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Some worshipers are changing congregations amid division among United Methodists over LGBTQ issues

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Reverend Bill Farmer reached the point where he could no longer stay in the United Methodist Church – but the congregation he attended was living.

Michael Hahn always wanted to be at UMC – but his congregation was shunning it.

Each has found new homes in the church, and they are not alone.

Thousands of United Methodist congregants are voting to stay or leave one of the country’s largest denominations amid an unsettled debate over theology and the role of LGBTQ people. There are sharp differences on whether to recognize same-sex marriage and ordain LGBTQ clergy.

But the dividing line isn’t just running between the circles. It’s running through the pews of different churches, separating people who have long worshiped together.

Those who fall on the short end of the nonaffiliation vote face the dilemma of whether to stay or go.

Sporadic – often severe and stressful – have led to new initiatives to provide shelter for the homeless. Some United Methodist regional conferences have begun designating “lighthouse” congregations—those that actively welcome people who wanted to remain United Methodist but whose former churches voted to leave. Other conventions use different names, such as “Beacon” or “Oasis”, but the idea is the same.

The great-grandson of a circuit-riding Methodist pastor, Rev. Linda Ferguson, said, “The pain is real, and there is great sadness and great pain over the split in the United Methodist Church.”

His North Carolina church, First United Methodist Asheboro, became a lighthouse congregation. It reassured the entrants that it was committed to remaining United Methodist, so they would not have to worry about another disaffiliation vote. North Carolina has over 400 congregations that are unaffiliated.

Ferguson said she could personally relate to the departed congregations. The church of her childhood – which shaped her faith and where she felt a calling to ministry at age 12 – also voted to leave.

“Part of the Lighthouse mission is to let people know that the United Methodist Church is still here and still welcoming,” said Rev. Ed McKinney, pastor of Stokesdale United Methodist Church in Stokesdale, North Carolina.

Michael Hahn and his family are among a group of newcomers who have begun attending Stokesdale after their previous congregants left the sect.

Hahn, whose family has been Methodist for generations, said he can’t imagine leaving the denomination, which he values ​​for its blending of faith and rationality: “It’s a place where I’ve got to be at the door and blindfolded.” No need to check your reasoning and logic Accept things.

Hahn said he, his wife and daughters have found “a very warm and welcoming atmosphere” at the Stokesdale congregation, with people saying, “We’re glad to have you here, we want to walk through this period with you.” Are.”

Many of the departed churches are joining the conservative Global Methodist Church, formed last year. Others are going independent or joining various sects.

While the Global Methodist Church does not have a program like the Lighthouse Initiative, it has begun to launch or adopt congregations that can become homes for those who wish to leave the United Methodist Church but whose congregations remain.

This was the condition of the founders of Grace Methodist Church. The church started in Homosassa, Florida, in January after his previous congregation voted to stay in the UMC. The new church immediately became affiliated with the Global Methodist Church.

Grace Methodist is renting a former lodge hall for its services and has already started Bible studies and community outreach, as well as working to attract attendees from its own neighborhood.

“We are not meant to go to church for just one hour on Sunday; We are there to help the community,” said member Neil Kline. The enthusiasm of the participants is palpable, he said: “They can’t wait to go to church, and they don’t want to leave.”

Farmer came out of retirement to serve as the church’s pastor.

The group’s previous congregation was “a good church,” said Farmer, and he wished it to do well. But “my struggle was with the United Methodist structure, specifically what is happening in the United States.”

The ongoing scholarship has been forming for a long time.

The United Methodist Church — with about 6.5 million members in the United States and at least as many abroad — has long debated its ban on gay marriage and the ordination of openly LGBTQ clergy.

The denomination has repeatedly upheld the ban, largely through the voting power of the growing, more conservative churches abroad. But conservatives decided to form a new denomination amid growing defiance of the ban in American churches.

According to the United Methodist News Service, more than 3,500 American churches have received permission from their local conferences to disaffiliate from the UMC. With convention season approaching, dissent is closing in on 4,000 and could rise even more by year’s end, said the Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Union, a conservative group advocating for congregations to leave.

This is a fraction of the United Methodists’ 30,000 US churches, although many of the outgoing congregations are the largest in their states.

Therel said he had no problem with the Lighthouse concept, but renewed his call for churches to be allowed to separate on reasonable terms.

“I want everyone to live in the religious home that best suits them,” Therrell said. “Certainly, the United Methodist Church is welcome to try to form a church to do this. I hope they will respect the conservatives and allow us to get to where we need to be.”

In the Arkansas conference, more than 100 churches – out of a total of about 600 – have received permission to disaffiliate. This leaves parts of the state with few or no remaining United Methodist congregations, said Rev. Michael Roberts, director of the conference’s new Restart Initiative, which is hoping to enlist congregations to be beacon churches. Such churches will invite self-described “exiles, refugees, nomads” to worship services, help them start house groups, or develop other ways to keep them engaged.

“We’re really inviting churches to consider how they can provide this kind of hospitality,” Roberts said. “I like the word ‘hospitality’ because the word ‘hospital’ is derived from this word. It is about providing medical care.

In the Western Pennsylvania Conference, 17 churches officially became lighthouse churches on May 1.

About a third of the estimated 800 churches in the Western Pennsylvania Conference — a vast 23-county region — are seeking to have their disagreements approved at the conference’s June annual meeting, according to Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi.

“Where there was unanimity, there were very few votes cast,” he said. On the smaller end of those votives—sometimes described as pilgrims—Lighthouse congregations offer places where they can attend or wait until they figure out the next step.

But lighthouse churches are not places to settle into old routines, she said.

“It’s really an opportunity to think about those who are outside the church, and how this center of people looking for a church home can help us understand needs in the community and create faith communities” New ways to reach people.

Added BT Gilligan, senior pastor of Nixon United Methodist Church, a lighthouse congregation in Butler, Pennsylvania: “I really hope it expands and goes far beyond dissent, but allows for people who all Churches have been hurt for a variety of reasons.”

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Associated Press religion coverage is supported through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.