Staying United Methodist
The United Methodist Church is not splitting, which would mean churches need to choose a side. Instead, some individual churches choose to disaffiliate under the provision of Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline, which provides for a disaffiliation process if the church cannot remain due to its difference of opinion (reasons of conscience) relating to sexuality.
Although the current Book of Discipline prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy, so far, the churches that are disaffiliating in Missouri hold that same position (typically referred to as traditional or conservative) but are leaving based on the possibility of that position changing at General Conference in 2024.
Some traditionalists are moving toward disaffiliation, but certainly not most. The following story shares the perspective of some leaders in the Missouri Conference who hold a traditional position but are not considering leaving the United Methodist Church, at least not at this time. Instead, they share how they came to be United Methodists and why they continue to be United Methodists.
Rev. Lee Porch, Brookfield UMC
Lee Porch grew up Methodist. He went to college at the University of Missouri – Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology), planning to become a solar engineer. He had a change of heart, but not of schools, and ended up leaving that university with a master’s in philosophy. After making a road trip with h classmate (now Rev.) Tom Vansant to Perkins, Saint Paul School of Theology, United and Asbury, Porch decided to go with Asbury.
“It seemed to be the most strongly Wesleyan and would best prepare me to be a United Methodist pastor,” Porch said.
He returned to Missouri from seminary and has been a pastor at Missouri United Methodist churches for more than 40 years.
Porch has served ten different churches. In some, most of the people in the congregation were of a traditional position, and in some, the majority were progressive. In none did everyone hold the same opinion on these issues. Issues around human sexuality were never at the forefront of top issues in his congregation.
When Porch considers the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, he thinks the four sides can be applied to anyone (not just Methodist), and differences arise in the “base” of the quadrilateral. He surmises that for Catholics, tradition may be the base. For the spiritual but not religious, experience is the base. For a scientist, the reason may be the base. For Porch, scripture is the base.
“For me, the source of truth is scripture,” he said.
That leads him to a different opinion on some issues related to sexuality, but not necessarily an irreconcilable difference.
“I continue to be loyal to the United Methodist Church because I made a covenant with it as a pastor. I have no desire to disaffiliate,” he said. “My covenant with the Church is similar to a marriage covenant. You won’t always agree on everything in a marriage, but that doesn’t mean the covenant isn’t valid. I think of disaffiliation as a divorce, and to disaffiliate, it would have to be an issue that is a deal-breaker. Disagreements about sexuality aren’t a deal breaker for me. However, if I were required to go against a spiritual mandate, that would be a deal breaker.”
It bothers Porch that a pastor with a traditional position would ignore their covenant with the United Methodist Church to lead a church into disaffiliation, especially when the traditional position is currently in the Book of Discipline that governs the Church. He’s also concerned about the future of those churches after they disaffiliate.
“I think there is a huge danger in not being part of any group with accountability,” Porch said. “It’s a temptation away from our Biblical foundation.”
It’s not that he doesn’t have concerns on the other side of the equation. A question Porch has for people with a progressive position is ‘What does sexual integrity look like?’”
“It’s not clear from the progressive stance. I don’t think it’s ‘anything goes.’ Still, they will need to define what sexual integrity is, or we’ll have a traditional versus shattered position, in which the progressive side has multiple divergences without agreement.”
Rev. Steve George, Lamar UMC
Rev. Steve George grew up the son of a United Methodist pastor, moving around Michigan every few years as his father changed appointments. George didn’t see that as being the life for him, but in his early 20s, he felt a call to ministry, so he started working with inner city ministries in Minneapolis while he worked an IT job there. It was fulfilling, but over time it became clear to him that it wasn’t enough.
“I prayed to God for help to find ministry as a vocation, so I could give myself fully and not just give the leftovers of what I had after working my other job,” he said.
George received a call about a ministry opportunity in Missouri – not from a District Superintendent or the bishop, but from his mom. The Missouri Conference was going through a transitional process, changing its campus ministry from an independent, Conference-run program to one in which the nearby local church took responsibility for the college-age ministry. George’s mother was on the Staff Parish Relations Committee at her church at Rolla and wanted to let him know they needed to hire someone to work with the college-age ministry. George applied for and got the job.
It was there he discerned he was being called to pastoral ministry. He enrolled in United Seminary in Ohio via online classes and was ordained an elder in the Missouri Conference.
George had never given General Conference much thought, and nothing from it had ever come up in his congregations. The first General Conference he attended was the special session in 2019 in St. Louis. As it concluded, he initially assumed the conversation was over, and many far-left congregations may leave the denomination because the traditional position was reinforced.
As things developed later, he said it seemed The Protocol of Separation would probably come up and pass during the next General Conference, at which point the church would split. However, he didn’t foresee the agreement to that protocol falling apart with the delay of the General Conference or the movement that developed with the traditional congregations moving to disaffiliate.
George himself is traditional and knows that most of his rural congregation in Lamar is also. He prefers the term traditional to conservative to separate the church from the conservative versus liberal fights of partisan politics. Some in his church at Lamar were calling for a church-wide meeting and vote to disaffiliate, but he thought a vote out of the blue without knowing where most of the congregation stood could be harmful to the church, so he started with a survey. About 20 percent wanted to disaffiliate right away, 20 percent wanted to stay United Methodist, and 60 percent wanted to wait until after General Conference to take any action.
Some members were disappointed that George wasn’t encouraging the congregation to disaffiliate and wanted to request a new pastor who would be more supportive of disaffiliation. George concluded that it is probably better for them to decide now while appointments are being made. Seeing that the church was likely to disaffiliate, he requested to move.
“I like this church and this town, so I wouldn’t have wanted to move,” he said. “But I wouldn’t want to be appointed here, or have any other pastor appointed here, and then have the church disaffiliate and leave the pastor without a church to serve.”
The church voted to disaffiliate on February 2, 2023.
Although he holds traditional beliefs, George is loyal to the United Methodist Church.
“We’re not a perfect church, but there’s not a perfect church out there. I believe the United Methodist Church is the best out there,” he said. “I’m glad God allows me to be part of it.”
George describes himself as traditional, slightly conservative, but not far right. On issues of sexuality, he does not consider it to be a doctrinal issue.
“If other clergies in my church have different beliefs about sexuality, I’m OK with that,” he said. “I like the big tent idea, that we don’t have to agree with everyone else. There are a lot of things we disagree on.”
George appreciates that Bishop Farr is following the Book of Discipline and not trying to block churches from leaving that are also following the disaffiliation procedures of the Book of Discipline.
“I understand why some churches and pastors are leaving, and I don’t hold it against them or disrespect them,” he said.
Ideally, George would like to have all churches stay and come to terms with getting along, but he feels that is a naïve notion. His highest hope at this point is that whatever people do – now, at General Conference, or after General Conference, it is done with Christ-like behavior that exemplifies and models Christ.
“How we go about something can be just as important as what we are doing,” he said.
He is concerned about how some progressives have portrayed people with a traditional position.
“As a traditionalist, I want people who are part of the LGBTQ community to know that I love and care about them. So I think about this a lot,” he said. “Some people may think that if I don’t agree with them, I don’t love them, but that’s not the case.”
Larry Fagan, Former Missouri Conference Lay Leader
When it comes to the issues around sexuality that have led some churches to disaffiliate, Larry Fagan has had more of a front-row seat to the debate than most. He has been a delegate to General Conference seven times.
Fagan was raised in a devout Christian family and came to the United Methodist Church when he married Sara, who became a United Methodist elder. She died in 2003. He has been a United Methodist for 45 years and a member of two churches. He’s been in most leadership positions in the local church and at the district and conference level, including Conference Lay Leader. In addition, he’s preached in many churches around the Conference, usually about stewardship.
If labels are used, Fagan prefers to identify as a conservative rather than a traditionalist because he feels Traditionalist gets interpreted as preserving the past without regard to relevance, and that’s not where he is. But he views the world through the lens of a conservative, something he finds that sets him apart from someone with a liberal worldview.
From Fagan’s first General Conference in Denver in 1996, he was disappointed in the lack of focus on evangelism relative to world mission and social justice. As Conference lay leader, he was known for his repeated call to “Keep the main thing the main thing,” which is making disciples of Jesus Christ.
“By my third General Conference, doubt that change at this level was possible began to surface,” Fagan said. “The saving grace for me was … where I lived most of the time, the local church, I didn’t think about the ‘theological struggles’ of General Conference.”
Fagan witnessed the conflict escalating but never personally considered leaving the United Methodist Church. But finally, in 2019, he saw things had come to the point of division in which factions would be parting ways.
Fagan is understanding and sympathetic to some conservative church leaders who have decided to disaffiliate. He considers many of the pastors’ friends and does not have anything negative to say about them choosing to leave. But he won’t be following the same path, at least not for now.
“I have a lifetime investment in the Missouri UMC,” he said. “As long as there is values alignment, I will likely stay. Yes, I understand that stated, and practiced values can differ, and that’s what we are facing now. But as long as the practiced values (that contradict stated values) do not become the norm, there’s room for me. And my hope that one day we will refocus on the Mission of Making Disciples remains alive. The things driving us apart are important issues, but they are not The Main Thing. Focusing on The Main Thing has a way (based on my experience) of putting all issues into proper perspective.”
The General Conference in 2024 will be the first in more than 30 years in which Fagan will not serve as a delegate representing the Missouri Conference. That allows him to take a more relaxed position about what may occur there and any changes that may occur.
“I choose not to dwell on what’s going to happen in the UMC and what I will do when,” he said. “Each season of change deserves to be evaluated when it happens. Instead, I will continue to live out God’s calling in my life in the local church by focusing on “The Main Thing.”
Rev. Michael McIntyre, Wesley UMC, Springfield
Rev. Michael McIntyre of Wesley UMC in Springfield hesitates when you ask him if he would describe himself as a conservative, noting that the label tends to be rather contextual.
“When I was in St. Louis (where he served as pastor of Living Word UMC for 20 years), most people would have called me a conservative, but when I have the same positions here in Springfield, I’m considered more of a right-leaning centrist,” he said.
Serving as pastor in Springfield, the disaffiliation question hit churches hard last year. Having a large, neighboring United Methodist Church suddenly announce it was disaffiliating has a way of creating questions. McIntyre was getting asked a lot of things about United Methodism, what is believed, and how decisions are made. He found many people were confused or had read online or been told things that weren’t true. He could provide accurate information when he spoke with them, and they were OK.
“At first, I was just doing that one on one, but it quickly became too many to do one at a time,” he said.
McIntyre discerned that the biggest problem was misinformation and the best way to counter it was to openly and accurately explain what was going on – which would take some time. So he planned three town hall evening sessions to talk it out. Each session was about an hour and a half long, and he provided a lesson on Methodism that went deeper than many people had ever experienced. First, he talked through foundational principles about the Wesleyan way, means of grace and the articles of religion. Next, he spoke through the organizational structure, from charge conferences to districts and Annual Conference to Jurisdictional and General Conference.
“I explained that anyone can say anything about someone else, but only the General Conference can speak to what United Methodists believe, so if you’re not getting your information from the General Conference, it may not be right,” McIntyre said.
He discussed the divisive issues before the church relating to same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy. He also explained the disaffiliation process and how it can properly take place according to the Book of Discipline. He told the church it was an option but added that he would have no part in it.
“I said, ‘I am a United Methodist and committed to staying one. I will not lead you down a path of disaffiliation. I won’t try to stop you, but I will not participate in it,” McIntyre said.
“The town halls made all of the difference,” McIntyre said. “I was transparent to the best of my ability. I was truthful and offered full disclosure.”
The sessions were “exceptionally well” attended and had a sizeable online attendance. So what was once a touchy issue isn’t because they have talked it out.
“I’m enormously grateful for that because I don’t have the time or energy to fight about things like this,” he said. “I want to keep our focus on Jesus Christ and building the kingdom.”
That also works for the congregation at Wesley.
“I’m not aware of anyone leaving because of this,” he said.