nothing about what Methodists have just been through, and perhaps to a few Methodist Rip Van Winkles who have just awakened from a very long nap, but otherwise it reads like filler.

    Not only that, it’s written with a certain determinism that assumes and predicts exactly how a Methodist “schism” is going to happen. Even though Dr. Ammerman seems to have totally missed the word “Africa” as a political factor when she points to “deeper social divisions” as reasons for schism.

    I hope that RNS didn’t have to pay her big bucks for the right to print this article. If I had to grade Dr. Ammerman for her essay at the undergraduate level, I could generously give her a B minus. But that might not reflect the high academic standards and expectations at Boston University.

  16. As a former head of communion (the Disciples of Christ – 1993-2003), I think we need to remember (or to become aware) that mainline Christian denominations have been under systematic attack for 30 years or so by right wing ideological groups whose purpose has been to destroy these church bodies. These include the so-called “Presbyterian Layman”, “Biblical Witness”, “Disciples Renewal”, “Good News”….one for each mainline denomination, each with a similarly disingenuous name. These groups have been coached by the so-called Institute for Religion & Democracy, which is neither about religion nor democracy. The strategy goes back to the days of the Cold War and Allen Dulles, CIA Director from 1953-1961: the same strategies used to undermine governments in Guatemala, Iran, etc. in the 1950’s. These strategies include using our own polities against us by bringing resolutions that generate forced choices in denominational gatherings before we have the chance to work through our differences in more constructive ways. These strategies prey upon fear and are at the heart of our divisions as a nation as well as churches. Whether we personally are progressive or conservative, we have all continued to be as naïve about this as lambs led to slaughter.

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