The group of congregations filed the suit on July 14 against the UMC’s Florida Annual Conference in the Circuit Court for the Eighth Judicial Circuit for Bradford County, Civil Division.
“The Annual Conference has taken the position that it is entitled to keep the Grace UMC Property — which was owned and paid for by Grace UMC long before The UMC and the Annual Conference ever existed — unless Grace UMC pays a substantial payment of money as unilaterally determined by the Annual Conference Defendant,” the suit reads.
Grace United Methodist Church of Lawtey, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, argued it should not be forced to buy its property from the regional body because it purchased the location before the denomination was founded in 1968.
The Florida churches are represented by the National Center for Life & Liberty.
“The reason the lawsuit was filed was that the 106 churches believed that the Florida Annual Conference is not being equitable in creating a split that they’re able to successfully minister in the communities for the Gospel,” the group’s CFO Jonathan Bailie told the Christian Post.
“The churches are frustrated with the annual conference’s violations of the Book of Discipline and refusal to honor the Traditional Plan as outlined in the 2019 General Conference,” he added.
The issue hit a high point when Kenneth Carter, Resident Bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, refused to enforce actions against an openly lesbian bishop in St. Petersburg, according to The Tallahassee Democrat.
When Florida churches sought to break away from the state’s governing body, they were told they would be forced to pay a large fine, claiming “all properties” are held in the trust of the denomination.
Carter responded with a statement Tuesday following the lawsuit’s filing.
“We are deeply grieved by this, as we seek to be a church united in love and in mission,” he said.
“The Florida Annual Conference is committed to providing a ‘gracious exit’ for those churches that wish to depart, pursuant to our common process outlined in The Book of Discipline, and have been trying to engage those churches in that process,” Carter added.
The statement also expressed concern about the ability to provide pensions for retired clergy and support denominational groups such as children’s homes and camps.
The churches in dispute are part of a movement of more conservative congregations within the UMC that oppose the denomination’s efforts to condone same-sex marriage ceremonies and ordain LGBTQ clergy members.
The denomination’s Book of Discipline holds that same-sex activity is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and bans participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Another concern is related to where the separating churches will turn for new denominational relations. In May, 107 Florida congregations announced plans to join the newly formed Global Methodist Church (GMC) as a theologically conservative alternative to the traditional United Methodist Church.
“This broad group of churches include both large and small congregations along with Anglo, African American, Latino, Korean, and other ethnic communities of faith,” the Florida chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) said in a statement.
WCA Florida President Jay Therrell claimed the church left them rather than the congregations leaving the denomination.
“We are not leaving The United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church has left us,” Therrell said in the statement.
“After a decades-long rise of theological liberalism, the selective enforcement of our denominational laws, and a strong surge in the promotion of partisan politics, our churches long for the day of being able to unite with like-minded Christians who focus on sharing the Good News of Jesus and help people to be transformed by His salvation,” he added.
A statement sent by email from WCA Florida chapter President Jeremy Rebman, who serves as Senior Pastor of First Methodist Church of Vero Beach, Florida, says the state’s churches in the lawsuit represent nearly 20% of Florida United Methodist churches.
Rebman suggested that the number of churches to disaffiliate in Florida “is likely to grow by perhaps a dozen or more in the next few weeks. Nationwide, this is a movement of thousands of congregations. We anticipate hundreds of UM Churches will depart the UMC and join the newly launched Global Methodist Church (globalmethodist.org) in the next few weeks, with somewhere around 1000 by the end of the year. We hope to have at least 2,000-3,000 churches by the end of 2023.”
The Florida Methodist congregations are not alone in their exit. In June, 70 Georgia UMC churches announced plans to leave the denomination.
The churches, leaving on June 30, are also joining the new GMC as a conservative alternative.
“Bless these congregations as they depart,” North Georgia Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson said in a prayer following the vote. “I pray that we will be partners in ministry, and you will do your mighty work of healing division and overcoming rifts.”
In Arkansas, a group of 35 UMC churches also announced their exit from the denomination. The state includes 634 member churches.
The state’s Resident Bishop Gary Mueller shared in a statement that he believes most churches will remain with the denomination and is committed to working with those congregations that choose to depart.
“To date, fewer than 10% of our churches have formally entered into the discernment process that may or may not lead to a vote on disaffiliation,” he wrote. “I believe the vast majority of congregations in Arkansas, as well as most Arkansas United Methodist Christians, will choose to remain in the United Methodist Church.”
In Mueller’s process of working with fleeing congregations, Mueller advocated, “I want to see congregations land where God is leading them as easily and quickly as possible, even if that means leaving our denomination.”
In Tennessee, 60 churches have already reportedly left the UMC in a similar process, according to a June report by The Tennessean.
The UMC was ranked as the second-largest Protestant body in the U.S., only behind the Southern Baptist Convention, with 6.2 million members in 2020.
In 2019, the UMC’s Special Session of the General Conference adopted a new policy, paragraph 2553, in its Book of Discipline to allow a congregation to leave over issues related to human sexuality.
“Because of the current deep conflict within The United Methodist Church around issues of human sexuality, a local church shall have a limited right, under the provisions of this paragraph, to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference,” the policy states.
The UMC has not made available nationwide reports of departing churches. The Tennessean cited at least 300 churches recently leaving nationwide.
The number of exiting congregations from among the nation’s 31,000 locations could drastically change the denomination’s future in the U.S. and beyond. The denomination also has 6.5 million estimated members internationally.