United Methodists start new congregations where churches disaffiliated

By Greg Garrison 

The United Methodist Center on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College serves as offices for the North Alabama Conference. (Photo by Greg Garrison)

The North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church had 198 congregations out of 638 disaffiliate on Dec. 10, but since then has been starting new congregations in communities where the United Methodist affiliate has left.

“You can imagine how painful it has been to oversee the disaffiliation process in our annual conference this past year,” wrote Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, head of the North Alabama Conference. “Granted, disaffiliated churches are still a part of the Christian movement, but they are no longer connected to this annual conference I lead and love. I have shed many tears and grieved deeply throughout this experience.”

The bishop said she visited two churches on Sunday, Feb. 12, to help launch new congregations.

“I had the opportunity to witness firsthand the United Methodist Church growing in North Alabama again,” she said. “Twice on the same Sunday. My day started at Hammer’s Hall in Albertville where a new faith community has been meeting. This group first gathered in late November. I knew this was a special community of faith from the moment I walked through the doors. Breakfast food, round tables, a piano, a beautiful altar display, smiles, hugs and conversations filled the room. Then, promptly at 9 a.m., the worship service began. Gail Hiett provided beautiful music. District Developer Rev. Carol Gullatt led announcements with humor, and prayers and liturgy with grace. Following my sermon, participants lingered to visit and enjoy one another before beginning their weekly Bible study. It was a balm to my soul to witness firsthand this new United Methodist Community of Faith in the North Alabama Conference.”

Albertville First Methodist Church was one of the 198 to disaffiliate on Dec. 10. Another was Lester Memorial Methodist in Oneonta.

“From Albertville, I traveled 35 minutes to Oneonta United Methodist Community which began meeting on Christmas Eve,” Wallace-Padgett wrote. “They have already outgrown their first meeting space and will soon move into a third one to accommodate increasing numbers. Coordinated by Mitchell Hastings, Bob Bentley and Richard Phillips, this intergenerational community currently meets in a lovely art gallery called The Makers. Again, my heart was encouraged as I watched this new part of the Body of Christ in action.”

More disaffiliations are expected to be ratified at a special meeting of the North Alabama Conference on May 11. About 45 congregations in the conference have voted to leave and are waiting to be approved for disaffiliation at that meeting.

The 198 churches that left all voted by 66.7 percent or more to leave the denomination, either to become independent or join more conservative denominations where traditional Christian bans on same-sex marriage are not up for debate.

Although the United Methodist Church still holds its traditional stance banning same-sex marriage and ordaining openly gay clergy, decades of fighting on the issue prompted many conservatives to leave when a door was opened clearing the way for them to take church property with them.

“Yes, this season of disaffiliation has been difficult,” Wallace-Padgett said. “How encouraging it is to turn our eyes from disaffiliations to new communities of faith that are beginning to emerge across our annual conference.”

She said another five new congregations are forming, with more planned.

Bentley, an Oneonta attorney, said he was part of the discernment process at Lester Memorial, but wanted to remain United Methodist.

“The folks that did not want to disaffiliate are very invested church members,” Bentley said. “There was a lot of enthusiasm. We went fairly quickly from hard feelings over disaffiliation to excitement over this.”

The Oneonta group began organizing Dec. 18, the week after the disaffiliation vote. They held a worship service on Christmas Eve and their first Sunday service on New Year’s Day, Bentley said.

They started meeting at the former Miller’s Drug store, then moved to The Makers art studio. He said the group started with 50 to 55 people and has grown to about 60 to 80 and is looking for a larger meeting place.

About 300 church members took part in the disaffiliation vote at Lester Memorial, and more than 67 percent voted to disaffiliate, so about 250 people are forming a new Global Methodist Church congregation in Oneonta.

“It was a hard time,” Bentley said. “There were strong feelings, but God is greater than our disagreements. I have let that go. The shape the world’s in, there’s enough space for all of us. There’s work to be done. You can’t let the work of God stop.”