By Lindsay Peyton

Almost half of the 598 congregations in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church have left the denomination. Lay and clergy delegates voted to approve the disaffiliation approval of 294 of the 598 churches during a Special Session on Saturday, Dec. 3 at First Methodist Houston West. The measure passed with 93 percent out of 1245 votes, 3 percent opposed and 4 percent who abstained.

The Texas Annual Conference represents a region encompassing Galveston, Houston, College Station, Beaumont Texarkana, Longview, Tyler and towns in between. More than 300,000 individuals were members of the Conference before the fateful decision.

A virtual pre-conference meeting was held 11 days before the session, attended by about 400 voting members of the Texas Annual Conference. Questions were received through a Q&A function on a Zoom webinar, with responses posted online.

During the Special Session, Hal Sharp, chair of the Conference Board of Trustees and layperson from Bellaire UMC, explained that guidelines for disaffiliation in the Texas Annual Conference were established in 2020. At that time, a series of steps and financial requirements were outlined.

The process to disaffiliate involved calculating apportionment and unfunded pension liability of the congregation, a vote from church members, payment in full covering both the previous and current year’s apportionment and coverage in full of their unfunded pension liability. Churches were then required to work with District Superintendents to complete all required forms.

“All the churches before you today have met these requirements and each of them has completed a period of discernment to the satisfaction of their District Superintendent,” Sharp said.

He added that all of the 294 churches paid 100 percent of their 2021 and 2022 conference and district apportionments. All conference and district balances are paid in full.

A final vote from the Annual Conference is necessary to complete the process. Bishop Scott J. Jones called the Special Session to give congregations the opportunity to move forward without delay.

“We are incredibly sad that these churches have chosen to break connection with us,” Sharp said. “However, we have confirmed that they have met the requirements for disaffiliation and are properly before you today.”

Disaffiliation effects on budget

Bishop Jones explained that the 294 disaffiliating congregations represent 46 percent of the financial strength of the Texas Annual Conference. He asked Don Morriss, Chair of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration (CF&A), to share the impact on finances.

“We are going to have to make significant changes,” Morriss said.

He projected that the 2023 Conference apportionment income will be reduced by 45.9 percent. Strategies are being developed to bridge the gap.

Conference staff will be asked to limit budget spending to 70 percent. In addition, there will be targeted reductions in budget spending. Some ministries will operate with designated reserve funds instead of budget funds. 

“We anticipate we will need to absorb some of the difference – up to 24.5 percent of our $9.29 million of 2023 budget or $2.3 million – with fiscal reserves,” Morriss said.

He explained that the work will be especially challenging as the Conference had already reduced its budget by 37 percent since 2018.

However, Morriss said the Conference is currently financially stable with sufficient reserves at this time. He added that reserves are expected to increase by the end of the year, because of higher fourth-quarter receipts.

While there have been increased apportionment income from disaffiliating churches, there will be “unprecedented reductions in apportionment income” in 2023, Morriss explained. 

The end of the third quarter of 2022 revealed negative investment returns. In fact, fiscal investments lost 19 percent or $3.7 million. “We hope that is temporary,” Morriss said.

In addition, as of Sept. 30, 2022, expenses exceeded receipts by about $3 million. “Because of the combination of increased expenses and negative investment returns, our available unrestricted operating reserves dropped from $11.1 million to $4.1 million,” Morriss added.

He explained that a 2024 conference budget is already in progress, and a CF&A budget task force will begin meeting this month. “Early in the new year, we will work with a new bishop and key ministry leaders to create a budget which aligns conference spending with reduced apportionment income,” he said.

Clergy and mission moving forward

During the Special Session, Dr. Linda Christians, chair of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, led a prayer blessing clergy and made a presentation to members. She explained that pastors in the Conference have “experienced heartbreaking pain affiliated with separation and loss.”

Christians said that clergy had the additional challenge of leading congregations in the midst of division. “As dedicated pastors, they have continued to comfort the broken-hearted, worked to calm the anxious, proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ and provided hope while moving their congregations forward into an uncertain future,” she explained.

The Board of Ordained Ministry has focused on helping answer the questions on how to best move forward – whether clergy wanted to remain in the UMC after their church disaffiliated or if they decided to move to a new denomination. In addition, the Board works with clergy seeking to retire, withdraw or take a leave of absence.

Morris Matthis, District Superintendent for the Central South District, also spoke during the special session about how disaffiliation will affect the Conference’s mission field. He discussed strategies to start new churches.

“In the environment in which we find ourselves today, we have the challenge and the opportunity to start new churches in a way that includes some elements of those models and yet is a little different from all of them,” he said.

He has been meeting with each district superintendent to learn about what he terms “United Methodist deserts” – areas where a church disaffiliation has left no UMC to serve the population. He also wants to identify churches that plan to keep the United Methodist voice alive.

In addition, Matthis is finding groups of individuals from disaffiliating churches who want to remain with the UMC. Already cohorts have formed in northwest Houston, Bryan, Baytown, Jasper, Woodville, Jacksonville and Tyler.

“God is doing amazing things through them,” he said. “We are only weeks into this. This is only the beginning of a story that is just unfolding before us. Some might call it a reset. Some might call it a restart. I choose to call it a revival.”

Matthis recognized three pastors already appointed to serve new churches – Shuler Sitsch in northwest Houston, Jennifer Webber in Bryan and Luis Ramirez in Baytown.

“I’m very excited about the work that these three will be doing,” he said. “They are the first of many to come.”

Matthis continued, “We are the Texas Annual Conference. For many years we have been a strong voice for the gospel in all of our 58 counties, and by the grace of God and with your prayers and support, we will continue to be for many years to come.”

Election of conference treasurer, changes to Houston Methodist

The Special Session marked the election of Rev. Robert Besser as Conference Treasurer. The Rev. Carol Bruce, who has held the post since 2020, will retire on Dec. 31.

Delegates also voted to approve the revision of the by-laws and articles of incorporation for the Houston Methodist Hospital System. The measure was recommended by the institution’s Board of Directors.

Dr. Marc Boom, President and CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, explained that “the issues within the church threaten . . . stability of governance. These issues have created a need for our Board of Directors to act now to ensure predictability and stability in planning for our future.”

Currently, 60 percent of Houston Methodist’s board members must be ministers or lay persons of United Methodist Churches in the Texas Annual Conference. In the future, that percentage would include individuals in other Methodist churches.

The Bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of the  UMC will continue to serve as a voting Director of the board and will work with the Governance Committee to identify other potential Methodists to serve on the Board.

The Spiritual Care standing committee of the Board will continue unchanged. The Assistant to the Bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC will continue to serve as an ex officio Advisory Director without voting rights.

The Chief Executive Officer, after consultation with the Bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC, will recommend for approval to the Board the appointment of a Vice President of Spiritual Care.

Boom said that Houston Methodist will continue to work with clergy health plans to provide benefits in the Texas Annual Conference. The hospital has already contacted the Global Methodist Church to create a similar structure.

As the Special Session wrapped up, Bishop Jones said that his term as Bishop of the Texas Annual Conference is coming to an end.

“My work as your bishop has been a privilege,” he said in the midst of tears. “I’m going to remember with great gratitude the love, the faithfulness, the sacrificial work of the Texas Annual Conference. God has used us in some amazing ways.”

John Esquivel, the Conference Lay Leader, provided a prayer of blessing at the end of the Special Session. He said that “some may still be experiencing a sense of grief, a sense of loss – perhaps a broken personal relationship or broken heart.”

“Lord, we ask that your Holy Spirit cover each and every one of us with your healing balm so we may overcome any sense of grief, loss or brokenness,” he continued. “Let us work through these internal emotions and refocus on the external world that is in need of your Word and ministries.”

Esquivel continued, “Let us all have a sense of newness, a fresh start. Let us all be revitalized in our ministries.  Let us all seek out new and innovative ways to reach out to a hurting world.”

He said that while it may feel like a fork in the road, “Regardless of which road we take, may we continue to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with whomever we encounter.”