(RNS) — Thirty-one United Methodist churches in western North Carolina are demanding they be allowed to leave the United Methodist Church and have hired a Florida legal firm to push their claim forward.
The National Center for Life and Liberty sent a letter to Bishop Ken Carter, who oversees both the denomination’s Western North Carolina and Florida annual conferences, to request that they preserve documents and other communications should a lawsuit be filed.
The same firm also sued the Florida Annual Conference on behalf of 100 churches wishing to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church last month.
Legal action — or the threat of legal action — represents a new strategy on behalf of churches that want to join the new Global Methodist Church, a new denomination launched largely over differing beliefs regarding the ordination and marriage of its LGBTQ members.
A lawyer for the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, which has more than 1,000 congregations, responded to the letter, saying it would not comply since the request does not follow the disaffiliation plan approved by a special session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in 2019.
That plan allows churches to leave the denomination through the end of 2023. They can take their properties with them after paying two years of apportionments and pension liabilities.
Most of the 31 churches seeking an immediate exit are small, rural congregations, according to Carter.
So far, the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, which spans 44 counties in the western end of the state, has approved the disaffiliation of 18 churches following the approved plan. In Florida, 14 of the conference’s 700 churches requested disaffiliation and were allowed to leave at this summer’s annual conference meeting, according to the bishop.
All represent a small number of the churches in the two conferences, he said.
“We are seeking to do this work in a way that encourages every church to remain in the United Methodist Church,” Carter said.
“If they really do desire to depart, we want to do that in a way that’s honorable. We have also made the appeal that this not become about misinformation and false witness,” he added.
In a post Wednesday (Aug. 17) on the Western North Carolina Annual Conference website, Carter said churches leaving suddenly without paying apportionments and pension liabilities can create “significant issues” for the rest of the conference.
“To me, that’s a matter of fairness,” he told Religion News Service.
But some churches claim the disaffiliation process approved by the denomination is “onerous, and in many cases, prohibitive.”
The Center for Life and Liberty did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
And churches — like the 31 in Western North Carolina — say a paragraph in the denomination’s Book of Discipline provides another exit strategy for congregations wishing to join another evangelical denomination. The paragraph allows annual conferences to instruct the board of trustees of a church to deed that church’s property to other Methodist or evangelical denominations in certain circumstances. But a lawyer for the Western North Carolina Annual Conference argued that exit strategy cannot be used until the denomination’s top court, called the Judicial Council, approves it.
The United Methodist News Service has documented several additional lawsuits that churches have brought against their annual conferences over disaffiliation. They include three by congregations in Missouri and one recently dismissed in Wisconsin.
The largest United Methodist church in the Atlanta metropolitan region also reached a multimillion-dollar settlement this summer with its annual conference, the North Georgia Annual Conference. Mount Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, announced its plans to disaffiliate last year, pointing to conflict with its bishop over the reassignment of its pastor and “the direction of the United Methodist denomination.”
Meantime, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a network of theologically conservative Methodist churches, has asked United Methodist churches to withhold apportionments from 19 annual conferences it believes are making disaffiliation difficult to impossible, including Florida.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the outcomes of lawsuits in Wisconsin and Atlanta.