After a large initial swell amid a historic schism, a final wave of congregations in the region around Chattanooga are leaving the United Methodist Church as a key end-of-year deadline approaches.
Earlier this month, 15 churches joined the ranks of the 264 churches that had this past spring left the Holston Conference, a body that governs churches throughout East Tennessee and beyond. And Tuesday, 18 churches of the North Alabama Conference — which has seen among the highest disaffiliation rates in the nation — joined the roughly 330 that had already split off.
The South has been the epicenter of a major fracture of one of the nation's largest Protestant denominations. The split has been clearest in debates over church sanction of same-sex marriage and gay clergy — but some theological conservatives said these are flash points for deeper disputes about scriptural authority, liberalism and church leadership.
A denominational rule that has generally governed the disaffiliation process expires at the year's end, and the Holston and North Alabama conferences do not plan to consider any further disaffiliation requests before then, their spokespeople told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by email.
But the other two Chattanooga-area conferences have their final meetings to ratify disaffiliations yet to come. In mid-November, more churches will likely join the 230-plus that have so far left the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference. And a few days later in North Georgia, 180 churches or more could join the 70-plus that have already been approved to leave.
Whether they will end up having lost a quarter of their congregations or more than half of them, all four conferences in the area are set to finish up a major phase of the schism with disaffiliation rates outpacing the rest of the nation.
Lookout Valley's Wauhatchie Methodist Church remains Chattanooga proper's lone disaffiliating congregation. Still, the broader Holston Conference, 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.
Of these, 264 were formally approved to leave at a large special session in Knoxville this past April. Fifteen more were approved to leave in a final Sept. 7 session that took place over video broadcast out of the conference's headquarters in Alcoa, Tennessee.
That latter group of churches had not fulfilled requirements necessary to leave in time for the April disaffiliation session, so they were given a "second opportunity," the conference said.
Most congregations in this final cohort are Virginia churches. It included none affiliated with the conference's Scenic South District, which encompasses churches in Chattanooga and surrounding areas, though it did include two churches in the nearby Hiwassee District: First United Methodist Church in Sweetwater and Ironsburg United Methodist Church in Tellico Plains.
"The Holston Conference will miss the congregations that are disaffiliating today from the United Methodist Church, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett said in a statement. "At the same time, we rejoice with the churches that are continuing on the journey together as United Methodists."
Wallace-Padgett is also the bishop of the nearby North Alabama conference, which has one of the highest disaffiliation rates in the nation. Of the more than 600 member churches it had before the largest disaffiliation wave began in 2022, only about 290 remain.
A live YouTube stream Tuesday began with a flute performance, giving way to a speech from Wallace-Padgett and singing from a church choir. In an online vote, conference representatives ratified the disaffiliations of 18 congregations, adding to an exodus that included 132 churches approved to leave in May and 198 approved to leave in December 2022.
"The disaffiliation process was a painful, personal process to go through," said an email from an account associated with Ider Methodist Church, a DeKalb County congregation that was among those approved to leave Tuesday. But the process was handled with grace on both sides, the email said.
Disaffiliations to come
The young Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference has seen a relatively lower proportion of churches leave, but the conference has its final session yet to come. The product of a Jan. 1, 2022, merger between two Tennessee conferences, the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference governs United Methodist churches from the western portion of Tennessee stretching East into Franklin and Grundy counties.
From an initial total of 900 churches, the conference approved 57 to leave in 2022 and another 162 this past May. It's scheduled to ratify a final swath of disaffiliations Nov. 13.
In an email Wednesday, conference spokesperson Amy Hurd declined to speculate on how many remaining churches will disaffiliate but said a clearer number will emerge in early October, the deadline by which churches seeking to leave must submit final documentation.
A large exodus is likely to be approved at a special meeting of the North Georgia Conference scheduled to take place a few days later, on Nov. 18. The conference saw 70 churches split off in 2022 before a legal battle ensued. The churches in the conference still seeking to break away can generally be divided into two main groups.
The larger set constitutes those that successfully sued to leave the conference earlier this year after officials, citing what they said was rampant disinformation, abruptly moved to halt all further disaffiliation in late 2022.
After a judge ruled against it, the conference announced it would allow all plaintiff churches to hold official disaffiliation votes between June 4 and Aug. 31. In this period, of the churches that were party to the lawsuit, three have voted to remain United Methodist and 182 have voted to disaffiliate — and generally by overwhelming margins, said Dan Parr, who represented churches in the lawsuit, by phone Wednesday.
Local churches must achieve a two-thirds majority vote in order to disaffiliate.
The other category of North Georgia churches that will seek disaffiliation in November consists of those who were not plaintiffs in the suit but still have ultimately voted to leave the denomination.
How many churches fall into this category, however, remains unclear. By email, North Georgia Conference spokesperson Sybil Davidson did not provide a total figure of churches seeking disaffiliation but said the conference would put one out in the coming weeks. Parr said he is aware of an additional 38 churches — though he suspects there are far more — that were not parties to the lawsuit but have nonetheless moved to hold disaffiliation votes.
Parr said a few of these churches have voted to disaffiliate, at least one voted not to and others will hold votes into the coming weeks.
After a rocky first half of the year, tensions have settled in North Georgia, and Parr said all parties have mostly shown grace to one another as they work diligently to try to put a difficult process behind them.
"The conference has conducted the votes in an orderly and proper fashion," Parr said. "The district superintendents have fairly implemented the set-forth procedure. And generally speaking, the churches conducted themselves in a professional and Christian manner."