Small UMC churches and the pain of disaffiliation

My heart swells with joy as I reflect on the wonderful opportunity given to me to pastor several small United Methodist churches in the earliest days of my ministry. I was a true Methodist “circuit rider” with four churches on my “charge.” I would start early on Sunday morning and preach at 8:00 to a small congregation. I remember at the end of the service, the lay leader would take the offering plate and count the money and he would give me twenty or thirty dollars directly out of the offering plate for my weekly pay. Then my wife and I would jump into our 1973 Buick LeSabre and drive about ten miles to a 9:30 service at another church. Then, by 11:00 I was in yet another church preaching the same sermon. Twice a month, I would preach in a fourth church on Sunday evenings.  I remember one time preaching a sermon about God himself being the greatest “circuit rider” of all. He left the portals of heaven, came to earth to purchase our salvation, and returned to heaven to prepare a place for us. I am so glad that I was once a bone fide Methodist Circuit riding preacher!

As a young man raised in the city, I was completely unfamiliar with rural life in America. They taught me how to grow corn and tomatoes. I had never held a fishing pole in my hands growing up in the city. Yet, these dear saints did not ridicule my ignorance about life. Instead, they taught me to fish. These were mostly farming communities, and the churches were filled with many extended families, sometimes three or four generations. Many of them lived in small shack like homes they had built with their own hands. I remember sitting down with one member of one of our churches and we mapped out on a large sheet of paper how everyone in the church was blood related. In that particular church, only one couple in the entire church had no other blood relations in the church. Three of the four churches had cemeteries connected with them and we would often walk through the graveyards looking at the tombstones where mothers, brothers, sisters, and even children of our congregation were buried. In my first two years I conducted 52 funerals in the four churches. I remember when one of our older members was about to die. It was New Year’s Eve. The woman didn’t call 911 because in those days, there was no 911. Instead, she called me and asked if I would come over because, as she put it on the phone that night (I will never forget her exact words), “Preacher, Buford is commencing to die. Would you come?” I had never been in a room and held someone’s hand as they died. I remember us all singing Amazing Grace as he slipped into eternity just as the midnight came and the year 1985 was ushered in. I remember crying with one of our families who lost their only daughter in a tragic car accident. I remember conducting the funeral for two twin babies who died in childbirth. I have so many memories like that from those precious years of ministry.

I quickly learned that each of the churches had amazing, even miraculous, stories of how the church buildings were built and how they had worked together to see that dream become a reality. One of the churches had burned to the ground after a horrific lightning storm. These congregations couldn’t afford insurance. They would tell the story of how they came together to rebuild the church back with brick. These were poor people with little means. Stories abounded about how people sold their cows, or held bake sales, or even brought their inherited jewels to the altar to be sold so that the church could be rebuilt. I remember how one church decided to build a fellowship hall. For years they collected money and held rummage sales to raise the money for the new hall. The small youth group even held car washes to raise money for the project. The construction was often done by the men in the congregation. I have glorious memories of the days when we held a “dedication Sunday.” We all gathered around a new extension, or a new fellowship hall, or new Sunday School rooms, or even a new outside fellowship area with picnic tables and a barbeque pit for church wide gatherings to dedicate the new construction, share a meal and enjoy fellowship. It is no wonder that when these members looked at their church they swelled with pride as they reflected on the sacrifices they made to construct these buildings. One of these churches was connected to a camp meeting. I remember the time when the church decided to put a new tin roof on the large arbor which covered the open air sanctuary for the annual camp meeting. At that time, I had no experience in construction. Yet, I remember how several Saturdays we all gathered on the grounds and spent the day up on the roof pounding roofing nails in the large tin sheets to cover the arbor. When we completed each day’s work the women of the church had been busy preparing huge meals of fried chicken and overcooked green beans with pieces of ham in the broth and huge baskets of dinner rolls. We would eat those meals right on the grounds of the church, laughing and telling stories. Some of the men would even get out their banjos and play.  They loved to sing. I remember one of the churches didn’t want to give up their small brown Cokesbury hymnal for the new one because the ones they used had shaped notes and many of them only knew how to sing using the shaped notes.

One of my four churches had a number of young people, and they wanted to have a youth group. We didn’t have the budget to hire a youth minister, so I agreed to be the youth director. We met every Sunday afternoon and played basketball together. After we were done, my wife would have a meal all prepared; we would eat and I would share something from the Bible. I remember how they all wanted to go to a real NBA game. So, we planned a series of fundraising events, and eventually we all went to an Atlanta Hawks game. I remember the amazement on the faces of those young people as we drove though the big city of Atlanta and saw these players, some over 7 feet tall! They talked about that for years. We even stayed after the game and got autographs. Those were wonderful days.

I remember sitting with a young couple from the church who had decided to get married. I requested three pre-marital sessions to discuss principles of building a good Christian marriage. I will never forget the young man asking me, “Preacher, have you ever married anyone before us?” I said, “No, you are my first couple!” They were so excited that they would be the first couple I ever married as an ordained minister. The man was very nervous about saying anything in the service, and he asked if he would not be asked to repeat all of these lines which come up in the official marriage liturgy. He just wanted to say “yes” and nothing more. I remember adjusting the liturgy to accommodate his shyness. When the big day came, the church was packed with all his extended family and friends. When, at several key points, I asked him one of the questions, he couldn’t bring himself to even say “yes” but instead he just nodded. I remember we all laughed so hard later when I said that he was the first person in history to ever get married without saying a word!

I could share many more stories, but all these experiences bound us all together in the ministry of the church. These stories are from the churches I knew and walked with. They are not statistics to me, but dear friends who taught me more than I ever taught them. I promise you, if you could step back and hear the stories from thousands of small country churches across this great land of ours, you would hear many similar stories.

You can only imagine the pain and bewilderment of these churches as they gradually are realizing that if they are standing squarely in the historic gospel, they are going to have to hold a vote and formally disaffiliate from the denomination which they have been a part of their entire lives. They don’t understand things like the “trust clause” or the political maneuvers of the so-called “progressive” Christians in the upper echelons of the denomination. Paragraph 2553 is regularly touted as a “pennies on the dollar” deal. Yet, for many churches, this is still a lot to bear. They struggle to pay their apportionments, but have done so faithfully. But can they pay two years at once? Can they pay off all their existing debts? The pension liabilities can be calculated in ways which are astonishingly high. The December 2023 deadline is a logistical challenge since some District Superintendents are not willing to schedule a time to meet with their congregations. All they know is that the churches they have sacrificed to build do not actually belong to them. Many tell me that they have not received clear and consistent information about the cost or the process itself. These are the very buildings they have paid for out of their own sweat, blood and labor. They are sitting there looking at deeds which show that this property belongs to them; how can it actually belong to the Methodist Conference? How can we walk away from these cemeteries where our mother and father are buried? If they do walk out of their buildings, where would they go? Their struggles will not make national headlines. Few hear their cries of anguish. These are not just heart-tugging stories disconnected from reality. To be fair, there are a few Conferences which are working hard to help these small congregations, but others feel trapped in a bureaucracy they don’t understand. If they do manage to exit, how will they locate pastors willing to come and serve them? Quite a few of these churches are overwhelmingly conservative, but their pastor is progressive. They feel unsupported and intimidated about asking for a disaffiliation process which their own pastor does not support. As President of Asbury Seminary, I get letters and emails from small churches just like these I have described expressing their bewilderment and anguish. My heart aches because I am powerless to help them. I hope that when the history of this period is written that we do not neglect to remember the pain and suffering of these precious churches. I am thankful for paragraph 2553. It does provide a ray of hope. But the process can be agonizing and forces even small churches to walk through a painful and divisive process which will inevitably cause them to pit families against families, and congregations against their own pastors. May God have mercy on them in their hour of pain.


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