On May 12 of this year, for the first time since 1968, the First United Methodist Church of Roanoke will be known as a different name.
The congregation met Sunday afternoon, and the members voted 88-24 to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church denomination. The church will remain United Methodist in a sort of lame duck status until a May 11meeting of the North Alabama conference of United Methodists meets to ratify Roanoke First’s vote.
“That’s where the vote will be ratified, and once that vote is done and the paperwork is on file, on that day the church will be released from the denomination with deeds to its all of its properties,” said Josh Hickman, the pastor of Roanoke First.
Hickman described a mostly bittersweet mood once the vote results had been tallied and announced Sunday.
“The thing about that is it’s sad no matter what,” Hickman said. “In that room there were tears of celebration and there were tears of grief as a part of that. I know people that feel very strongly that the church needed to leave the denomination, but they will tell you flat out that this was sad and it was hard.”
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.
However, the discipline of the larger United Methodist Church has not changed in that regard and won’t until the denomination’s annual meeting in 2024, if at all. Because of that, some United Methodist pastors are caught in the tug of war between their denomination and their own church bodies.
Hickman is one of those, and he has chosen to remain a United Methodist pastor. That means that Roanoke’s congregation has two major decisions to make between now and the conference’s ratification in May.
One is to determine whether to affiliate with another denomination or become independent, and the other is to find a replacement for Hickman as pastor.
“That would be the two biggest things that the church will have to decide on moving forward,” Hickman said. “The rest of it is really just sort of smaller things that are important, but that are maybe a lot easier to accomplish.”
Hickman’s impending departure from the church leaves him with a similar lame-duck status as the church itself as it faces those major decisions.
“I can advise. I can give suggestions, and I can give my opinion, but it’s ultimately not my decision,” he said. “It’s theirs. And it should be anyway, but it’s even more so when I’m not going to be the pastor long term.”
Roanoke First became Roanoke First United Methodist when the United Methodist denomination was formed in 1968. Part of the changes that will occur as a result of leaving the denomination will be the elimination of one of the most recognizable symbols of the UMC, the cross and flame logo.
Roanoke first has a physical cross and flame monument outside of its church, and the symbol is present on all of the church’s signs and logos. The impending removal of that logo and some of the other symbols of the local church will strike directly at the church’s history. That change is a source of some of the melancholy of some of the members who voted in favor of disaffiliation.
“There are people in our church that are very sad about the fact that every cross and flame has to be removed and re-branded,” Hickman said. “A lot of this stuff, the marquee, the cross and flame, the old historic sign, all of these things are attached to people in the church, and there’s an emotional investment in all of that.”
Roanoke First is at least the sixth United Methodist church in Randolph County to vote for disaffiliation. It’s the local manifestation of an issue that is taking place in thousands of Methodist churches nationwide. According to latest available information from the United Methodists, over 2,000 U.S. churches have voted to disaffiliate since 2019, with nearly half of those coming out of the Southeastern U.S.