Two churches provide case studies that reveal what the separatists want is disaffiliation by any means necessary, no matter the harm done to the local church when those votes fail.
During the pandemic, my local church had a controversial vote about COVID-19 restrictions and our worship services. Our church council debated it and finally called for a vote on it. It passed by one vote, a bit higher than the minimum percentage.
But then our worship chair, who had brought it forth and prevailed said he was withdrawing it, that we obviously weren’t of one mind and that margin of success wasn’t convincing enough. We talked to other leaders, retooled it, and when it passed a month later, it was nearly unanimous.
The lesson that my worship chair knew–and I’ve learned from the various churches I’ve served–is that passing with the bare minimum means that we haven’t provided the leadership for a topic that was needed, and that we should listen to the people more so that we can come together.
It turns out two churches in my native state of Oklahoma are finding this truth out the hard way.
Mixed Experience at Church of the Servant
My childhood church was Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It was an urban church plant (began in 1968) and my parents took our family there in the 1980s as it grew rapidly. I thrived in the Sunday School program, was confirmed at that altar with the wicker fish that the children put their family’s offerings into, and each Sunday I walked by the trash can with the flower growing out of it in the narthex, a symbol of renewal. I can still sing “The Creed and the Gloria” which the music director wrote for the congregation.
Then in my teen years, Church of the Servant relocated to the suburbs and away from more urban ministry in 1993. Our drive took a lot longer, and it was then I experienced “the shift” in church. While I enjoyed the worship services and their longtime youth pastor was amazing, the congregation changed and my middle-class self started to not fit in with the new high society youth with designer clothes. I started not to want to attend church anymore, and I really wrestled with how Christian youth could be so snooty. At the same time, there was a new conservative bent to the congregational leadership and pastor that started to rub my parents the wrong way. When we moved across Oklahoma in 1995, it was a chance for a new church with a mission focus that we thrived in.
It is from this personal mixed experience of the Church of the Servant that I totally get why their disaffiliation vote went the way it did on September 11th, 2022.
Result: “They Finally Asked Me”
Church of the Servant, like many large churches that want to “go their own way” in this season of Methodism, held congregational meetings and conversations leading up to their disaffiliation vote. The congregational meetings that were led by Servant’s pastors were heavily promoting disaffiliation and included example videos from Separatist Rev. Rob Renfroe that unfairly malign the UMC (which have been discredited by UMC pastor Rev. Adam Hamilton) and allege outliers as normative within the UMC.
However, the conference was invited to lead one session, which included extensive Q&A, and the tone was markedly different. You can watch that meeting here. Interesting!
The day of the vote, it failed to reach the disaffiliation threshold by 2%. Then someone who said they voted in the prevailing side called for a reconsideration (which hasn’t been done before, to my knowledge). There was a re-registering of the voters (the separatists waited until some people had left), and the final vote was even closer, just a fraction of a percentage, two votes. Almost 800 people voted that day, and the conference ended with a $20 million church property still in the Oklahoma Annual Conference’s rightful hands. You can read the vote totals here and a paywalled article here.
A couple who attended the vote and voted against disaffiliation reportedly said to a colleague “This was the first time we were asked our opinion. Up until now, leadership made decisions for us.” It seems the pastoral and congregational leadership has a strong disconnect with the people in the pew.
With such a huge sum on the table, I’m sure the separatists will keep calling for votes until they’ve squeaked out a win. But until then, we know they haven’t done the leadership required or listened to their people enough, and now they will have to wait until at least May 2023 to fully disaffiliate if that’s their goal–or they can now calm down as cooler heads have prevailed.
Disaffiliation Vote Divides McAlester UMC and exits their Pastor
“The churches I’ve seen who have the will and desire to walk through the pain of disaffiliation, they have generally higher numbers…at least 80, 85, even 90% is what I would have seen–personally–as the alignment and will to walk through that very difficult and brutal process.”Former UM Pastor Dr. Matt Judkins, August 21st, 2022
The other example is a sad story–and it didn’t have to be.
McAlester First UMC in rural SE Oklahoma held a straw poll of their members to see if they would consider disaffiliation from The UMC. The results were shared during worship on August 21st, 2022. 75% of the members said they would support disaffiliation, a smaller percentage of non-members said they would support it. Their pastor, who was commissioned a class year ahead of me in the Oklahoma Annual Conference, shared the above quote as to why he was uncomfortable leading the church through that kind of struggle.
But then Dr. Judkins, who has been their pastor since 2014 and had seen his church lose about half its worship attendees during the pandemic, also shared from the pulpit “I’m no longer called to be a pastor in The United Methodist Church” and announced the next Sunday would be his last Sunday. At the time, I applauded his integrity at stepping down from a congregation that wasn’t aligned with him.
But then, two weeks after his final Sunday, a new church plant launched in McAlester, just 8 minutes down the road and on the main drag of McAlester in a chapel owned by the Presbyterian Church: Renewal Church, an independent Christian church led by…Dr. Matthew Judkins!
While I don’t know how many of Renewal’s attendees came directly from McAlester First UMC, I can say from viewing McAlester First UMC’s streams that there is a marked difference between the two Sundays. Judkins’ announcement Sunday, people were shoulder to shoulder–and two weeks later on the launch Sunday for Renewal, people were much more spread out, missing about 25-40% of the people there on previous weeks. The following week it looks like their tech person is out too, as I didn’t get a clear view of the congregation. Time will tell if things will stabilize after McAlester First gets an appointed pastor.
Dr. Judkins is correct: there needs to be much more alignment to move forward with disaffiliation. Holding votes that are too close divides the congregation and leads them into contention that they wouldn’t have otherwise. All that said, I would also turn the mirror back to Dr. Judkins and say resigning the pastorate midcycle after all the intentional appointments are done and taking a sizable chunk of the congregation with him to a new church plant 8 minutes away is a pretty jerk move, to put it mildly. Pastors can do incredible harm to their congregation by calling for these type of votes, official or otherwise.
Disaffiliation Gut-Punches that aren’t required
Churches do not have to vote on leaving United Methodism. Disaffiliation is not a required vote by any church.
So it’s important to know that churches are being recruited by the disaffiliation forces (the WCA and discontent local church members) and the disaffiliation forces do not have what is good for the church on their minds. They want the people and the properties to leave United Methodism at all costs. In the above cases, the costs of their stature and enthusiasm will weigh heavily on the local churches, while the WCA hasn’t batted an eye and can take their locust swarm to devour the next town.
My prayer is that local churches that are less than 85% take a breath and learn to breathe together again in a season when the WCA wants to gut-punch United Methodism into submission.
And given the examples above, if you are a lay member of a local church and you think all is lost, think again: these entire churches have changed their directions based on a handful of votes. Be that handful! Vote!
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