The nationwide rift that is growing in the United Methodist Church has found its way to Randolph County, and the future of nearly a dozen local churches hangs in the balance as those congregations decide how to move forward.
That includes one of the largest and oldest churches in the county in Roanoke First United Methodist Church, which will hold a vote Sunday afternoon among its members on whether to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination.
It would be a major departure for a church that has been a part of the Methodist faith for over 100 years and has been United Methodist since the formation of that organization in 1968.
If Roanoke votes to disaffiliate, it would be at least the fifth United Methodist church in the county to do so, with several others scheduled to vote in the coming weeks and months.
At the core of the issue is the denomination’s perceived passive stance on enforcing the church’s ban against openly gay clergy. Since 2016 two of the church’s U.S. conferences have elected openly gay bishops, and many clergy people nationwide have performed same-sex marriage ceremonies with little repercussions from the denomination’s leadership.
“The church’s doctrinal statements still hold that homosexuality is a sin and that you’re not allowed to be ordained if you’re an openly gay clergy person,” said Josh Hickman, the pastor at Roanoke First United Methodist. “That has not changed and cannot change until 2024. The problem is there are examples in the larger denomination of people living in rebellion to that.”
The local movement toward disaffiliation follows a December mass exodus of churches in which 198 Alabama congregations opted out of the United Methodist denomination.
In Randolph County Lowell in Roanoke, Bear Creek in Woodland, Rock Mills and Morrison’s Chapel near Heflin have already voted to disaffiliate.
Along with Roanoke First, Almond in Wadley, Green’s Chapel, Mt. Bethel in Roanoke and Ava in Wedowee have also scheduled votes among their respective members on whether to depart the denomination, and several others are in discussions to follow suit.
One church body that does not currently have plans to join that group is Wedowee First United Methodist.
“We just had a church council meeting Sunday, and anyone was able to bring up anything they wanted, and nobody brought it up,” said Wedowee First pastor Todd Noren-Hentz. “That would have been the venue to do so.”
Any church that votes to opt out needs a two-thirds majority vote of its members to do so. While many churches have that much of a majority, or more, Wedowee’s congregation seems content to focus its attention elsewhere.
“We’ve got people that feel all different ways about it, like most churches do,” Noren-Hentz said. “I think the sense is that everyone here values the relationships in the church first and foremost, and realizes that going down that road would inevitably tear at the ties that bind.”
Roanoke’s congregation appears to be much more aligned in favor of disaffiliation, according to Hickman, so much so that staying in the United Methodist Church could prove detrimental to the health of that body.
“We have a number of members that have made it very clear that they will not be back if the church chooses to remain in the denomination,” Hickman said.
“I don’t know how viable long-term ministry would be here if the church were to vote to stay in the denomination. It will not be just a financial loss. There will be an exodus of people that will significantly hamper what ministry here looks like.”
Roanoke would not be alone if that were the case. Hickman was able to name several churches throughout the state who did not have the two-thirds majority to approve disaffiliation and saw their numbers dwindle significantly because of a failure to do so.
The stance on homosexuality’s place in the church is the reason that these churches are opting out. The reason that they are opting out now is rooted more in financial concerns.
The United Methodist Church conferences own the church buildings and property that are used by the local congregations. As this movement toward disaffiliation has taken hold, the larger church leadership has given local churches until the end of 2023 to leave the denomination and keep the church buildings and property in the process, without having to buy them from the conferences.
If churches wait beyond that window they could be in the position of wanting to disaffiliate, but having to pay significant amounts of money to purchase their buildings when they leave.
“The church could choose to disaffiliate at any time it wants, but the conference – because it holds the deeds to the building – would have to say, ‘Well okay, you have to pay us for the building.’ And that’s where this tension lies,” Hickman said. “There are a lot of people and a lot of churches that feel like if the discipline were to change they would be trapped in the conference, or the denomination may not let them leave at an amount that they could afford.”
According to Noren-Hentz, that creates a fine line that the churches have to walk.
“The only reason you can disaffiliate is for reasons of conscience over human sexuality,” he said. “You are betraying our own polity to make it a business decision. That isn’t permitted. That doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it.”
So if Roanoke votes Sunday in favor of disaffiliation, where would that leave the church and its 300-plus members? The church would have until May 11 to make that decision. Some disaffiliated churches have chosen to become independent, while others have moved to other sects of the Methodist Church.
“We will still be a United Methodist Church until the annual conference, until May,” Hickman said. “There’s a special called annual conference in May, and they will have to ratify our vote.”