HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) – One of the largest, oldest and most revered United Methodist churches in the western half of North Carolina will be leaving the denomination it has called home for the better part of two centuries.
Members of Wesley Memorial Methodist Church, that tall, ornate structure on Chestnut Drive in High Point, have become one of the most recent congregations to seek their release from the denomination with which the church has associated since its founding in 1856, before the High Point was even a city.
The vote by members on Sunday fulfills only one aspect of the separation, and nothing would be confirmed until a similar approval by delegates at a special called session of the UMC’s Western North Carolina Conference, which is scheduled to meet on Nov. 4, under a process adopted last year.
The WNCUMC declined to release a complete list of all the churches who similarly are asking for disaffiliation on that date, but Bishop Kenneth Carter acknowledged Wesley’s vote.
“Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church has been one of the stronger congregations in Western North Carolina, sending people into ministry, nurturing disciples and serving the community,” Carter said in a statement released by WGHP. “The vote to depart is based on a paragraph in our Book of Discipline that seeks to restrict LGBTQ persons from full participation in the church.
“The congregational vote will be followed by a second action, a vote of the annual conference, in the fall. United Methodist doctrine has not changed, and we continue to work toward being a church that shares the love of God with all people.”
An email with questions sent Monday to the Rev. Jeff Patterson, senior pastor at Wesley Memorial, drew no immediate response. Patterson confirmed the vote to the High Point Enterprise and said the church disagreed with the denomination’s stance on same-sex marriage.
But Membership Secretary Isabel Cruz Valencia and Director of Communications Melody Emerson later sent a statement to WGHP that showed that 71.85% of the 856 members who voted – that was said to be 41.4% of eligible members – were in favor of disaffiliation. The threshold required by the UMC is 67%.
The email contained a message to members that said, “The task now is to extend care to each other in respect and love. Seeing one another as people of goodwill, we begin to do the work of restoration and connection as God’s imperfect yet treasured Wesley Memorial family.”
They promised more information about the next steps in the coming days.
Continuing the trend
Wesley, which on its website touts about 2,500 members, is following the decision by several hundred congregations in North Carolina who had petitioned to leave UMC because of a variety of differences about the church’s future, but primarily its plan to conduct same-sex weddings and to ordain LBGTQ+ ministers. Those churches have said they didn’t agree with how the denomination was interpreting the Book of Discipline and its biblical foundation.
This confrontation that has been emerging for decades and has become international in scope, as churches wrestle with those issues and how they interpret leadership from the Bible. Some nearly 6,200 congregations have made this decision since 2019, USA Today reported.
Wesley’s website proclaims that “even though the church may be large, we are committed to connecting all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.” Its “about us” page on the website includes an image of a rainbow over the church.
What is required
To exit UMC, Calvary would be required to meet a set of financial obligations and legal requirements and to be approved by a majority of delegates to the conference in November. The church would have a few months to complete the separation agreement.
This process was approved in February 2022 under Paragraph 2553, and the separation requires the churches to pay two years of apportionment payments (which are their scheduled contributions to the denomination), retirement for clergy and their spouses and reimbursement of grants the church may have received in the past 10 years.
When that is fulfilled, UMC would release the property deeds to the churches’ facilities that were held under the “trust clause” stipulated in their affiliation agreements. The church would be free to operate independently of UMC, but all UMC logos and signs would have to be removed from the church, which for some has included the replacement of stained glass.
In May members of the Western Conference approved the exit of 192 churches, and the roughly 69 of them from the Piedmont Triad were required to pay about $3.7 million collectively and to go through a 90-day disassociation process.
Those 192 churches that disaffiliated in May had about 36,183 members (about 15% of all members in the NC Western Conference). Wesley would be a much larger member of North Carolina’s second-largest denomination. About 249 congregations in Eastern North Carolina also disaffiliated last year.
Some churches sued
Last November, 36 churches sued to ask a court to allow them to leave and have their property without having to meet those terms, but an Iredell Superior Court judge dismissed the case because of the First Amendment separation of church and state.
Those 36 churches that sued have said they planned to take their case to the NC Court of Appeals, but David Gibbs, the attorney whose National Center for Life and Liberty had represented their interests, did not respond immediately to a request for an update on that status.
Some of the departing UMC churches have helped to form the Global Methodist Church, which launched a year ago to support the “Traditional Book of Doctrines and Discipline.” Its Transitional Leadership Council includes elders from Africa, Russia, the Philippines and Bulgaria, as well as the U.S.