The exit door from the United Methodist Church has been reopened for more than 180 churches in North Georgia.
To comply with a recent court order, the North Georgia Conference bishop has announced a timeline between June and August during which congregations can vote on whether to leave the denomination. The bishop also set a date in November for a special meeting to consider the resulting disaffiliation requests.
Among them was Mosaic United Methodist Church in Evans, Georgia, which is pastored by Carolyn Moore.
"I'm extremely grateful to the conference for the way they have responded to this situation in the last week and a half," she said by phone Friday.
In a historic schism, theological conservatives are leaving the large United Methodist Church, a denomination many of them have come to see as waywardly liberal and inept. Disputes have centered on LGBTQ+ policies and their enforcement, though disaffiliation advocates often describe it as a flash point for more profound disconnects.
Seventy churches split from the North Georgia conference in the summer of 2022. As potentially hundreds more prepared to follow suit, critics said, the conference took an abrupt action: Outgoing Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, saying disinformation was rampant, announced a "pause" on the disaffiliation process.
In the ensuing lawsuits, plaintiff churches argued the denomination had ample opportunity to communicate its desired message, and that since the United Methodist policy permitting them to leave with their church property would expire at the end of 2023, the "pause" in practice would keep them unwillingly in the denomination for the foreseeable future.
At their urging, Cobb County Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Schuster following a May 16 hearing ordered the conference to lift the pause and help churches that so desired to disaffiliate.
At the time, the conference indicated it might appeal the decision. But a few days later, Moore said she got a call. It was the office of her district superintendent, who works on behalf of the conference. The conference had set a date for her church to take its formal disaffiliation vote.
Moore said her district superintendent's office has been prompt and helpful in answering her questions.
"It all looks like its moving in a very healthy, open, respectful direction," she said, and expressed her gratitude to North Georgia Conference Bishop Robin Dease, who took on the role days after the disaffiliation halt was announced.
"It's been a hard season for all of us," Moore said. "All any of us want is peace."
Dease's announcement, via a video posted on the conference website, outlined next steps but left some details unclear.
She said district superintendents are in touch with churches that are party to the Cobb County lawsuit, and between June 4 and Aug. 31 would hold conferences for them to officially vote on disaffiliation.
"The goal of our district superintendents is to move through this process with a gracious spirit," she said.
North Georgia Conference spokesperson Sybil Davidson did not by press time respond to an email asking if churches not party to the lawsuit — the conference has roughly 700 churches — would also be permitted to formally vote on disaffiliation during that time span.
But Dan Parr, who represented churches in the Cobb County lawsuit, said that appears to be the conference's position.
"We pray that the defendants reconsider this position and reopen the process to any churches desiring to discern their future," he said by email Saturday. "The legal and factual findings of Judge Schuster's order apply equally to all North Georgia churches despite the order being only binding for the plaintiffs."
Churches that ultimately elect to disaffiliate will have their petitions considered at a Nov. 18 special conference, Dease said.
Elsewhere, such meetings have been largely symbolic. In one such gathering in April, the Holston Conference, which encompasses United Methodist churches in East Tennessee and slivers of some surrounding states, approved 264 churches — about a third of its congregations — to leave the denomination. Monday was the official departure date for those churches.