BALTIMORE — In a move their leader described as both “emotional” and “a very serious matter within the life of the church,” delegates of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church voted Thursday to approve the disaffiliation of 23 congregations over questions around how the denomination should handle LGBTQ+ issues.
Nearly 600 lay and clergy representatives voted for a resolution that called for the separation of the 23 churches from the denomination. Only 50 delegates, or just under 8% of those completing ballots, voted no.
The decision marks the first time a large group of congregations has been cleared to separate from the UMC in the 239-year history of the conference, an ecclesiastical jurisdiction that includes Washington, most of Maryland, and portions of West Virginia.
Sixteen of the disaffiliating churches are in Maryland. The rest are in West Virginia.
Should the churches complete the remainder of the conditions spelled out in the resolution, they would become the latest in a group of more than 3,900 UMC congregations in the United States to have defected over the issues. Most have separated in the time since the delegates at a contentious 2019 convention affirmed the doctrine of the Book of Discipline, a set of rules by which the church is governed.
The book asserts that homosexuality contravenes Christian teachings, forbids the ordination of openly LGBTQ+ individuals as clergy, and bars UMC clergy from performing same-sex weddings — issues that have divided the denomination’s conservative and progressive wings for years, sometimes bitterly.
“We find ourselves at a place that is difficult for everyone,” Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the conference’s spiritual leader, told a packed ballroom at the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor hotel moments before the vote took place.
In a prayer, she beckoned God to “speak through the power of your Holy Spirit to be with us as we move into that which will come to fruition.”
The vote came on the second day of the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s annual convention, which comes to an end late Saturday.
Delegates were given the opportunity to step to a microphone and speak for or against the resolution prior to the vote, and most who did so said they hoped any separation would be “gracious” and “civil,” particularly considering the strong emotions the issues have sparked on both sides in recent years.
Though the tone was civil throughout, those who did speak sketched out the basics of each opposing position, at times voicing frustration at the process.
The Rev. Sheridan Allmond is a member of the conference board of trustees, the body that established the conditions that disaffiliating churches would need to fulfill to be granted formal separation from the UMC.
One controversial stricture is that those congregations wishing to disaffiliate must pay 50% of the tax-assessed value of their buildings and properties in order to keep them. Baltimore-Washington is one of only a handful of the UMC’s 54 conferences to impose the charge.
Allmond said the board decided to require the payments out of respect for “the tithes, the offerings and the gifts that those before us have labored to sow into the conference.”
The total amount raised in this manner would top $10 million, she said.
Others pointed out that many congregations that wish to disaffiliate over doctrinal matters simply can’t raise that much money.
One such speaker, Rev. Kevin Baker, is the senior pastor of Oakdale United Methodist Church in Olney, a congregation of about 600 members that is one of the 23.
Baker said his church alone would have to come up with nearly half the total — more than $4 million — to meet the requirement, and that there’s no way they can afford it.
The 50% fee puts the congregation in a “terrible bind,” he said, because they’ve chosen to separate, yet they’ve decided it’s not right to join a lawsuit filed against the conference by 38 other churches challenging the fees.
Baker said he has “no idea” what will happen next, as the resolution spells out that disaffiliating churches must complete all required steps by the end of this year.
Thursday’s vote grants the 23 applying churches the right to disaffiliate, but they must meet and fulfill the conditions in order to make it happen.
“They’ll have to decide as a church what path to try,” Baker said of his congregants.
One church leader mirrored what seemed like the general feeling on both sides — that as hard as the back-and-forth has been, it’s at least a good thing that the contentious issues have, for now at least, achieved a measure of resolution.
“I hope at this point, having been through disagreements that go back many years, that this gives all of us — the churches staying and the churches disaffiliating — an opportunity to focus on the main thing,” said John Strawbridge, the lay leader of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Baltimore and an official with the conference. “That’s to be ministering to our communities rather than talking about ourselves.”