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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Upfront: Spiritual split

Methodism is as much a part of North Carolina as barbecue, Bojangles’ and Cheerwine, though it may not be marketed as well. Virtually every town has a Methodist church,
while the big cities have many. Some have prominent center city locations; others sit in remote countryside.

It’s not a business, but the Methodist impact on our state has been profound economically and socially. The mostly White United Methodist Church had nearly 1,000 churches a few years back, while the mostly Black AME Zion denomination has 562. Methodists started or have backed colleges including Duke, High Point and Methodist universities; a half-dozen senior living centers; various camps and retreat centers; and hundreds of social-service nonprofits. Methodist church membership in North Carolina once topped 1 million. It’s now at least a third smaller, still more than any peers except the Baptists.

Methodists historically stay out of the news. That changed in the past year as more than 500 United Methodist churches in the state have voted to quit their denomination. This “disaffiliation” requires a two-thirds plurality at each church.  

The breakup is symbolic of polarization affecting many parts of society, including education, politics, media and business. Continuing a tradition advanced by Martin Luther in 1517, Methodists are proving that church folks can disagree as vigorously as anyone.

The Methodists’ conflict largely centers on whether to honor LGBTQ marriages and empower openly gay clergy. Current doctrine says no. Conservatives in the U.S. and Africa have blocked doctrinal changes promoted by progressives since the 1970s. United Methodist membership has soared in Africa, while declining from more than 10 million in the U.S. in the 1970s to fewer than 6 million today.

The debate will continue at next April’s gathering of global United Methodists in Charlotte. As many as 7,500 people are expected to attend the 11-day meeting, which is typically held every four years.

Most departing churches in North Carolina are in smaller cities, reflecting the rural-urban divide evident in national and state politics, in which rural areas are more conservative and bigger cities more liberal. While few churches in Charlotte and Raleigh are splitting off, some big suburban churches are cutting ties. In the Charlotte metro area, six of the 10 churches with the largest Sunday worship attendance are departing, including congregations in Concord, Mooresville and Weddington.

Overall, it’s likely that United Methodism will have lost more than a fifth of its North Carolina membership by Jan. 1. Many of those leaving will be part of the new Global Methodist Church denomination, which promotes a traditional view of Christian marriage
as being restricted to a man and a woman. Other churches will be independent.

There’s much sadness around this change. The three N.C. Methodist churches of
which I have belonged embraced arch-conservatives, passionate liberals and those in
between. Study and deliberation has been mostly encouraged. Splitting into separate camps is disappointing.

Still, good things can emerge as churches focus on essential callings that support members, families and communities. A four-story, 72,000-square-foot building is under construction at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, reflecting a positive vision at the biggest Methodist congregation in the state. It’s sticking with the UMC.

Likewise, Charlotte’s Good Shepherd Church, a large, racially diverse parish where 99% voted to leave, started an elementary school this fall to serve southwest Mecklenburg County. It’s the first such private school initiated by a Methodist church in the county. It plans to eventually offer classes through the 12th grade, signaling a long-term view.

People with good intentions will disagree on fundamental matters. This Methodist hopes that this reset renews rather than damages an essential North Carolina institution.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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