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United Methodist Bishops Meet, Look to Pivot After 2,400+ Churches Disaffiliate

United Methodist bishops from across the globe are meeting this week for the first time in person since the COVID-19 pandemic.

A variety of active and retired United Methodist Church bishops meet May 1, 2023, in Chicago / Video screen grab

CHICAGO (RNS) — About 100 active and retired United Methodist bishops from across the globe are meeting this week in Chicago for the first time in person since the COVID-19 pandemic and since the launch one year ago of the Global Methodist Church, a conservative denomination formed for United Methodist churches looking to disaffiliate over LGBTQ issues.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton told the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops it was time to pivot, as the denomination has been losing churches since a 2019 special session of its General Conference approved a disaffiliation plan for congregations wishing to leave for “reasons of conscience” related to their beliefs about sexuality. The United Methodist Church has been stuck in disagreement for decades over the ordination and marriage of members who identify as LGBTQ.

“There is a way through the morass. But it depends completely on where we cast our eyes — not on the dilemmas in this world, but on the goodness of God’s mercy and grace,” Bickerton said during his president’s livestreamed address Monday (May 1).

The bishop’s remarks came one year to the day after the Global Methodist Church launched.

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The Global Methodist Church got its official start on May 1, 2022, after the United Methodist Church’s General Conference meeting was delayed for the third time for pandemic-related reasons. Delegates to that meeting had been expected to vote on a proposal to effectively split the mainline denomination, dedicating money to the creation of the new theologically conservative Methodist denomination.

Since 2019, more than 2,400 churches have disaffiliated from the United Methodist Church, according to the latest tally by the United Methodist News Service.

The majority — about 2,000 churches and 2,450 clergy, including three former United Methodist bishops — have joined the Global Methodist Church, according to the Rev. Keith Boyette, who leads the new denomination as its transitional connectional officer. And more congregations and conferences around the world have declared their intention to join the Global Methodist Church, according to a post on the new denomination’s website.

Meantime, those leading the denomination Global Methodists have left behind are “tired, worn and vulnerable,” according to Bickerton, president of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops.

“There’s no doubt in this room that the second wave of disaffiliations has taken a toll. In conversations with many of you, it’s not hard to sense the fatigue, the disappointment, the anger, the sadness, the confusion within us all,” he said.

More disaffiliations are expected as regional annual conferences gather this year for regular meetings and special sessions.

Dec. 31 can’t come soon enough, Bickerton said.

That’s the last day churches can leave the United Methodist Church under the disaffiliation plan approved at the 2019 special session of its General Conference.

“I admit to you I’m eager to get past all this. I want us to stop talking about disaffiliations. I’m worried genuinely that we’ve spent more time on those that are leaving than focusing our energy on those who are staying,” he said to applause.

The United Methodist Church will look different moving forward, Bickerton said. Too much has changed, he said, and he anticipates a “drop in the denomination numerically.”

He encouraged bishops to grieve all that had been lost, making time during his address for them to pause and pray together.

But he also encouraged them to look for new opportunities.

“We should anticipate less bishops, reconfigured boundaries, reformed agencies and a revised work plan to achieve our mission. We cannot work with what is not there. But we can see it as a longtime overdue opportunity to reposition this denomination for its next expression,” he said.

“That is the pivot.”

During Monday’s opening worship, the Council of Bishops planned to anoint the new bishops who were elected in November. It also is scheduled to hear from general secretaries of United Methodist agencies and boards and discuss how to endow theological education in conferences outside of the United States and promote racial equality in the workplace, according to a press release.

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.