When Your Church Leaves You
Disaffiliations from the United Methodist Church in the past year have left some devout United Methodists who are loyal to the denomination without a church home. A few of them are sharing their story about having their church move out from under them.
Sunrise to First St. Charles
Bill Ching was an active Presbyterian for many years but went through a time when he wasn’t involved in any church. A family member was very involved in Sunrise United Methodist Church, and she encouraged him to give it a try. He started with her Bible study class, and liked it, and ended up worshipping there and becoming an active part of the church.
When the church called for a meeting to discuss disaffiliation, Ching started to read news stories online to learn more about the issue. He went to the meeting and found it to be somewhat rushed and brief, with limited time for questions. When the pastor made it clear that he was opposed to same-sex marriage, it was all Ching needed to hear. He has a grandchild who is gay.
“It floored me,” he said. “I thought he was more open than that.”
He previously had an experience at the church where a small group leader was interpreting scripture in a way that surprised him, but when he asked why they were letting him teach, he was told not to worry about it.
“I realized they were very conservative,” he said.
Ching had some friends who were part of First UMC in St. Charles who invited him there, so he decided to give it a try. He was immediately encouraged by the ethos of the church, expressed both through what was being said and through the signs that stated it was open to everyone.
“I’m very happy there now. It’s a church of open, friendly people, and I really like the pastor,” Ching said. “It’s nice to walk into a church where I know that everyone is welcome.”
Schweitzer to King’s Way
Ask Glenda Durnell what her reaction was when she heard her church was disaffiliating, and she doesn’t have to give it much thought.
“I think I’m still reacting,” she said. “It was just awful. I’ve never been so mad in my life about what happened and more about the way that it happened.”
Durnell said there hadn’t been any talk in the church about issues with General Conference or the United Methodist Church until she received a letter in the mail that said the church needed to leave the denomination and they would hold a vote to affirm the decision in one week. She went to the meeting.
“He had his Detroit lawyer up there with him,” she said. “There were others there who were mad but not mad enough.”
“I was shaken up and angry,” she said. “I felt like my church was being hijacked.”
The vote passed.
“People drank the Kool-Aid,” Durnell said. She was a lifelong Methodist and had been a member of Schweitzer for 25 years.
“I cried and cried and cried,” she said. “I was so mad. I had a sick feeling. It just broke my heart.”
Durnell feels the division within the church is politically based and is also concerned about polarization in other arenas, like her local school board.
“To have a change like that occur in a week’s time seems criminal,” she said. “I don’t see how someone could do such a thing.”
Durnell knew she was going to remain a United Methodist, so since she couldn’t do so there, she started visiting other United Methodist Churches in Springfield and found she connected well with King’s Way United Methodist Church. She’s attending worship and Sunday school there now and is part of a small group. She moved her membership there. Some of her friends are going to other places. One of them watches her daughter’s church online every Sunday morning, Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas.
“I pray for the Methodist church every night,” Durnell said.
Lamar to Still Looking
Michael Blackford has been part of Lamar United Methodist Church his whole life. When a movement among leaders came up in his church that they wanted to no longer be United Methodist, he was vocal in his opposition to that course of action. But things did not go his way, and the church voted to disaffiliate.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “I had concerns that people hadn’t really thought everything through and the repercussions that may come from disaffiliation.”
It has been a couple of months since the vote, and Blackford has been looking for a new church home for the first time in his life.
“I just couldn’t continue there,” he said. “It was not an easy decision, but ultimately it was the best decision for me.”
So far, he has visited two other United Methodist churches and has plans to visit another. All three are about a 25-minute drive from his home.
Zion to Wherever Needed
Rev. Ann Mowery and her husband, Don, are in a unique position. Don has been a delegate to General Conference twice, so both are very familiar with the issues the church faces over human sexuality. They didn’t expect those issues to leave them church homeless.
Ann served as the pastor of Zion UMC in Gordonville for 11 years and then was gone for eight years to a different appointment. While at Gordonville, the couple bought property there because they loved the community and wanted to move back there in retirement, which they did.
Initially, they visited other churches because they wanted to give the pastor at Gordonville some space, but he encouraged them to come back to the church. Both became an active part of the congregation, with Don serving as chair of the Connect Team and on the administrative council and Ann helping with children’s time and pastoral care to shut-ins.
Ann first heard of talk of disaffiliation from someone in her Sunday school who thought they needed to decide by May 2022 because that’s when the GMC was being formed. Then videos from Rev. Rob Renfroe started being circulated in the church. Ann watched the videos and watched videos from Rev. Adam Hamilton, in which he responded directly to assertations that Renfroe was making. A few months later, the pastor of the church sent links to the video out church-wide, advising people to watch one, then the other. Ann appreciated the balance in the messaging.
Southeast District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Bruce Baxter came to the church for a town hall.
“Bruce did a wonderful job of introducing himself as a conservative and a United Methodist, explaining that you could be both,” Ann said.
At the last church council meeting in 2022, someone on the church council made a motion to take a disaffiliation vote two weeks after a town hall meeting.
The motion failed for lack of a second.
At a January church council meeting, the council set two priorities, which included a building expansion and the consideration of developing daycare.
“Disaffiliation was way down on the list,” Don said.
“We were led to take a vote that many did not want to take.”
Ann said one of the what-ifs she was being asked was what if a liberal bishop sent them a gay pastor.
“I said it’s not in the Annual Conference’s best interest to make an appointment that would be a bad fit for the church,” she said. “They had been sent someone before that wasn’t a good fit for the church, and he was gone in seven months.”
The vote to disaffiliate passed, with 78% in favor. The Mowerys knew what they had to do.
“They could see my tear-streaked face. They knew I was leaving,” Ann said.
Ann knows of several people leaving the church but not a critical mass. She knows some other retired clergy who are leaving who didn’t get to vote because, as clergy, they are not members of the church.
Ann considers herself conservative and said she is known as being right of center. But she feels the rug was yanked out from under her. She is now left of center, not because she changed positions on anything, but because the center moved.
Some years ago, Ann was asked to serve on a human sexuality task force to discuss and discern the issues before the church.
“Bishop Ann asked me to be part of the group because I was the only woman pastor she knew of who was conservative,” Ann said.
She remembers a friend who was part of the task force had positions that were opposite of hers regarding issues of sexuality, but it did not separate them.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to be in a church that Ann Mowery and I can’t both be in,’” Ann said.
The Mowerys have started to worship at a neighboring United Methodist Church.
“We’re fortunate in that we have so many United Methodist churches in the area. In some parts of the state, that is not the case,” Don said.
One thing those other churches won’t have, though, is the Mowery’s grandchildren on their lap. Their son and his family are remaining at Zion.
They are both well-versed enough in church leadership to know that disaffiliating congregations will have a lot to do after the vote.
“I think most of the congregation thinks this is behind them now and don’t realize the amount of work that looms before them,” Ann said.
It is somewhat fitting that the vote occurred during the season of Lent. Ann has been fasting and praying for discernment and not being too judgmental. She listed out 16 things she needed to do after the vote, which included things like changing funeral service arrangements and a life insurance policy that named the church as a beneficiary.
“I absolutely, absolutely hate walking away from this congregation,” Ann said. “But after the vote, I also have absolute clarity.”