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United Methodist churches face deadline for disaffiliation

The Rev. Keith McIlwain, pastor of Slippery Rock United Methodist Church, 130 Franklin St., Slippery Rock, said his 300-member congregation is talking about issues facing the denomination. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

The clock is ticking for Butler County United Methodists still grappling with the splintering of the 12-million-member worldwide church over the question of LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation.

The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline states: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” which outlaws the ordination of outwardly gay clergy and the performance of same-sex marriages.

However, many churches, ministers and bishops have been openly ignoring the official United Methodist Church rules. When the meeting of the General Conference of the church, which determines the Book of Discipline, was postponed until 2024 earlier this year, many traditionalist churches announced they were launching the Global Methodist Church.

By a disaffiliation process the General Conference enacted in 2019, traditionalist congregations are leaving the United Methodist Church by requesting and receiving the approval from their annual conferences to depart while retaining their property and their financial assets.

But there’s a time limit for disaffiliation. According to Paragraph 2553 of the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, the disaffiliation process must be completed before Dec. 21, 2023.

The Rev. Eric Park is the superintendent of the Butler District and oversees a little over 70 churches. He is meeting with and guiding churches as they discern whether they want to remain in the United Methodist Church or disaffiliate.

“There are certainly divergent perspectives in the conversations that are taking place about disaffiliation. Many of those perspectives are fueled by equally divergent ideas about what should happen.

“But, as a district superintendent in this conference, I believe that, beneath the struggle of it all, conference leaders, pastors and congregations, at least when they are at their best, share some common priorities: to come to healthy discernment about where to best land; to pursue fairness and equity both for churches that remain and for churches that disaffiliate; and to reflect the love of Jesus as brightly as possible. Making disciples for him remains our denomination’s mission,” said Park.

For the Rev. Harriet Hutton, who pastors the Buffalo Charge — three small United Methodist churches in Craigsville, Armstrong County, and two in Fenelton — her congregations are far from making a decision to stay or disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church.

“I try to help them keep informed of both sides,” said Hutton of her 60 members spread among McKee Chapel and the Fenelton United Methodist Church in Fenelton and the Craigsville United Methodist Church in Armstrong County.

“This is not my decision to make; it’s theirs,” Hutton said. “Right now, they are in the beginning of the process of how best to go forward or stay. It’s a difficult decision for any United Methodist church.”

She said of the Buffalo Charge congregations: “They haven’t even considered the financial costs of disaffiliating, the costs involved if they decide to take the second step.”

“My advice is to pray about it,” said Hutton. “God is the way maker. He will make a way possible.”

The Rev. William “B.T.” Gilligan of Nixon United Methodist Church, 334 Airport Road in Penn Township, said his church has already made its decision.

“Here at Nixon, we did talk about it and have some meetings, but we ultimately decided it was in the best interest of the church to stay with the United Methodist Church,” said Gilligan. The church council made that decision in the spring, he said.

“Within the congregation there are a lot of opinions on homosexuality, but at the core we are still a United Methodist Church and we’re going to stay that way,” he said.

The Rev. Dan Owen, who has been pastor at the 500-member Harmony-Zelienople United Methodist Church for seven years, said his church is exploring the subject of disaffiliation.

Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, leader of the Western Pennsylvania Conference’s 774 United Methodist churches, will visit the Harmony-Zelienople church at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 8 to explain the process and costs of disaffiliation to the congregants.

Owen said churches who disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church will be responsible to pay into the church pension fund, make a payment to the church equivalent to two years’ worth apportionments, and be assessed a fee based on the value of the individual church’s buildings and land.

“We’ve not voted on anything; we’re just exploring,” Owen said.

When asked what led Harmony-Zelienople to consider disaffiliation, Owen said, “We haven’t gotten to that first step of disaffiliation. If that doesn’t happen, the point is moot.”

The Rev. Seth McClymonds Jr., pastor of Zion United Methodist Church, 438 Bear Creek Road in Sarver, said his church has considered the financial cost of leaving the United Methodist Church.

“The financial conditions are restrictive for this particular congregation,” said McClymonds, adding the LGBTQ issue is “very divisive” for his 150-member congregation.

“We’re in a wait-and-see pattern, ” he said.

The Rev. Keith McIlwain, pastor of Slippery Rock United Methodist Church, 130 Franklin St., Slippery Rock, said his 300-member congregation is talking about what the church should do.

“We are talking about our options,” McIlwain said, “if we stay in the denomination and all the things that would say about about us and if we leave the denomination and all the things that that would say about us.”

McIlwain expects the conversation about his church’s status to be a long one.

“Slippery Rock is a diverse community being a college town. We have people who are passionate on both sides of the issue,” he said. “It makes for some interesting conversations, but it also means future choices could be difficult.”

McIlwain said, “People need to decide what is best for their ministry, which may be different from what is best for my own ministry.”

He said the current situation where churches and bishops are ignoring the church’s Book of Discipline is “deeply sinful.”

“I’m fine with people working for change, but it is fair to expect them to be faithful to the promises that they’ve made to God,” he said.

“I’ve made it pretty clear I am on the orthodox side of this conversation. I’ve been one of the leaders of the traditionalist group in Western Pennsylvania for several years,” McIlwain said.

“I’m really praying hard that Methodists on both sides of this debate land in a denomination that is best suited for them and their ministry,” he added.

In a statement, the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist Conference said the ministry and mission of the church — to support those in need of food, shelter and clothing, to continue to build loving and accepting communities for the marginalized and to work to dismantle racism and advocate for a more just society — is still alive and well.

The Rev. B.T. Gilligan said his church, Nixon United Methodist Church in Penn Township, will not disaffiliate from the worldwide United Methodist Church. Butler Eagle file photo

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