Friends of the Alabama-West Florida Conference,
This is the third in a series of four articles I am releasing related to church disaffiliations. The first week of the new year I shared with both Alabama-West Florida and South Georgia that the conference trustees and cabinets presented a plan to utilize Paragraph 2549 in 2024 following the General Conference to provide an option for churches to exercise the right to exit the conference and denomination. Both cabinets have communicated called special annual conference sessions in August of 2024. This will allow churches to have comprehensive information from the 2024 General Conference session now scheduled April 23-Mary 3, 2024 in Charlotte, NC. While we cannot predict outcomes, there could be matters that the annual conference will need to address at the conclusion of the session. We will seek to base our decisions on facts to make strategic decisions. For this reason, I have repeatedly asked churches to stay in the United Methodist connection and place their energies on making disciples.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared my second article entitled, “This is NOT a Business Deal,” which made the rounds throughout the denomination. My focus was to be a voice for leaders who are surrounded by individuals spreading misinformation and calling for disaffiliation. While each reader will certainly have their opinions of that article, it has garnered significant discussions in the connection.
Church conferences are happening in some of our AWF and SGA congregations. Most of these are being held to finalize the voting process on disaffiliating. To summarize in one brief statement, these conferences are causing harm in several ways. While some churches are to be commended for the honorable way they have conducted the disaffiliation process, many have not, in my opinion. From my observations, anxious actions are often driven by a few people, including some pastors, whose ultimate goal is to vote; they are rarely a truthful and spirit-led discernment process. When the aforementioned group cries out for discernment, what they really are asking is to vote. We live in a culture of, “If they said it, it must be true.” For years, data has shown what most people believe about the Bible is what someone else has told them, not what they have read and studied for themselves. I believe this same dynamic is happening in local churches around voting and disaffiliation.
Stories continue to flood my inbox such as the young and the old crying after a church vote; people 40 and under walking out and leaving after a vote; the grief of losing the church they once were a part of; and the cruel and hard things people say in these meetings. Several have written and stated that they don’t want to get involved in a church that wants to be focused only on what the church is against. The church in America has become irrelevant in many ways and our “witness” is making it worse. We have played into the hands of our culture in thinking that church should reflect our own personal views and values. This is not true everywhere, but we are fast approaching this mindset.
What I am about to share happened 26 years ago to me. As a young pastor I was appointed to two mid-size congregations for the purpose of merging to form one church. It would be quite easy to put the blame on my bishop and district superintendent for appointing me to such a situation, but I was the one who suggested it. My bishop and district superintendent provided me with a wonderful support system. In recent months, I assumed that I had worked through my pain and woundedness of the one year that I served in that appointment. However, the present-day stories of church conferences voting around disaffiliations have triggered the trauma of a very difficult time in my life, one that almost cost me my ministry.
In 1994, I was appointed to a church that had a membership of just over 300 and was averaging around 100 persons in worship. It was a church that ten years prior had another small-membership church merge with them that was declining and no longer self-sustaining. Within three years we had grown to a membership in the high 300s averaging 300 people in worship in two services. We had run out of parking and worship space. The church sat on one acre of land. We had small groups meeting everywhere including storage closets. We received phone calls on Monday morning from our neighbors who complained about traffic and people blocking driveways, etc. It was an exciting time, but we needed more space. Another United Methodist Church just over a mile away had 500 members and was averaging about 200 people in worship with more parking, more facilities and 14 acres of land. Their pastor was retiring in June of 1997 and the logic was that if these two churches could merge, they could move to the larger property and do new ministry together. Both church charge conferences voted to pursue the merger.
In June of 1997, I was appointed to this new two-point charge. It was the only two-point charge I served as a pastor until I became a bishop. We worked together on several projects that summer with combined nightly worship services, and we shared our resources. A task force was announced representing both churches to negotiate the merger details which included staff, property, finances, and church leadership. This group worked hard and as we moved into August, there were rumblings of why this merger was wrong. Some members from both churches did not want it. In fact, they formed a group consisting of people from both churches to fight to end the process and call a vote. “Let’s vote and get this decided,” they declared. Straw polls were taken, and some people were actively working to defeat a potential merger while others worked to pass it. The call to vote now became louder, and people were showing the worst of themselves. Does any of this sound familiar?!
One day, my daughter who was in the 7th grade and very active in the youth group at that time, asked my wife, “Why don’t people like my dad?” That deeply hurt.
On September 21, 1997, we voted. The pressure to vote was overwhelming, and I regretfully gave in. “At least this part will be over,” or so I thought. What I learned that day was that it was only the beginning. The two churches held the votes at the same time and four district superintendents oversaw the process. The thinking was that both groups would not know how the other had voted before their vote.
These two churches showed up to vote as both churches were full and the membership was represented. That night I learned first-hand what power and control were all about. Both churches had to pass the resolution to merge for it to happen. Only a simple majority was needed to move ahead. At the first church the vote failed 60 to 40%. At the second church it failed by one vote.
It wasn’t the fact that the vote to merge failed that upset me that night, it was what I witnessed from people. People stood and said so many harmful things about others. People who had not been in church for years showed up because someone told them to come and vote no and “save their church.” Sadly, many of these persons who came and voted did not show up the following Sunday, or the next or the next. They brought one woman in on a gurney from the care facility to vote NO and promised her a McDonald’s hamburger on the way back. One man was bragging that his son who had come and voted saved their church.
I could go on, yet I think you know the story. Perhaps it hits too close to home. The aftermath of that September night was tough. Some people were dancing in the parking lot, others were arguing with each other, while many were just overcome with emotion and grief of what they were witnessing. When I finally locked the second church up and headed to the parsonage, it was late in the evening. At that moment, I just wanted to be alone. I had told my family after they voted to go home. I didn’t want them to be exposed to what I knew was coming. When I arrived at the parsonage, it was full of people from both churches who were upset and wanting to be supportive of me. The understanding from the district superintendent was if the merger vote failed, I would be moved and not pastor either church. All I knew in that moment was I was exhausted and had to get up the next morning and be the pastor to these two congregations. All of them! Sunday was coming.
Over the next nine months, I had to work hard to overcome my grief and pastor people. As we approached January, my Bishop ultimately decided that giving me a new appointment was the best thing for all involved. Both the churches that had voted no to merge have had their ups and downs. One of the churches went on to have some of their best years of ministry in their history. Today, they are filled with people fewer in number, one is still a two-point charge, but still doing ministry and proclaiming Jesus. Most of those who fought the merger have died. Sadly 12 of the people that were so vocal died in the following nine months after the merger vote. I conducted all of their funerals at their request. I look back on that with awe of what God did in one of the most difficult times of my ministry and life.
What I learned is that everyone counts. I wanted a church merger to happen, but if it did pass in both churches, there would have been a lot of people hurt on the other side. It’s a real-life example of why I don’t like church voting. At times it is necessary, but we must work to heal and not hate; to love and not demonize; to forgive and not be bitter.
We are inflicting a lot of harm to each other with these disaffiliation votes. In many places when you vote you are not ending the division, you are only beginning a cyclical process. It will take two or three generations to move past some of what is being done right now in our churches. Some people will leave, others will leave over time, and new people will come. The sad part is that some will leave church altogether and never return. In the year to come, data will reveal how many of these churches who disaffiliated end up closing.
In later years, God has spoken these words into my soul many times about 1997, “If you had been bold about not voting and waited until a year or two with these two congregations working together, it would have been revealed to more people of what the next steps were.” I believe that so much in hindsight. Yet the cry to, “Vote, let’s vote, let’s get this over with,” ruled the day.
Hear my heart in why I am asking all of us to wait: I feel we need to wait on the Lord. If you feel differently, please remember that all voices are relevant in this discussion!
“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
- Isaiah 40:31
Bishop David Graves
Alabama-West Florida Conference
This is the third article in a series from Bishop Graves. The next and final article in this series will focus on how God does God’s best work in our messiness.