By Rachel Baldauf
On a Sunday morning last January, about 30 former members of Trinity Methodist Church in Elizabethtown gathered inside the small vicarage of a local Episcopal church. The heat was broken in the sanctuary, so they squeezed into the cramped space instead for their weekly service.
The worshippers were in search of a new church. Late last year, their former congregation had voted by a two-thirds majority to leave the United Methodist denomination. The vote came as some members grew frustrated with what they saw as violations of Methodist doctrine, such as allowing same-sex marriages and ordaining clergy who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
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In the Bladen County town of Elizabethtown, where the population is just over 3,000, the effects of the split weren’t easy to ignore. Trinity joined the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination formed in 2022. In June, the former members created Grace United Methodist Church, which now has 52 members.
“They meet people that are still at Trinity in the grocery store and around town,” said the Rev. Mark Gustafson, who oversees Grace. “It’s awkward.”
Similar scenes have played out at United Methodist churches across the country since 2019, when the denomination created guidelines allowing churches to leave for “reasons of conscience” related to LGBTQ+ issues. More than 249 churches have left the UMC in eastern North Carolina, including at least 22 in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties in the last year. More are expected to leave by the end of the year.
Trinity Methodist dates back to 1836, serving as a fixture of faith and community on West Broad Street. The current building, which opened in 1954, has withstood countless hurricanes and floods over the years.
Many of the people who left the congregation had been members of the church their whole lives. “There were a lot of deep ties,” said the Rev. Matt Thorley, who became the pastor at Trinity following the split.
Trinity wasn’t the only United Methodist Church in town. Before disaffiliations began, there were six. Today, there is only Grace.
“It’s like a communal divorce,” Gustafson said. “So there’s a lot of hurt.”
Those who disagree with their church’s decision are often left without a church to attend. That was the case for the former Trinity members, who continue to worship at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Elizabethtown.
In many rural areas, including southeastern North Carolina, the schism in the church has left wide swaths where no UMC churches remain. “There are some fairly wide desert spaces,” said Tara Lain, superintendent for the Harbor District of the NC Conference of the United Methodist Church. The district includes Bladen and Columbus counties.
For years, tensions over homosexuality have run high in the United Methodist Church. In 1972, the denomination banned the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. Still, many UMC churches across the country have disobeyed the ban.
Trinity left the United Methodist Church under guidelines established in 2019 that allowed it to keep its church property, which would typically remain under UMC ownership. The rules stipulate that at least two-thirds of a church’s members must vote in favor of disaffiliation.
Under the current guidelines, churches nationwide have until the end of 2023 to leave. The North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, which spans 56 eastern counties, will vote on Oct. 7 to disaffiliate churches that want to leave before the end-of-year deadline.
Churches leaving the UMC must decide whether they will join a different denomination or remain non-denominational. Most churches that leave join the Global Methodist Church, as Trinity did.
“What we wanted was just an orthodox, historical Wesleyan movement,” Thorley said. “We found that in the Global Methodist Church.”
For those at Trinity who voted to leave the UMC, the issue went deeper than the denomination’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues, Thorley said. Many felt that the denomination was violating orthodox doctrine laid out in the church’s Book of Discipline, a document outlining the law and doctrine of the church.
“There have been things that have been said in United Methodist churches that kind of counter or contradict some things in the Book of Discipline,” Thorley said.
Those left without a local UMC church in eastern North Carolina have the option to transfer their church membership to the UMC Collective, a virtual community. Other UMC churches like Grace have become so-called “Lighthouse Congregations,” churches that Lain described as a “soft landing space” for those affected by disaffiliation.
Despite the heartbreak of church division, many UMC leaders see silver linings.
The recent split is just one of many in the long history of the Methodist church, said David J. Blackman, the district superintendent for the NC Conference’s Gateway District, which includes Robeson and Scotland counties. In the past, Methodists have weathered schisms over church governance, theology and slavery.
“Unfortunately, that’s the way I think of our human condition,” Blackman said. “We do have disagreements, and we do have to find ways of moving forward.”
At both Grace and Trinity, church leaders are excited for the future.
Despite losing members following the split from the UMC, Thorley said Trinity’s membership has grown over the past year. In recent years, the church has started new youth and children’s ministries.
“That is the kind of beautiful thing with how God can operate is to show the hope in dark times,” Thorley said.
At Grace, the congregation has seen significant growth since its days of worshiping in the tiny St. Christopher’s vicarage. Some new members joined Grace after their churches disaffiliated. Other new members had never been to church before.
“Every week, there was interest,” Gustafson said. “It became a snowball that just started rolling.”
Still, for many members of Grace UMC, the pain of leaving their former church is still raw.
“There is a lot of grief,” Gustafson said. “Some of it has scabbed over, but it’s really easy to pick the scab.”