Texas Annual Conference votes on Bering UMC’s departure
By Lindsay Peyton
Bering Church, a congregation with a long history in Houston, is in the concluding stages of leaving the Texas Annual Conference. During the recent Annual Conference, the motion passed for the congregation to separate from the United Methodist Church, with 867 for and 21 against.
Bering will join the United Church of Christ, a decision the congregation voted on in April.
Bishop Scott Jones explained that while saddened by the departure, he recognizes that Bering feels called to a new purpose.
“I regret that we have arrived at a place where Bering feels that they need to leave, but I understand it,” he said. “I can understand the pressures they feel, and I wish them the best.”
Bishop Jones appointed Diane McGehee as pastor at Bering Memorial UMC four years ago. Before that, she served as the TAC’s Director for the Center for Missional Excellence. “I think very highly of her,” Jones said. “The Bering leadership has conducted themselves with discipline, honor and respect for several years. I’m grateful to them.”
The Bishop explained that during the 2020 Annual Conference, the Conference Board of Trustees proposed a process that was approved for disaffiliation with a document entitled “Principles Regarding Local Church Requests for Disaffiliation.”
The Book of Discipline currently offers two paths by which a local church may disaffiliate and depart with its property and other assets. One is under paragraph 2548.2 and allows an annual conference to transfer the property of a local church to another evangelical denomination, after certain requirements are met.
The other is under paragraph 2553, which was added by General Conference in 2019, and allows local churches to disaffiliate only for reasons related to church law on homosexuality, and only until the end of the year 2023.
The process to disaffiliate includes a season of discernment, a vote from the local church, calculating apportionment and unfunded pension liability for the congregation, payment in full of the previous year’s apportionment and current year’s apportionment and coverage in full of their unfunded pension liability, and a vote from the Annual Conference.
The church would work with its District Superintendent on the procedure and complete all required forms for disaffiliation. A final vote from the Annual Conference is also necessary.
Bishop Jones said this provides a simple step-by-step process for separation, which aligns with the paths offered in the Book of Discipline.
“I am pleased that the Texas Annual Conference has set up principles for churches that feel they have to leave with fairness,” he said. “We developed principles of disaffiliation that apply and help make this as amicable as possible.”
Jones said churches in the UMC can advocate for change, become reconciling congregations, have LGBTQIA staff and welcome LGBTQIA people. “All of that is completely acceptable,” he added.
He stressed that the separation with Bering was completed with mutual respect. “I want to bless all churches in our conference,” he said. “We’re helping Bering take the next step to be the best church God has called them to be.”
Bering has a 173-year history in Houston. The congregation was founded in 1848 when German-speaking immigrants constructed a small church building. In 1918, the church relocated to Montrose.
From that location, Bering became a church starter for the Texas Annual Conference – sending members and finances to help birth Bellaire, West University. Chapelwood and St. Luke’s UMCs.
“A missional heart has defined Bering’s history in the Methodist denomination,” the Rev. Diane McGehee said. “From its beginning, Bering Memorial has established itself as a congregation with a commitment to serving the needs of the community.”
The church has long been devoted to outreach, from organizing nursing teams for the Yellow Fever epidemics in the late 1800s to setting up homeless shelters in the 1970s and responding to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
McGehee explained that Bering’s sole reason for the move is the harm resulting from the official stance of the United Methodist Church against LBTQ+ individuals.
“Bering has always sought to be a safe place for those who are being marginalized by the institutions of religion and society, especially members of the LGBTQ+ community and their families,” she said.
The move to the United Church of Christ will allow the congregation to stop any harm to LGBTQ+ individuals and their families.
McGehee said that she appreciates Bishop Jones’ appointing her to serve the TAC and for giving her a forum to voice her position.
“He has allowed my voice to be heard unfettered, even when I have been and continue to be critical of the Texas Annual Conference’s enforcement of the discriminatory provisions of the Book of Discipline. I respect that about him,” she said.
“Bering’s future is bright,” McGehee added. “It is a vibrant, missionally active community, committed to bringing the good news of the Gospel to all people, but especially those who have been pushed to the margins.”