Both sides of West Ohio Methodist Church split say they're optimistic
Hundreds of congregations have left the United Methodist Church (UMC) in Ohio so far this year due in-part to disagreements on LGBTQ+ marriage and ordination. The West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church is positioned to lose nearly 30% — twice the UMC's national average — of its 1,000 congregations after a disaffiliation vote at its annual conference in Dayton this weekend.
Representatives from nearly 200 churches walked out of a conference room at the Dayton Convention Center after voting to leave the church on Thursday. Some of the disaffiliating churches have formed a new, more conservative denomination called the Global Methodist Church.
The mood shifted by Saturday — the last day of the annual meeting at the convention center — to one of celebration for the representatives from the UMC congregations who chose to stay. Worship music played as attendees waited to see a new crop of pastors be ordained. Before speaking to the crowd, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer said in an interview with WYSO that he was saddened that some congregations have taken the option to leave.
"But I'm also, in a sense, relieved that since they exercised their option and made that decision, that they're able to move forward,” Palmer said. “That allows us to move forward as United Methodists.
Officially, the United Methodist Church still doesn’t permit LGBTQ+ marriage or ordination but with the recent trend of disaffiliation across the country, Palmer said that might change at the next general conference (which includes all congregations from across the world) in 2024.
Debate over “human sexuality” has been happening for 50 years in the Methodist church but it has ramped up in the past five years or so.
WYSO spoke with pastors from more progressive congregations in Ohio who performed marriages for LGBTQ+ couples but weren’t willing to talk about it on the record. Given the church’s official stance, they or their superiors could get in trouble for not enforcing the rules. Some churches who decided to disaffiliate alleged that those rules weren’t being enforced, which is part of the reason they chose to leave.
The church is offering an out this year to congregations that want to disaffiliate. In short, as long as those congregations purchase their buildings from and pay dues owed to the United Methodist Church, they can leave.
Retired United Methodist Pastor Greg Stover is based in Brown County. He now works as a leader in the offshoot Global Methodist Church.
“I believe that we have deeper issues that have led to our differences around human sexuality, and those deeper differences really have to do with our understanding of scripture,” Stover said in a phone interview. “That impacts not only our understanding of the hot button issue of human sexuality, but it also impacts our whole understanding of how we define Christian doctrine.”
Bill Brownson, the Chief Financial Officer for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church said he worries that not everyone in congregations that disaffiliated feel at peace about the schism, and they might not be empowered to speak up.
“Some of the basis on which decisions to leave were made, in my opinion, were not fully informed by balanced information.” Brownson said, “I think some information was emphasized at the expense of others and gave rise to fear of losing local control, gave rise to fear of being assigned a pastor that wouldn't be a good fit. I find that argument, because it’s fear-based, it’s effective.”
Brownson also said that even though the West Ohio UMC Conference may lose a quarter or more of its congregations, the ones leaving have lower attendance than average. He said that means he doesn’t expect as significant of a financial hit for the UMC.
St. Norbert College Sociology Professor Laura Krull researches how religious organizations both contribute to and challenge LGBTQ+ inequality. Specifically, she has written about how UMC pastors spoke about the issue of LGBTQ+ marriage and ordination to their congregations during sermons following a contentious 2019 general conference—Stover said it was after that 2019 conference that he realized a split may be the only option for the UMC.
Krull said the current Methodist schism reflects broader trends of increased ideological polarization in the United States.
"Here is a denomination that for decades managed to stay unified despite having a range of views sort of under the Methodist umbrella,” Krull said. “Yet now is the point at which we're seeing this much more significant disaffiliation happening."
Lou Siepel is the lead pastor at Worthington United Methodist Church in the suburbs of Columbus. Siepel’s church is a reconciling congregation — meaning it actively encourages the participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in its policy and practices.
Siepel said during the last day of the annual meeting in Dayton that she wishes the best to the congregations who decided to leave.
“I respect where they are. I have no ill feeling whatsoever. I can even say ‘God bless you.’ ” Siepel said, “Go and do ministry where you're happy and where it feels good for you. I just want to bless them as I hope they will bless those who stay.”