What Would JW Do? Methodists Regroup


In the 1700s, an Anglican minister named John Wesley shook up the status quo by taking the church outside the walls and preaching on the hillsides to coal miners and factory workers, reaching thousands of new believers.
Two centuries later, the church that grew out of Wesley’s heartfelt but methodical approach to the practice of faith, called Methodism, had 40 million members world-wide.
That number is down a few in the United States, where more than 6,100 United Methodist congregations —100 in Missouri alone —voted to disassociate from the United Methodist Church (UMC). Among them was Clinton UMC, leaving members who wished to remain associated with the United Methodist Church without a church home.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a group of 30 people met with UMC District Superintendent David Gilmore at the Benson Center to discuss options for forming a UMC Church in Clinton.
The split in the United Methodist Church started appearing along ideological lines more than decade ago between churches in urban areas on the East and West coasts, and that of conservative congregations, mostly in the Bible Belt.
The breaking point was the pending removal of negative language from UMC regulations regarding the rights of all United Methodists to marriage and ordination in the church, regardless of who they choose to marry. Methodist bishops tried to avoid the split by delaying the decision as long as possible, a decision further postponed by the COVID pandemic, which cancelled the 2020 General Conference.
But by last spring, the handwriting was on the wall, and conservative congregations started bailing in expectation of the new ruling passing at the 2024 General Conference, scheduled for the end of April in Charlotte, N.C.
Disaffiliation requires a two-thirds vote of the congregation, plus is contingent on the church paying its apportionment for the next year. The apportionment is an amount levied by the administrative area the UMC church is in, and covers the pension fund of the ministers in that conference, among other costs. Each conference is divided into districts.
Clinton is in the northwest district of the state-wide Missouri Annual Conference, which is based in Columbia. Last Tuesday, District Superintendent Gilmore opened the meeting with a prayer and a brief devotional.
Also present at Tuesday’s meeting were Rev. Jeremy Vickers and Rev. Rocky Kloth of Grace UMC. Since 1991, Grace UMC has established satellite campuses in Independence, Oak Grove and El Dorado Springs, and is in the process of starting a fourth, Vickers said. Becoming a satellite campus of Grace UMC is one option for the local UMC members.
The UMC church in El Dorado, which requested help after the membership dropped, was launched in 2014, and now has 120 members, he said.
Grace UMC recently had a training session for 50 church planters, he said. A church planter starts a church by recruiting a leadership team, which recruits new members, plans preview worship services and holds a big “launch” service for the new church community.
Forming a new faith group is an opportunity to define and focus on the needs that should be addressed in the community and find new ways to meet them.
Depending on what direction the Clinton group wants to go, the district will supply a church planter or a grant to fund a full-time minister, with the goal of growing a new church community. A UMC minister is working to start a church in Joplin, in what is called a “parachute drop.”
“We want to help you go where you want to go,” asked Mark Sheets, director of the “New Places for New People” program in the Missouri Conference.
Another option is to form an emerging faith community, which is more locally directed, like the people in Bernie, Mo., did, he said. First Presbyterian Church in Clinton has offered the UMC to affiliate with their church. Another suggestion is to partner with the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, part of the world-wide Anglican communion, taking the Methodist church full circle.
At the Nov. 14 meeting, the discussion centered on how to reach groups in Clinton that are “missing” from church, and where the church might be located to have the greatest possible impact. One answer was to reach out to the 30 to 50 age group, many of whom don’t have a church home.
“What is your church trying to become? What do you want it to be known for?” Sheets asked.
A meeting with Gilmore is planned for Dec. 19 at 6 p.m. to let the district know how the group will proceed. Jim Johns is coordinating the continuing discussion as the designated point person in Clinton. Johns is an attorney with Johns, Mitchell, Duncan and Lowe on the Clinton Square.
The denomination John Wesley started has survived other divisions. Clinton once had both a Methodist Episcopal Church North and Methodist Episcopal Church South, reflecting divided loyalties in Missouri before, during and after the Civil War.
In 1968, the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church. The red flame logo on church buildings throughout the world designates a meeting place of a UMC congregation.
As a result of the recent schism, an umbrella organization called the Global Methodist Church has emerged to connect churches seeking to uphold what it calls “historic Methodist praxis.” Negative wording regarding same-sex relationships was added in the 1950s to the UMC Book of Discipline, as the church regulations are called, so calling the restrictions “historic” is part of the spin that is being used by the disaffiliating faction about the split.
From the time when Wesley abandoned the formal cloisters of the Episcopal church to take the Word of God to the people, the Methodist Church has moved forward on social issues. Wesley also moved the church westward, across the Atlantic Ocean, defying Anglican leadership by ordaining ministers to go to America, where they became circuit riders, traveling trails through the wilderness on horseback to establish churches in remote areas.
At his death in 1791, Wesley had 120,000 adherents in England and America.
The UMC extended ordination to women in 1956, overcoming biblical strictures against women speaking in church. In 1968, when some church congregations were literally circling their sanctuaries to keep people out, Methodists were welcoming people of color to Sunday services, and the separate administration for AME —African Methodist Episcopal —churches was abolished.
Removing negative language in the Book of Discipline regarding same-sex relationships removes another cultural bias to full participation in the UMC for all members, regardless of race or gender.
People interested in following the example of John Wesley and continuing to have a Wesleyan presence in Clinton through the United Methodist Church are invited to future meetings, Gilmore said.