Any congregations that wants to disaffiliate from the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church may do so, conference leaders announced Friday, establishing a position they had left unclear following an unfavorable court ruling.
Amid a historic schism, the conference's move to abruptly halt all further disaffiliations in late 2022 drew multiple lawsuits joined by more than a quarter of its local churches, though the many plaintiffs did not necessarily include every congregation mulling leaving the denomination.
In May, judges said the conference had to let plaintiff churches proceed with disaffiliation. But the conference was not bound to extend this option to nonplaintiff churches, and some, like Dan Parr, who represented 180-plus congregations in the most prominent lawsuit, had been suspicious the conference would not.
Viewing the annual conference meeting in Athens, Georgia, on Friday, he was heartened by the announcement by the conference board of trustees that, in fact, any church that wanted to disaffiliate could do so.
"They made some hard decisions that were for the benefit of everybody," Parr said by phone Friday. "They did the right thing, and they need to be thanked for that. We appreciate the step that they're taking to promote peace in North Georgia and let everyone live out their faith, and then be blessed and bless each other and move on."
In an email Friday evening, conference spokeswoman Sybil Davidson said more information would be forthcoming next week.
Though a minority in terms of overall churches, a significant chunk of theologically conservative congregations are splitting — or seeking to split — from the United Methodist Church, the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, amid disputes on LGBTQ+ policies, which departing churches characterize as flash points for deeper divisions.
It is unclear how many North Georgia churches that did not sue the conference are interested in leaving it. But Parr said the number is substantial; he said he's heard from more than 20 churches — many rural — that were not party to the lawsuits.
"We hear from churches literally every day that say, 'I didn't know about the lawsuit, our pastor hasn't been talking,'" he said.
The North Georgia Conference approved 70 churches to leave in 2022. Roughly 185 churches were party to the lawsuit co-litigated by Parr. Following the ruling in their favor, those churches will hold official congregational votes on whether to proceed with disaffiliation — and those that elect to do so will require conference approval at a special conference set for November.
Given those numbers, Parr said he expects about 300 North Georgia congregations – about 40% of the conference's previous chuch total — could ultimately disaffiliate. The relative size of the departing congregations remains unclear, though in East Tennessee's Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, the 264 churches recently approved to depart tended, with some exceptions, to be smaller.
In North Georgia, the departing church total will now almost certainly include two Augusta, Georgia, congregations that on Friday were approved, with some procedural debate, to proceed with disaffiliation, Parr said. These churches had filed separate lawsuits subject to terms distinct from the larger lawsuit.
The 2023 North Georgia Annual Conference will last through the weekend. North Georgia Conference Bishop Robin Dease is set to preach closing worship at 10 a.m. Sunday.