United Methodists bishops, seeking to turn page on difficult chapter, converge on Lake Junaluska

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Little Soddy Creek dribbles past the Soddy United Methodist Church on Depot Street in 2020.

United Methodist Church leaders from across the world are convening this week near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to discuss the future of a denomination shrunken by schism and preparing for its first global assembly in years.

Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the Holston and North Alabama conferences will attend the meeting, as will Bishop Robin Dease of the North Georgia Conference, their respective spokespeople confirmed by email.

The pair will be among 100 bishops in attendance from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, according to a news release from the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

The gathering, held at Lake Junaluska Assembly — a well-trodden retreat destination for clergy of many stripes — is scheduled to run until Saturday in North Carolina and will be livestreamed on facebook.com/umcbishops.

It opened Monday with a memorial service, and its plenary session is set to begin Tuesday.

The assembled plan to elect new leaders and prepare for an upcoming General Conference, but they will also discuss their efforts to dismantle racism, win disciples and strengthen mission strategies in the global denomination, the news release said.

The meeting also comes as a major phase of the denomination's historic schism — in which theological conservatives have left over over LGBTQ+ policy and church liberalism — approaches an end.

(READ MORE: With deadline approaching, scale of United Methodist schism becomes clearer as final wave of churches departs)

The rule under which the nearly 7,000 U.S. congregations have thus far been approved to depart the United Methodist Church expires at the end of 2023.

They constitute almost a quarter of the roughly 30,000 U.S. churches affiliated with the worldwide denomination. But the U.S. South has seen a higher rate of departures.

The Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, which stretches from a sliver of North Georgia, through East Tennessee and into Southwest Virginia, has lost more than 1 in 3 of its formerly 840-plus churches. More than half of the North Alabama Conference's 600 member churches left, and the North Georgia Conference, which lost a legal battle with a large group of congregations seeking disaffiliation, is expected to approve a significant number of church departures at a special meeting Nov. 18.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's lone breakaway Methodist church seeks to remain (mostly) the same)

"I admit to you I'm eager to get past all this," said the Council of Bishops' New York-based president, Thomas Bickerton, at its spring meeting in Chicago, according to the Religion News Service. "I want us to stop talking about disaffiliations. I'm worried genuinely that we've spent more time on those that are leaving than focusing our energy on those who are staying."

That was the first in-person gathering of United Methodist bishops from across the world since the pandemic began. The coming general conference, in which thousands of worldwide delegates will meet to make and revise denomination policy, is set to take place this spring in Charlotte, North Carolina. It too has not been held for years; this particular gathering was originally set to take place in 2020, but planners put it off several times amid the pandemic.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.