United Methodist Church split over gay marriage, clergy hits Colorado

A division over whether the United Methodist Church should allow gay clergy and sanction same-sex marriages is causing a split within the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, and on Thursday, 38 United Methodist congregations in the West will leave the church during the Mountain Sky Conference’s annual meeting in Colorado Springs.

The 38 churches filed petitions for disaffiliation, citing “reasons related to human sexuality” as the basis for their departure. They represent about 10% of the churches within the Mountain Sky Conference, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and parts of Montana. Thirty-two of those churches are in Colorado, mostly in the southeastern portion of the state.

“We have theological conflicts with the direction of the United Methodist Church as it’s currently organized and as the future unfolds,” said the Rev. Randy Jessen, a former United Methodist pastor whose congregation in Genoa disaffiliated last fall. “The majority of our folks are more concerned about a general movement to the far left.”

The United Methodist Church does not condone the ordination of openly gay clergy or allow same-sex marriages, but it’s the conservative churches that are choosing to leave — in part because they fear a change in doctrine is coming.

And in the West, the denomination already has thumbed its nose at that position, electing a married lesbian to serve as the Mountain Sky Conference’s bishop.

Along with the 38 churches choosing to exit the denomination, another four will close their doors because their congregations have dwindled and they no longer can afford to operate a church.

And another eight congregations separated from the United Methodist Church in 2021 and 2022, according to data provided by the Mountain Sky Conference. That means a total of 50 congregations will have left the conference in three years.

The departures are happening en masse across the United States this summer because of an agreement among United Methodists that will allow exiting congregations to keep their buildings and land as long as the sites remain active churches for the next 10 years. That deal ends Dec. 30.

Each congregation is paying a fee, which varies based on its size, to leave.

“Meet them with love and respect”

The United Methodist Church split is particularly bitter in the Mountain Sky Conference, which has a reputation within the denomination as one of the more liberal conferences and where its members elected the denomination’s first openly gay bishop in 2016.

Bishop Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian, continues to serve in that role. In 2017, the Methodist church’s high court ruled that she was in violation of church law but did not remove her.

The Mountain Sky Conference, along with other Western conferences in the United States, are pushing the entire denomination in a more progressive direction, Jessen said.

“Theological stances have transitioned almost entirely to social justice issues, where the church was established firmly on Christian beliefs and creating disciples rather than protesting social justice issues,” he said. “The Mountain Sky Conference has been leading the way in many areas.

“In most parts of the country, the Mountain Sky Conference is so radical other conferences don’t consider it to be a part of (the United Methodist Church).”

The rift is a source of grief, Oliveto said. But she vowed to continue serving the United Methodist Church and its members who need a compassionate, accepting voice.

“I have to work hard to again meet people where they are, to meet them with love and respect and to not judge them the way they may be judging me,” Oliveto told The Denver Post. “I can’t make my community smaller. I’ve got to keep extending a welcome, even to people who disagree with who I am. Love demands nothing else.”

The United Methodist Church claims more than 12 million members worldwide with about 6.5 million residing in the United States. The Western Sky Conference will have about 48,068 members remaining after Thursday’s disaffiliation vote, Oliveto said.

An evolving position on LGBTQ issues

The church’s position on homosexuality has been evolving since 1972, when it first was included in doctrine, known as the “church discipline” within the United Methodist faith.

But disagreement intensified within the United Methodist Church in 2019 when U.S. bishops, recognizing the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in the United States, called for a special meeting to discuss and possibly change the church’s stance on LGBTQ clergy and marriages.

The more liberal members of the United Methodist Church believed the denomination should drop its opposition to LGBTQ clergy and marriages and be more inclusive and welcoming to all.

“It rests on whether or not we believe that all people regardless of sexuality or gender identity are created by God, loved by God and called by God,” Oliveto said.

But traditionalists believe that allowing LGBTQ clergy and marriages goes against Jesus Christ’s teachings, said John Lomperis, a delegate from the Indiana Conference who voted to uphold the doctrine.

“It fundamentally goes to the authority of scripture and the authority of Jesus,” Lomperis said. “Jesus described marriage as defined by God as one woman and one man. Are we actually going to say we know more about what marriage is than Jesus?”

The majority of the 2019 delegates — 54% — voted to uphold church discipline that says, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and says “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers or appointed to serve the church.

The vote immediately caused dissent within the United Methodists, with the predominantly white, liberal side angry over the outcome, Lomperis said. The vote was supported by congregations from the Midwest and the Southeastern United States as well as international delegates, especially from Africa, which has a sizable United Methodist population and where homosexuality is largely not accepted.

“It was very contentious,” Lomperis said. “It was a very stressful environment.”

Oliveto still believes the majority of those who belong to the United Methodist Church want change.

“This doesn’t reflect the people in the pews,” she said of the doctrine.

A new denomination is born

After the 2019 vote, the denomination saw a potential split coming and hired a mediator to help create a path for anticipated departures from more progressive congregations. But the departures came with an unexpected twist: Conservative churches began asking to leave.

So far, 6,000 congregations out of more than 35,000 have left the United Methodist Church, and more are expected before the year ends, Lomperis said.

“They’re not leaving Methodism,” he said. “They’re just trying to continue traditional Methodism.”

A new denomination is being built from the remnants of the United Methodist Church.

Already, Global United Methodist Church claims 2,780 congregations, Lomperis said. More are expected to join once they are approved for disaffiliation. The denomination will maintain historic Methodist doctrine, meaning LGBTQ people will not be allowed to serve as church pastors and bishops and will not be allowed to marry within the church.

The churches in Colorado will have to wait until their disaffiliation is approved and financial agreements are settled before deciding whether to join the Global United Methodist fold or operate as independent churches.

At the former Genoa United Methodist Church, which is about an hour and a half southeast of Denver in Lincoln County, the decision to disaffiliate was painful, Jessen said.

He had been a United Methodist minister since 1976 and expected to die as one. But that won’t happen after the Genoa congregation in October voted 25-1 to disaffiliate.

“It’s an interesting dynamic because people on the other side think it’s an act of rebellion to depart,” Jessen said. “But really it’s a strong act of Christian confidence. There’s a great deal of grief involved as well.”

After the vote, the Genoa congregation removed the United Methodist Church’s name and logo from its sign, letterhead and official documents. It’s now called Plains Community Church.

Most of the Mountain Sky Conference congregations that are disaffiliating are small, rural churches. The largest congregations petitioning to leave are the Brighton United Methodist Church and the Korean American United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs. Both have more than 200 members.

“The whole thing has been nuts”

The Vineland United Methodist Church in Pueblo is on the list of churches that will disaffiliate on Thursday after its nearly 100 members voted to leave.

Rose Vest, who’s been a United Methodist since 1982 and a member of Vineland for seven years, said she will breathe a sigh of relief when the formal disaffiliation vote is over on Thursday night. The congregation has not decided whether it will join the Global Methodists, she said.

“To us, the whole thing has been nuts that we have to leave,” she said.

For her, the separation just isn’t about LBGTQ issues, but also about how the conference spends its money. Each congregation sends 13% of its annual budget to the Mountain Sky Conference to pay the bishop’s salary and other expenses associated with church membership.

“No, we’re not homophobes,” Vest said. “We object to being told to pay your 13%, but if you want any input on how the money is spent, keep your mouth shut.”

She expects to lose friends after the vote, including people who will unfriend her on Facebook.

“The other thing is they are not accepting of people with a traditionalist view,” Vest said. “We’re the churches that paid faithfully. We are the churches that supported and we are the ones that will continue to follow our hearts and serve God. We wanted to be able to serve alongside the others, but that is not the case.”

As for the future of Methodism in the Mountain Sky Conference, Oliveto said the remaining 318 United Methodist churches will carry on with a renewed focus on mission work. She also believes those who remain are committed to accepting LGBTQ people into the church and to ordaining them as ministers.

Oliveto said she received thousands of emails after she was elected bishop that thanked her for being open and for serving the church.

“For me, I think, as we see some churches disaffiliate, it’s time for us to be laser-focused on ministry,” she said. “Be outside the walls of the church. Meet people in the community. Meet people where they live and work and where they are hurting and suffering. Provide healing and hope. This is our moment to be doing that.”

Oliveto said she could not predict whether the United Methodist Church will change its doctrine on LGBTQ clergy and marriages during the next denomination-wide meeting in 2024.

But many of the conservative delegates who voted to uphold it in 2019 are part of the departure. She hopes it will change.

“I know for at least the sake of the church in the U.S., this is really important,” Oliveto said. “The eyes of the future generations are really looking at us.”

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