(RNS) — A group of 36 United Methodist churches in North Carolina that had sued, demanding to sever their ties to the denomination, have agreed to leave using a plan approved by church leaders in 2019, the Western North Carolina Conference announced.
The group, which includes some of the biggest churches in the conference, will formally exit the denomination at a special session of the conference, or regional geographic body, on Nov. 4.
United Methodists across the country are mired in a messy divorce over theological differences, mostly regarding ordination and marriage of LGBTQ Christians.
A North Carolina Superior Court judge dismissed the churches’ case in March, but the churches and the conference continued talking and reached a resolution late last month. The churches will leave the denomination using the denomination’s exit plan. That plan allows churches to take their properties with them but requires they meet some financial obligations before doing so.
The churches were represented by the National Center for Life and Liberty, a legal ministry that is representing thousands of United Methodist churches in multiple states. In May, the center won a lawsuit on behalf of 185 churches in Georgia who challenged a decision by the North Georgia Conference to pause the disaffiliation process.
In the North Carolina case, the center’s lead counsel, David Gibbs III, had argued that some churches needed to sue because the disaffiliation plan approved by the denomination was too onerous and amounted to ransom.
Suing to leave the denomination has not been the standard practice. Most churches wanting to break away from the United Methodist Church have followed the approved plan, known as Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline. That plan expires on Dec. 31.
Since 2019, 233 churches have left the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, a region that spans the western half of the state and includes 757 churches. A conference spokesperson said another 100 churches — including the 36 that had unsuccessfully sued — may leave in November.
While most of the departing churches have been smaller and more rural, the 36 now breaking away include two of the conference’s larger churches, Good Shepherd in Charlotte and Weddington United Methodist in a suburb of Charlotte. Wesley Memorial United Methodist in High Point, a historic church, is also departing. Members of Long’s Chapel in Waynesville, adjacent to Lake Junaluska, a conference retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains are voting on disaffiliation on Sunday.
To date, 6,240 U.S. churches have departed the United Methodist Church, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination with some 30,000 churches, or about 20% of the total number.
Some of the departing churches will likely join the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination formed last year with a more conservative set of beliefs. It takes a traditional view of marriage as between one man and one woman. As of July, the Global Methodist Church counted 3,100 congregations and 3,400 clergy.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, the Global Methodist Church’s chief executive, was traveling and unavailable to comment.