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‘Move toward a new horizon’

Bishop Bard leads the Special Session

The Michigan Conference prepares to move forward following the November 30 vote to approve the disaffiliation of 62 churches from The United Methodist Church.

Content Editor

On Thursday, November 30, 2023, the Special Session of the Michigan Annual Conference was held online as lay and clergy members gathered virtually to vote on two business items.

Sixty-two local churches had requested to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church as a matter of conscience concerning the direction The United Methodist Church is heading as it relates to the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons in the life and ministry of the church.

The other matter of business was the vote to approve the closure of one church since the last meeting in June 2023 — Charlevoix United Methodist Church in the Northern Skies District.

Both business items passed by a majority vote, with the disaffiliation vote passing by 97% of eligible voting members.

This was the final group of churches in Michigan that obtained the necessary two-thirds majority to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church at a duly called Church Conference. These churches have until December 15 to meet all requirements. Earlier this year, 58 churches had completed the process (please note that two churches on this list were transferred to the November 30 session). And only eight churches had disaffiliated before 2023.

Paragraph 2553, which was added to The Book of Discipline following the 2019 Special Session of General Conference, provided a limited exit path for those churches that could not abide by The United Methodist Church’s current or future stance related to LGBTQIA+ persons. The Michigan Conference Board of Trustees established the exact terms and conditions of disaffiliation in alignment with the provisions found in Paragraph 2553.

On December 31, 2023, this departure path will expire, Paragraph 2553 will be removed from The Book of Discipline, and this season of disaffiliation will conclude.

Bishop David Bard led the proceedings of the Special Session, and Rev. David Eardley, Chair of the Commission on the Annual Conference Session, began the gathering by welcoming everyone and outlining voting parameters through Zoom’s online platform.

In his opening devotion, Bishop Bard acknowledged the grief that comes with separation. He read the biblical story from Genesis 25, where the two sons of Abraham — Isaac and Ishmael — stand at their father’s grave. The brothers are together one final time. After this moment, the two sons go their separate ways and chart a new path for themselves and their families. Bard compared this moment in scripture with the moment we are in as a conference, as a church.

“Tonight is about farewells, about going different directions,” he said. “After tonight, and with the new year, some of us will be settling in different places. This is a poignant evening. The heaviness of grief hangs over us, and also the dim glimmer of new horizons.”

If all 62 churches approved at the November 30 Special Session fulfill the requirements to disaffiliate (basic guidelines are outlined in this document on the conference’s website), they will be added to the 58 churches approved earlier in 2023 and the eight prior to 2023, for a total of 128 churches. There were 748 churches in 2020 when the disaffiliation process began, so 17% of churches in Michigan will have disaffiliated by the end of 2023.

Based on updated numbers from a list created by UM News, there have been almost 7,500 churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church in the United States.

Before the vote on disaffiliation, Rev. Carolin Spragg, Chair of the Board of Trustees, opened the Corporate Session by bringing a business item related to a church closure before the voting members of the Michigan Annual Conference. The Board of Trustees is responsible for dealing with legal and property matters of the Annual Conference.

Rev. Dr. Margie Crawford, Dean of the Cabinet, then presented the motion to close Charlevoix UMC. She also noted that the celebration of this congregation will happen at the 2024 Michigan Annual Conference.

Rev. Brad Bartlemay, Special Assistant to the Bishop, who has been guiding congregations through the legal and administrative steps once a church voted to leave the denomination, brought the disaffiliation motion and list of 62 churches before the members of the Annual Conference. (Click this link to view the motion and the names of the churches by district.)

In preparation for the vote, Bishop Bard, Bartlemay, and Spragg answered several questions submitted through Zoom’s online platform. (All questions and answers can be heard via the recording posted on the conference’s Facebook page, starting at 25:42).

Out of that time of discussion came several matters of note, in summary:

    • If a congregation does not satisfy the disaffiliation requirements by December 15, 2023, they will remain a United Methodist congregation in the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church.
    • Paragraph 2553 expires at the end of 2023, and the Michigan Conference will not consider any similar church departures from the Annual Conference until after General Conference, which will be held in late April/early May 2024.
    • In many cases, for churches that are disaffiliating, clergy are deciding to remain with their church. Bishop Bard and the Cabinet are caring for those clergy choosing to remain United Methodist during this transitional time.
    • The Michigan Conference has put a team in place to care for members of a disaffiliating church who wish to remain United Methodist. Information about this resource is on the Stay UMC web page via the conference website.
    • There will be conference budget repercussions related to the disaffiliation of churches, primarily as it relates to the loss of Ministry Shares. Spragg mentioned that she had talked to Angie Anger, Michigan Conference CFO, and there will be an estimated loss of $1.8 million in Ministry Shares due to the 120 disaffiliating churches in 2023.
    • Bartlemay noted that more information is forthcoming in 2024 regarding where the money received by the Michigan Conference as part of the disaffiliation process will go. The total amount received depends on how many of the 62 churches complete the process. He will be preparing a 2024 report about how the money will be divided and the potential impact on membership. (Review Bartlemay’s response during the Special Session on the conference’s Facebook page, starting at 40:55).

Bishop Bard led with a gracious spirit throughout the evening, and right before the disaffiliation vote, he prayed words of blessing and noted how groups throughout history have understood what it means to follow Jesus differently. He prayed, “Each of the congregations we’re voting on tonight, O God, is a congregation of people that wants to serve you faithfully and well. And the congregations that will continue as the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church are congregations that want to serve you faithfully and well. May it be so. Give us the strength, the courage, the wisdom, the compassion to follow you into new avenues of ministry.”

In conclusion, Bishop Bard returned to the story of Isaac and Ishmael standing at their father’s grave. These two brothers couldn’t stand there forever. They had to move on, each in his own way, each with his own people, and move toward a new horizon. The same is true for the Michigan Conference.

“We’ve never been here before. We move on, move on toward a new horizon, move forward on a rather mapless shore with profound faith in Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, trusting the deep love of God and trusting in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We move on, giving each other to God.”

Last Updated on January 30, 2024

The Michigan Conference