United Methodist split update: Clearbranch votes to go; Trinity Homewood stays

By Greg Garrison

The Rev. Vaughn Stafford, senior pastor of Clearbranch United Methodist Church, has been active in a conservative movement to leave the United Methodist Church. Clearbranch voted Nov. 21, 2022 to disaffiliate with the denomination. The request is expected to be approved in a special called meeting of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church on Dec. 10, 2022. (Photo by Greg Garrison)

Clearbranch United Methodist Church in Trussville voted Monday to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, joining 158 other North Alabama churches that have lined up asking to leave.

Several more churches will likely vote to disaffiliate before a Dec. 10 meeting of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church that is expected to approve the disaffiliation requests.

Monday’s vote by Clearbranch brought the total to 159 out of 638 congregations in the North Alabama Conference that have voted to disaffiliate, said Clearbranch Senior Pastor Vaughn Stafford.

Stafford has been a leader in the conservative movement that helped launch the Global Methodist Church on May 1, but the vote to leave was still emotional for him, he said.

“I’ve given 26 years of my life in the United Methodist Church,” he said. “To see that change, to turn the page, is very emotional. We ultimately serve the same God.”

Many of the congregations leaving the United Methodist Church plan to join the Global Methodist Church, Stafford said. Some have voted to join the Free Methodist Church, and some are remaining independent, at least for now, he said.

A super-majority vote of 75 percent is required to disaffiliate, and several have fallen short of that margin, including Arab First UMC, Pell City First UMC, Central UMC in Decatur and Blountsville UMC, Stafford said.

Trinity UMC in Homewood plans to stay

Leadership councils of some other churches have decided not to hold congregation-wide votes, indicating they plan to remain in the denomination.

The 2019 United Methodist General Conference passed legislation that opened a window during which churches could vote to leave and negotiate to take their property with them, if they had concerns about the denomination’s direction on the issue of human sexuality, such as disagreement over approval of same-sex marriage. Churches have until the end of 2023 to leave during that window.

“What paragraph 2553 does is from now until December 2023 it opens up a window where churches can disaffiliate through a discernment process,” said the Rev. Brian Erickson, senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood, which is planning to stay in the denomination.

On Nov. 14, the administrative board of Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood voted 63-3 to accept the recommendation of a discernment team to stay in the United Methodist denomination and not have a congregational vote on leaving, Erickson said. “If the church council doesn’t call for disaffiliation, that church doesn’t have to have a vote,” Erickson said.

“We really felt like a vote where people feel like there are winners and losers just causes tremendous harm and doesn’t really do anything to advance the mission of the church,” he said.

“Our folks are not all on the same page around issues of same-sex marriage and ordination of otherwise qualified LGBTQ folks to the ministry,” Erickson said. “We’re almost split right down the middle, which is what we all expected we were, but our folks love our church, and they love each other, and so we feel like we can move forward.”

A vote on disaffiliation would have created more division, Erickson said.

“We’ve got fairly conservative members at Trinity that are beloved, important leaders in our church and we’ve got gay and lesbian members at Trinity that are that are in leadership and important parts of our church,” he said. “We’ve got sort of evidential proof that that we can live together and do life together well.”

Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood
The Rev. Brian Erickson, senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood, said his congregation plans to remain in the United Methodist denomination. (Photo by Greg Garrison/AL.com)

Under the current rules, churches that leave have to negotiate to take their property with them and may have to pay for clergy pension liabilities and apportionments to the annual conference they are leaving.

Even though the denomination has repeatedly voted to keep its traditional stance on marriage as only between a man and a woman, conservatives complain that progressives in the denomination have repeatedly ignored the rules. Many conservatives are upset that the denomination does not strictly enforce its ban on blessing of same-sex unions.

Erickson said the focus on the issue of sexuality has been a distraction from the mission of the church. “For those of us that are remaining United Methodist, which will be the majority of the churches, we really want to pivot away from how much energy, time, resources, worry and anxiety this has been consuming,” Erickson said. “I want us to move towards what God has for us now as traditionalists, moderates and progressives together, not kicking one group out of the church.”

On Nov. 12, in the southern part of the state and the panhandle, the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church approved the disaffiliation of 35 churches that had requested it. Earlier in the year, it approved the disaffiliation of several others, including Frazer Methodist Church in Montgomery.

The 7,000-member Frazer Church is the most prominent Alabama congregation to leave the United Methodist Church this year and was once known as Alabama’s largest congregation in the denomination. Frazer voted to join the Free Methodist Church, a more conservative denomination that has about 300,000 U.S. members and about a million worldwide.

Stafford, as president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association of Alabama, said his organization is monitoring votes, and he has kept a list of the 159 churches in North Alabama that voted so far to disaffiliate. North Alabama Conference spokeswoman Danette Clifton said she cannot confirm the numbers and will not have an official final tally until the special called conference on Dec. 10.

Here’s an alphabetical list of North Alabama churches that have voted to disaffiliate, provided by Stafford, with the names of churches followed by district abbreviations (for Central, Mountain Lakes, Northeast, Southeast, South Central and Cheaha).

Adamsville CE

Addington Chapel (Bremen) CE

Albertville First ML

Andrews Chapel (Hanover) SE

Asbury (Ft. Payne) ML

Asbury (Madison) NE

Ashville First CH

Baileyton NE

Bear Creek (Woodland) SE

Bellevue (Gadsden) ML

Berry SW

Bethel (Guntersville) ML

Bethlehem (Fayette) SW

Big Sandy (Tuscaloosa) SW

Bivens Chapel (Brookside) CE

Blythe Memorial (Leighton) NW

Bothwell (Leesburg) ML

Canaan (Florence) NW

Center Springs (Somerville) NE

Chapel Hill (Decatur) NW

Childersburg First SE

Christ Church (Bham) SC

Christ Harbor (Northport) SW

Cleveland CE

Coaling SW

Collinsville First ML

Comer Memorial (Alexander City) SE

Concord (Talladega) CH

Corbinville (Albertville) ML

Cove (Owens Crossroads) NE

Crossroads (Jasper) CE

Crossville First ML

DeArmanville CH

Detroit (Unity Church) SW

Douglas ML

Ebenezer SW

Fairview (Centre) ML

Fairview (Dawson) ML

Fayette First SW

Fayetteville (Sylacauga) SE

Flat Rock (Crane Hill) CE

Flint Hill (Alexander City) SE

Friendship (Athens) NW

Ft Payne First ML

Gandys Cove NE

Geraldine First ML

Glencoe ML

Goodhope (Columbiana) SC

Graysville CE

Green’s Chapel (Lexington) NW

Guntersville First ML

Gurley NE

Hanceville CE

Harrison Chapel (Killen) NW

Hartselle First NW

Henagar ML

Hillabee Campground (Alexander City) SE

Hokes Bluff ML

Hope Church (Albertville) ML

Hueytown First CE

Jasper First SW

Julia Street (Boaz) ML

Kellyton SE

Kennedy SW

Killen NW

Kimberly CE

King’s Chapel (Ft Payne) ML

Latham (Huntsville) NE

Lee’s Chapel (Remlap) CE

Leeds First CH

Lester Memorial (Oneonta) ML

Liberty (Goodwater) SE

Liberty (Hokes Bluff) ML

Liberty Hill (Ashland) SE

Lusk Chapel (Dawson) ML

Lowell (Roanoke) SE

Madison NE

Martling (Albertville) ML

Marvin Chapel (Carrollton) SW

Marvin Chapel (Talladega) SE

McNutt Memorial (Ft Payne) ML

Mhoontown (Cherokee) NW

Midway CE

Miller’s Chapel (Ft Payne) ML

Milner’s Chapel (Ft Payne) NW

Mineral Springs (Lineville) SE

Mountain Chapel (Bham) SC

Mt. Carmel (Cullman) CE

Mt. Bethel (Rogersville) NW

Mt. Vernon (Fayette) SW

Mt. Zion (Cullman) CE

Nebo (Sulligent) SW

Nectar (Hayden) CE

New Brashier’s Chapel (Arab) NE

New Hope (Scottsboro) NE

New Life (Grant) NE

Oak Hill (Sulligent) SW

Oakman SW

Old Zion (Nauvoo) CE

Oleander (Union Grove) NE

Palmerdale (Pinson) CE

Parker Chapel (Madison) NE

Pleasant Grove (Joppa) NE

Pleasant Grove (Horton) ML

Pleasant Hill (Florence) NW

Pleasant Hill (Springville) ML

Rainbow City First ML

Red Hill (Attalla) ML

Red Hill (Guntersville) ML

Rescue (Union Grove) NE

Riddle’s Chapel (Athens) NW

Robertson Chapel (Rainsville) ML

Rock Mills (Roanoke) SE

Rockford SE

Rocky Mount (Jemison) SC

Rogers Chapel (Florence) NW

Romulus (Buhl) SW

Salem (Hartselle) NW

Salem (Lester) NW

Salem (Geraldine) ML

Sanderson Chapel (Town Creek) NW

Sand Rock ML

Shady Grove (Muscle Shoals) NW

Sharon Grove (Cullman) CE

Sheffield First NW

Shiloh (Talladega) CH

Skirum (Crossville) ML

Snead First ML

Somerville NE

Springhill (Madison) NE

Springville CH

St. Andrews (Cullman) CE

St. Andrews (Sylacauga) SE

St. Mark (Northport) SW

St. Paul (Boaz) ML

St. Paul (Ft Payne) ML

Talladega First CH

The Church at Ross Bridge (Hoover) SC

The Gathering Place ML

The Harbor (Meridianville) NE

Trinity (Collinsville) ML

Trinity (Rainsville) ML

Tuscumbia First NW

Union Chapel (Union Grove) ML

Union Hill (Gadsden) ML

Vernon First SW

Vestavia Hills CE

Warrenton (Guntersville) ML

Weeden Heights (Florence) NW

Wesley Chapel (Sylacauga) SE

Wesley Chapel (Fayette) SW

Wesley Memorial (Decatur) NW

West End (Hartselle) NW

West Huntsville NE

Whitehall (Valley Head) ML

Whorton Bend (Gadsden) ML

Winfield First NW

Zion (Jasper) SW