Front Row Seat (Reflections on a Church Conference to Disaffiliate)

As a representative leader of the UMC, I sat on the front row of a Church Conference where I heard of how the UMC is led by people who are “incompetent and immoral,” who “trade God’s Word for the secular ideology of the world,” who “abandon doctrine” in order to not offend anyone, and who want to bend our will to “pagan cultural Marxism.” It was all part of a continuing effort to build a “damning case against the UMC.”  Damn! Condemn! Declare as evil! As I listened, I could not think of any leader who deserved such hurtful and judgmental attacks, even considering isolated examples. The main speech concluded with a prayer calling for us to part ways as Paul and Barnabas did and to love one another even if from afar – familiar talking points, shared as pleas to God.

To counter this narrative, I heard grace-filled speeches calling for unity in love, even in the midst of different perspectives.  I heard of how a few isolated examples do not represent the whole. I heard of a trust in the Holy Spirit to keep us all centered, allowing us to honor perspectives that stand at the edges of theological interpretation. This is a dynamic that has always been a part of healthy congregations.   I heard much love for the UMC and for our doctrine, liturgy, mission, and ministry. I so appreciated the spirit with which these truths were shared.  

When the votes were counted, however, division won the day – by 4 votes.  It was winner-take-all! There were no provisions for those who want to remain UMC, many of whom have given of their tithes, taught Sunday School, and shared in holy communion and potlucks for years. There was no honoring of the larger church that had given pastors, provided equipping and resources and offered an opportunity to be a part of a global mission bigger than ourselves.  I thought of the person who said, after hearing of a love for our doctrine and discipline, “the videos I watched told me you would say that and that you would be lying.” That’s the spirit that won the day.   

For me, it felt as if the Spirit of God left the room, leaving the space as something other than holy.  I then looked up at the stained-glass image of Jesus, and I sensed the presence of Christ.  Knowing that Living Lord was there for all, I especially sensed his presence with those whose hearts were broken and who were fighting back tears. I want to stand with these beloved and faithful souls as well.   

Author: Michael Roberts

I was recently appointed as the Director of ReStart Initiative, a new cabinet position to provide care and support for those who want to remain United Methodist and who are affected by disaffiliation. I am also a delegate to General Conference. Other appointments include 10 years as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre, is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful adult children, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.Min).

9 thoughts on “Front Row Seat (Reflections on a Church Conference to Disaffiliate)”

  1. Having been a Methodist longer than it has been a United Methodist Church, I have years and years of attempting to figure out just who or what is running the United Methodist Church. As for Reverend Roberts, I have also heard much of the above. I’ve also heard the more progressive members of the denomination issue diatribes containing horrible and harmful words of distain directed toward conservatives.
    Are there in competent leaders? Do we have immoral leaders such as the self proclaiming homosexual bishops? Have many moderate and progressive leaders traded God’s word for cultural ideology? How many people abandoned the doctrine as seen by the numerous annual conferences and untold numbers of clergy openly revolting against the decisions, made by the last General conference? Do some pastors openly advocate for cultural Marxism? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes!
    If the progressives and centrist believe that the reason so many churches are leaving is because of same-sex marriages and LGBTQ+ pastorates, they need to be prepared for a vast exit of members who are not concerned by who sits next to them in the pew, but whether the United Methodist Church adheres to the basic discipline, doctrine, and divinity that has been the focus of many members of the denomination.
    It is interesting to learn that an annual conference has set up a eight position to deal with those being disaffiliated through Disaffiliation. As long as the conference is concerned about its members who no longer have a church, it should be as concerned about its members who lost the vote for Disaffiliation.
    Larry R. Neal


  2. I know exactly what you mean, except the results in my church were much more skewed. When the votes were counted, it was 90% for disaffiliation. Our pastor had been openly advocating for disaffiliation, and our bishop, who was retiring, supported the idea of getting out of the UMC while we could. My family, who had advocated to stay united, Methodist were appalled. We had to leave, even though we loved our choir, and our Sunday school class. Many of our friends could not understand why we couldn’t compromise. They said we are still Methodist. We said, but you’re not a connectional church and you’re not united.


  3. Wow! Reading your commentary I felt like we were comparing day and night, utter darkness and purified light, Jesus and the devil. I doubt you’ll let this be published on your post but as a wise man once said, “it’s a mighty thin pancake that only has one side to it.”

    I didn’t feel any balance in your commentary. As one who has watched and been part of this conflict since the seventies I think you might lack just a little bit of historical perspective in how you paint the two sides.

    Just a couple of questions: Which side violated the Discipline openly and even according to our version of the Supreme Court, the Judicial Council? Who has continued to move goal posts? Who said they would support the reconciliation proposal and reneged? The questions could go on and on and on. Ultimately, just as in everything else God will show where the right was and where the wrong was in the end, the very end. God have mercy on us all.


  4. The church is not dividing because we don’t like one another. It is dividing because our understanding of Scripture is divided. It is dividing because our understanding of sin differs. It is dividing because our covenant is broken. We should weep.


  5. The best companion is the companionship of a good question: Here is my gift. 1. Is it not true that sex of any kind is incompatible with the lifestyle of Christ? Also the lifestyle of Paul. I wonder if a group introduced legislation at a past General Conference that sex of anykind should be prohibited for clergy and laity alike. There is historic precedent in Mother Anna Lee and the Shaker Colony. Then both gays and straights would unite on the opposite side. Sex and Religious Experience have been fighting for a long time and sex (immediate gratification as two individuals use each other’s bodies for pleasure) always wins. Churches have ignored the struggle of teens over sex for decades as well as any way for sex to be seen in a positive way. The issues of the presence of gays in our churches as members and clergy seems to have caused so much anger because anger grows out of the presence of fear, a fear that sex was created when God wasn’t looking and therefore doing it in any position with anyone is not really a Christian thing to do at all.

    2. Is the division only about sex? For smaller churches it is the cumulation of frustration about the “one size fits all” form of organization. In addition it is the regular checking of statistics of the church until it is “analysis unto paralysis.” John Wesley was an obcessive compulsive poster boy from a disfunctional family in which only Charles came out stable enough to have a happy marriage. Why didn’t we unite around a simple statement of what should be the goals of churches (nurture, witness, etc.) and let each church organize in ways that fit with their needs to reach such goals. This might have lessened the rage behind the split. I wonder if anyone else feels that naming a form of Christianity after a “Method” is more than a little blasphemous; why is Christ missing from our name? My vote: Christian Servants.

    3. The continued judgment of a person’s ideas as clear signs of the person’s character must have its roots somewhere in the spiritual formation of that person. What causes this?We gave up requiring membership in a class meeting with its focus on the struggles of a person’s soul in the 1940s. I think it destroyed our spiritual culture by removing the opportunity to see life as a struggle for everyone and to build empathetic bonds with those who are both different from us and at the same time very much like us. I think religion then became a spectator sport with no self revelation needed. If we are to change the larger culture we must change our spiritual culture. My hope is that if that happened we would not be so ready to judge a person’s character as bad if we think his or her ideas are wrong.


  6. “Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” I don’t know that you set out to be deceptive, but what you wrote is, in fact, deceptive. You are saying that the vote was close, and the choice was made to disaffiliate by a margin of 4 votes. But by UM law a vote for disaffiliation in a church conference must carry by at least two-thirds of those present and voting, which means in this case the vote was two-thirds plus 4. That’s not what most people would consider to be a close vote. And I say this from the perspective of one who is firmly committed to remain United Methodist.


  7. I appreciated Rev. Robert’s eyewitness account of a disaffiliation vote in a United Methodist Church.
    But No, this debate is not about interpretation of the Bible, it’s not about who is right about who follows the Scriptures or doesn’t, and it is not about who is more “traditional” or “progressive” in their Methodist theology or their worldview. It is still, and has been since 1972, about prejudice and discrimination against Lesbian, Gay and Transgendered Christians who have a call to discipleship and leadership in the church. It’s about ‘we don’t want one of THOSE (women, Blacks, gays, you-name-it) in OUR pulpit on Sunday…’ It’s about ‘You are different from us, so you must be bad, wrong, less than human…’
    We need to call it what it is.

    The Lord Jesus Christ never said or did anything to indicate that “homosexuals” were morally reprehensible, or didn’t have a place in the Kingdom of God, right alongside everyone else He reached out to, and called to serve. In fact, my interpretation of the Holy Scripture leads me to believe that His greatest commandment was that we should Love God and love and care for our neighbor, even when they aren’t the same as us. I learned that in a United Methodist Church. It’s hard to do these days, but I’ll keep trying.

    May God bless you and keep you, my brothers and sisters, even those of you who find my very existence disgusting and abhorrent.


  8. Isn’t a 2/3 majority vote of the members of a local church required to disaffiliate? A four vote majority does not meet the requirements set out in the current Discipline disaffiliation rules.


  9. But what do the seminary students really believe about the historic facts of Christmas and Easter. It’s easy to play word games with the Apostles Creed. I’m gay, so I suppose I should pick the UMC side as conservative congregations depart. But once the gay thing is gone, everything else is left. The Holy Fathers and others coalesced the faith with the help of the Holy Spirit. Today, many people believe the Holy Spirit moves them to adapt messages or liturgy to a variety of individual beliefs. Do you believe in the Apostles Creed? Truly? How many seminarians you talk about are shaped by a belief in the historic Christmas and Easter? How many are embarrassed by Christ’s words saying “Father”? Are they worried about how things sound? Then where is the fire? Christianity is the real thing. It’s not Coca Cola.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: