Coping with disaffiliation
The Rev. Jeff Olive, a Texas Conference district superintendent, presides at an Aug. 7 meeting at The Woodlands Methodist Church called to consider disaffiliation. Members of The Woodlands Methodist, in The Woodlands community north of Houston, voted by a 96.3% margin to leave The United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of The Woodlands Methodist. Courtesy of UMNS
By Ronnie Crocker and Shannon W. Martin
Scrolling through her social media feed, Haley Brown came across a post that landed like a punch to the gut.
The author, a longtime friend, was sharing news that yet another congregation had voted to break away from the United Methodist Church. The post was punctuated by thumbs-up, hands-up and other “joy-filled emojis,” Brown recalled recently.
“They were just so happy,” she said. “That was hard for me to see.”
Brown grew up in the United Methodist Church, she is closely involved with five UMC congregations in the Houston area and she runs the gastrochurch ministry there. Seeing the denomination split apart by a disaffiliation effort that is picking up steam across Texas doesn’t feel like something to celebrate, she said. “Heartbroken,” is how she described the reaction of many longtime members.
Churches as large as The Woodlands UMC in Houston’s northern suburbs and as tiny as Cheatham UMC in a rural region midway between Dallas and Longview, have voted already to break away and join another denomination or operate independently. More than half of the 600 churches in the Texas Annual Conference reportedly are in some form of discernment or disaffiliation amid a wrenching debate over same-sex marriage, the acceptance of gay clergy and other issues related to governance and theology.
The movement has practical and financial implications for churches, but it affects much more than real estate portfolios and access to grant programs from the umbrella organization.
Clergy and congregants alike are coping with a human, emotional toll.
The Rev. David McGlocklin, pastor at Cheatham UMC in Edgewood, 60 miles east of Dallas, said members of his 143-year-old church voted overwhelmingly on Sept. 24 to disaffiliate and will decide later this month whether to join the traditionalist Global Methodist Church (GMC) or some other denomination. The GMC formed earlier this year as a home for disaffected UMC congregations.
Cheatham has 57 voting members. Even with a 97 percent vote in favor of disaffiliation, the church still lost a family during the process, McGlocklin said.
“People tried to contact them, and there’s been no response,” he said. “So, there’s pain on both sides.”
The potential loss of relationships weighs heavily on many.
“I have gone through all of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance,” said the Rev. Vicki Simmons of Somerville UMC. “Just like with my mom when she was dying, it’s the exact same thing as it is with the UMC. There are all of those same emotions.”
Simmons is remaining with the United Methodist Church. She is apprehensive but hopeful about the future.
The Texas Annual Conference will hold a Special Session Dec. 3 in Houston and on the agenda is the recommendation of the board of trustees to approve the disaffiliation of local churches.
“These are people that I love that are leaving,” Simmons said. “Recently, I said goodbye to a friend that I know I’ll never see again. Our paths are probably not going to cross again, and this is sad. I hope that’s not true.”
McGlocklin was appointed to Cheatham three years ago, from a larger church in San Bernadino, Calif. He quickly came to love the people of Edgewood, an agricultural community of 1,350 where life moves at a slower pace, everyone knows their local police officer and people seem to genuinely know and care for each other. Politically, he described the area as conservative Republican with a “libertarian streak.” The people share a deep religious faith.
Now that the congregation has voted to break away, McGlocklin is in discernment himself. He must decide whether to remain with his church or with the UMC that he has worked for throughout his pastoral career. The process of grief and healing is similar to what is experienced whenever there is a change of clergy appointment.
“Part of what I’m grieving is the potential loss of relationships,” he said. “ … That’s a heavy burden on both sides.”
He added, “I think the issue of grief, if it’s not dealt with on both sides, it will remain with us for a season.”
Brown said tensions over sexuality and gay representation have been building for decades. Her mother’s church, the one Brown grew up in, will vote on disaffiliation on Oct. 30. To leave the UMC, congregations must approve the measure by a two-thirds margin.
“We’ve all been anticipating a great divorce over this issue,” Brown said.
Now that it’s at hand, she expects many people will start “siloing,” or compartmentalizing their feelings toward individuals in regard to specific areas of disagreement related to disaffiliation. She compared it to the way people continue love members of their family no matter the differences between them.
The Rev. Erin Muckleroy, a pastor in East Texas, sees what is happening in the church as a microcosm of what the country is going through. She described herself as discouraged but hopeful for the long term. She said she believes God will always lift up the faithful.
“We all grieve with hope,” Muckleroy said. “That is just a part of our United Methodist witness.”
She added, “I hang my hat on the fact that joy will come in the morning.”
To help folks cope with the ongoing stress of the disaffiliation movement, the Center for Christian Spirituality will host a special contemplative worship service in Houston on Nov. 6.
The event is geared toward clergy and those who serve in vocations, from active and retired elders and deacons to youth directors, therapists, etc., Brown said. An hourlong worship service with periods of quiet will be held at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston at 5 p.m., followed by a modified gastrochurch event at the Anchor House retreat center next door from 6 to 7 p.m. Child-care services will be available.
“The Center just really wants to offer a space for peace and healing and reflection during this rough time and I think lots of folks will really enjoy the time we are going to create together,” said Brown, who works with the Center for Christian Spirituality in addition to gastrochurch.
Find more information and register for these free events at eventbrite.com/e/rafa-a-gathering-for-contemplative-worship-and-community-tickets-435759306817.