The South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church ratified 193 local church disaffiliations at its special called session held online Sunday, May 21, 2023.
Bishop David Graves, episcopal leader of the South Georgia Conference, opened the 158th session of the South Georgia Annual Conference with a message of hope to the 274 congregations remaining with the conference.
Recognizing that disaffiliation conversations have consumed so much time and focus for our United Methodist Churches in this season, Bishop Graves said “it is time” to put our focus on those in our communities who feel this day they have no hope.
“This is heavy. This is overwhelming. At times it is paralyzing. But it is time for us to focus on reaching out and reaching new people,” said Bishop Graves. “We need to be people who are proclaimers, to put our focus on mission and ministry, to make disciples, and to change our corner of the world where people see the light in the midst of the darkness, hope in the midst of hopelessness, and we are viewed as people of integrity.”
Provisions passed at the called 2019 Special Session of the General Conference outlined in paragraph ¶2553 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline and two policies passed during the 2019 South Georgia Annual Conference session – a Disaffiliation Policy and a Pension Liabilities Proposal – laid the groundwork for churches to disaffiliate. The Book of Discipline is the denomination’s book of law, doctrine, and policy.
Per the policies adopted, once each congregation pays their pension liabilities, two years of apportionments - which are the local congregation’s responsibility to support the regional, national and global ministry of The United Methodist Church, and any legal fees involved, they will be released from the trust clause and will own their property. Now that the disaffiliation requests have been ratified by a simple majority of clergy and lay members of the South Georgia Annual Conference, these congregations have until June 30 to completely fulfill their disaffiliation agreement with the Conference Trustees.
“Today is a day of sadness in the life of the South Georgia Annual Conference,” said Bishop Graves. “We grieve in saying farewell to the 193 churches disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church and wish them the best in ministry. We pray for these churches as they navigate ministry in a new season.
“I especially want to express my appreciation for the 274 churches who have chosen to remain United Methodist and those who heard my call to refrain from holding discussions around leaving the denomination until we have more information,” said Bishop Graves. “I appreciate their faithfulness to their call and covenant all while leading their churches in a most difficult season.”
According to the United Methodist News Service, at this point, 3,580 congregations across the entire denomination have completed the required steps and withdrawn under paragraph 2553 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. That’s about 11.7% of U.S. churches since the law took effect in 2019.
For laity who are a member of a disaffiliating church and wish to remain United Methodist, conference leadership has created a process to move membership to the General Church Membership Roll. The General Church Membership Roll is designed for those individuals who wish to remain active in The United Methodist Church by supporting it with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness while discerning their next steps.
Steps are already being taken to start new congregations and ministries in areas where current United Methodist congregations are leaving.
There are fresh expressions and new faith communities beginning all over the South Georgia Conference in Thomasville, Albany, Brunswick, Valdosta, and St. Marys, and conference leadership is looking at more places throughout the Annual Conference. Bishop Graves recently announced a new ministry strategy team to help cultivate new expressions of ministry and help established churches vision and seek new ways of sharing Christ with new people.
Bishop Graves acknowledges this has been a hard season, but he is ready to turn the page as clergy and laity partner together to focus on reaching new people with the gospel message.
“This has been a labor-intensive and emotional process for our cabinet and staff,” said Bishop Graves as he reflected on the emotions of the past year. “In the most difficult of times I see so many signs of hope and renewal. Today we are turning a page in the South Georgia Conference and will be focusing on life-giving and life-changing ministry.”
Bishop Graves says he is privileged each and every day to see first-hand how God is using United Methodist churches to proclaim the gospel, feed the hungry, comfort the broken, and resist the evils of this world.
“God has called us, God has equipped us, and God will carry us forward to reach new people and new generations for Jesus Christ,” said Bishop Graves. “I’m excited to see the Kingdom work this conference and our connection will accomplish with God’s guidance.”
Minutes of the special called session will be included in the 2023 South Georgia Annual Conference Journal, which will be available later this fall.
See full list of South Georgia churches disaffiliating.