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Affected by Disaffiliation? Find out how you can move forward in mission in South Georgia

Words from Bishop Graves


Below is the first of three articles in a four part series written by Bishop David Graves around disaffiliation. 

Article 1: Updates for the New Year (1/10/2023)

Article 2: This is NOT a Business Deal! (1/12/2023)
Article 3: The Harm Caused by Church Conference Voting to Disaffiliate (2/7/2023)


Article 3: The Harm Caused by Church Conference Voting to Disaffiliate
 

February 7, 2023
 

Dear Friends of the South Georgia Conference,
 

This is the third in a series of four articles I am releasing related to church disaffiliations. At the beginning of January, I shared some updates for the new year. In this first article, I reminded you about the process in place in our Annual Conference that extends the terms of South Georgia’s current disaffiliation policy through December 31, 2024, based on ¶2549. The term we will use after December 31, 2023, is “departure.” I also announced my plan to call a special annual conference session in August of 2024. This will allow churches to have comprehensive information from the 2024 General Conference session scheduled for April 23-Mary 3, 2024. 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 Alabama West-Florida and South Georgia 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: 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 9 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
 

In Christ,
 

Bishop David Graves
 

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.
 

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Article 2: This is NOT a Business Deal!


January 12, 2023

Earlier this week, I wrote an article reminding you about our process and timeline around disaffiliation and departures. The decisions and policies our Conference leadership and Trustees have made are meant to help those who wish to wait and see what happens at General Conference 2024. If you have not reviewed that information, please do so here. In that spirit, I would like to elaborate on some personal reflections about why churches in the South Georgia Conference should, in fact, wait until 2024 before making any final decisions. 
 

Over the last several months, I have heard it said time and time again that a local United Methodist Church needs to disaffiliate from The United Methodist denomination because it is a good business deal. In fact, someone recently shared a social media post written by a person who said their local UM church decision was purely business and that because of the property value it made good business sense and would provide control and autonomy. In the post, the person went on to say that they did not know about the trust clause. They got one thing correct, this business dealing is about power, money, and control. These comments are not Methodist. Methodism is about a movement inspired by the Holy Spirit.  
 

Regarding the trust clause, our founder John Wesley instituted the trust clause in the mid-18th century when he secured property for meeting spaces and ministry sites for Methodist Societies. Wesley had several lawyers work on the trust clause, and it has been an important part of our polity helping to preserve our historic faith since our beginning 238 years ago. We are not a congregational church and have never been. The trust clause reminds us that we are a connectional church. As United Methodists, we ask first what is best for the whole, not what is best for me and my local church. As Christians and as Methodists, we are in the faith business; we are not in the business of making deals. 
 

If this is a business deal for you, then I ask you to please do some soul searching and reflect on your motivations. I have taken a lot of criticism for allowing previous churches in the South Georgia Conference to disaffiliate under paragraph 2553 in The Book of Discipline. Paragraph 2553 is about human sexuality, and many are trying to use it to say it is about liberal theology, abortion, or the erroneous notion that Bishops want to change the Bible, and the list goes on. Now, people want to misuse paragraph 2553 for their own business deal. 
 

There has been traditional and liberal theology since the beginning of time. No one is rewriting the Bible. People will interpret the Bible in their own way and have since it came into written form. 
 

On the issue of abortion, we have a wonderful statement on abortion in our Book of Discipline. Our social principles have spoken to the issue of abortion since 1972 and in the General Conferences that followed. Our stance has only become more focused on making decisions that value life. 
 

Only the General Conference of The United Methodist Church can change the Book of Discipline or speak for The United Methodist Church. Many will give their opinions and that is simply it: their opinion. With any divisive topic there are leaders, including a few bishops in The United Methodist Church, that have expressed opinions or actions with which I disagree or find hurtful to the body of the Church. To be honest, there have been things I have said and actions I have done that have been hurtful to others as well. Bishops do not all think alike, any more than clergy or members of a local church think alike. We are connected to people who think differently than we do, which strengthens us more rather than hurts us.  
 

Are we going to throw away the very connection - the South Georgia Annual Conference - that has given every clergy and laity in the annual conference the opportunities you enjoy today? You may have heard me say that I have remained a United Methodist bishop to be a part of the solution. The Gospel message of Jesus calls us to be in the middle of all people’s lives and not those who are just like us. 
 

People use this business deal mindset to place fear mongering into the system. The church and our institutions have been filled with so much fear around financial sustainability and vitality. Those encouraging disaffiliation emphasize that the clock is ticking regarding the use of paragraph 2553 for disaffiliation, which sunsets on December 31, 2023. This December 31, 2023, date reminds me of the panic around Y2K. Will the computers handle the roll over from the 1990’s to 2000? Some predicted that our world would be spun into turmoil. Some even prepared for and used words like Armageddon. I see some similarities in the Y2K panic and The United Methodist Church. We are people of faith, not fear!
 

Several churches have faithfully discerned that disaffiliation is what God was leading them to do. For their faithful discernment, I give thanks. However, if this is primarily a business deal for you, you need to prayerfully discern how you can continue to push your church towards disaffiliation in good conscience. How can any church request to disaffiliate under the disguise of these actions? I have said since the day that I began my assignment in the Alabama-West Florida Conference and now the South Georgia Conference that I will follow the leading of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, and the Book of Discipline as I faithfully serve these areas.
 

What has disheartened me in recent weeks is that I asked this annual conference to not have disaffiliation discussions from November 20th through the rest of 2022. I asked everyone to focus on Advent and sharing the Good News of the Christ Child. This was an ask, not a mandate. Our world, our communities, and, frankly, all of us need good news and, simply put, we need a word of hope. Many of you did just that, and I thank you for your efforts in sharing Jesus. Yet others held disaffiliation meetings in groups or in the church; others had official leadership board meetings or congregational meetings; and some congregations circulated petitions or made phone calls urging people to support a particular position. Just think what might have happened if those efforts were focused on sharing Jesus. As I had one church member tell me recently, “The only contact that I have gotten from my church in years was a phone call asking would I sign a petition about disaffiliation.” What if people had instead made phone calls to invite people to Advent and Christmas services? As my former Bishop, Bishop Ray Chamberlain, said to me one time, “David, as much as your heart hurts over this, you can’t even imagine how the heart of God hurts.” That was 25 years ago, but I have been reminded of this time and time again as I have encountered hurtful times in my life and ministry. 
 

I have repeatedly asked all our churches to wait until after the 2024 General Conference, which will take place April 23-May 3, 2024, to discern next steps for their local church. After General Conference, we will have more accurate information so that our Annual Conference and our local churches can make strategic, Holy Spirit-led decisions and not business deals.
 

I know that I open myself to criticism with this article. I have been given many labels as a bishop and some have even questioned my salvation. I am not alone in what I endure on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this just helps me empathize with so many of our United Methodist clergy and laity who have experienced overwhelming verbal and emotional abuse. That should not happen in our churches. Jesus was characterized as a radical, and church people back in the day cut a business deal with the Roman Government to put Jesus to death. Over my 40 years of ministry, I have seen a lot of church business deals. It pains me to even think about many of them.
 

For me, I am going to keep preaching Jesus and hope you will join me in our 2023 year of prayer. At our upcoming June 2023 Annual Conference, this scripture will guide our time together:
 

“And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus. After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.” -Acts 4:29-31
 

When was the last time you prayed for boldness? 
 

In Christ,
 

Bishop David Graves
 

This is the second of four articles that Bishop Graves will be sharing over the next few weeks. 

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Article One: Updates for the New Year


January 10, 2023
 

Dear Friends of the South Georgia Conference, 
 

Happy New Year! As we begin a new year, I pray God will reveal to you a sense of peace and clarity in 2023. 

In early November, the Commission on the General Conference announced that the 2024 United Methodist General Conference will be held April 23 - May 3, 2024, at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. This much-anticipated gathering will be an important time for the future of The United Methodist Church. I would ask that you begin to pray for this important event in the life of Methodism. 
 

As I have shared on many occasions, I am asking churches in the South Georgia Conference to consider postponing any vote regarding separation from The United Methodist Church until after the 2024 General Conference. In these times of misinformation, assumptions, and fear mongering, we will have factual information following the 2024 General Conference to make prayerful and strategic decisions. 
 

Knowing that the disaffiliation procedure outlined in paragraph 2553 of The Book of Discipline sunsets on December 31, 2023, the leadership of our annual conference worked diligently to provide an exit option that extends beyond this deadline. 
 

As a reminder, I share the following information with you as we move forward together in a new year of mission and ministry:  
 

  • At the 2022 Annual Conference Session, members approved a report from the Conference Trustees in which a process was affirmed that extends the terms of South Georgia’s current disaffiliation policy through December 31, 2024. {Read more}

  • The Conference Trustees' resolution and action is based on ¶2549. ¶2549 is the paragraph the Conference Trustees used before the disaffiliation process in paragraph 2553 was enacted by General Conference. The term we will use after December 31, 2023, is “departure.” 

  • The timeline related to matters of disaffiliations/departures set forth by myself, the Cabinet, the Board of Trustees, and the Conference Chancellor can be found here: www.sgaumc.org/disaffiliation-timeline

  • Regardless of what decisions other Annual Conferences make, the policy written for and approved by South Georgia stands firm.

Also, I want you to know that conference leadership is exploring further prudent additions to our timeline:

  • The Cabinet and I are currently looking at a date in August 2024 for a special Called Annual Conference to consider any possible decision that could be afforded or required of us following the 2024 General Conference. 

  • This date is in addition to the special Called Annual Conference we have already announced for November 2024 to ratify final local church departures under the trustees provision.

  • An updated timeline will be posted in the weeks ahead. 

We have found that people are affected by disaffiliation in many different ways.  Some need a period of time to grieve the loss of community and their “spiritual home.” Others may be excited by this opportunity to do something new and may feel God calling them to take on the leadership to be part of something new. Still others might want to transition into an existing UMC church in their area.  If you find yourself in any of these spaces you can go to the conference website to learn more: www.sgaumc.org/moving-forward-in-mission.

We are also working on some exciting developments in the area of congregational development. We are looking at ideas such as: planting new United Methodist Churches or Fresh Expressions in areas where there are no longer UMC churches, strengthening churches nearest to those areas, and inviting all churches to experience revival and renewal in Jesus Christ. 
 

While all of this information may sound deeply detailed, I hope the spirit of our work is clear: we are seeking to do all we can to allow churches to remain a part of The United Methodist Church until after the work of the 2024 General Conference is complete. I would ask that you join me in prayer that decisions made at the 2024 General Conference will provide us opportunities that will unify our work and give options for all of us to make conference decisions that glorify and magnify God’s work in this corner of the world called the South Georgia Conference. Again, I believe that congregations can only make their best decisions when all the information is on the table. We are seeking to do all we can to give everyone this opportunity.
 

I am grateful to each of you for the many ways you live into our mission of making disciples. Our Kingdom work can be difficult, at times, but through our United Methodist connection we can rely on one another to bring light in the darkness.
 

During these days, I would ask you to join me in praying what the early church prayed in Acts 4: 29-31: “And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power, may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
 

I am encouraged by verse 31: “After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.”
 

When was the last time you prayed for boldness in the name of Jesus? For it is possible following the 2024 General Conference that the South Georgia Conference will be unified in ways that we have not seen in our lifetime. I see a vision of The United Methodist Church flourishing in ways that will make some churches that previously disaffiliated want to rejoin us. We will gladly welcome them back. 
 

Please join me as we live into a season of intentional prayer. May God bless you and your ministry in 2023. 
 

In Christ,
 

Bishop David Graves
 

This is the first of four articles that Bishop Graves will be sharing over the next few weeks.

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