SOUTHLAKE, Texas (RNS) — Members of White’s Chapel United Methodist Church, a large congregation in this wealthy Dallas suburb, overwhelmingly voted earlier this month to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, part of the ongoing defection of conservative Methodists from the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. over questions of sexuality.
White’s Chapel fits that bill — Southlake is no stranger to the polarizing debates about critical race theory in schools, about gun rights and LGBTQ rights. But the congregation is no stranger to competing ideas, either, and says it does not plan to join the Global Methodist Church, the new conservative denomination offering a home to like-minded United Methodists.
Rather, White’s Chapel hopes to create what they call a Methodist Collegiate College, “envisioned to create a new form of connectionalism — one of shared ministry, equal accountability, and practical governance.”
And it’s hoping other churches might join it in time.
“We want to work together, and we want to be a healing agent between all of Methodism,” said the Rev. John McKellar, co-pastor of White’s Chapel.
RELATED: United Methodist Church announces date, location for thrice-postponed General Conference
McKellar hopes White’s Chapel — which sees close to 6,000 attendees weekly — can become an example of respectful discourse and find pockets of unity in “an era of polarization,” he said.
“People have very different opinions and thoughts on politics and on different theological ideas, if we can’t find a common ground and worship together, what are we modeling for the rest of the nation?” he said.
The Rev. Todd Renner, who co-pastors with McKellar, thinks White’s Chapel isn’t alone in seeking moderation. He sees the Global Methodist Church as more conservative and the existing UMC as more progressive “than those of us that are kind of moderate.” Many, if not most, of the bigger United Methodist churches, Renner said, have congregants all across the political spectrum.
The vote at White’s Chapel — on Nov. 7, the day before the midterm election — brought 2,505 members to the church, which was open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. They filed inside past security and into the church lobby, where sweets were laid out on a table and fellow congregants were chatting. Voting took place in a separate room, and voters cast their vote on an electronic voting machine.
The result was lopsided, with 2,338 voting to disaffiliate, 160 voting against and seven abstaining.
The pastors of White’s Chapel say they’ve heard from other “in between” churches who are interested in a more centrist conference, but they declined to share what churches that might be.
The Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which advocates for UMC conservatives and is aligned with the Global Methodist Church, said the group is happy that White’s Chapel has voted to disaffiliate and believes it’s best for the future of the Southlake church.
“While we wish that White’s Chapel, and all disaffiliating churches, would join the robust future of the Global Methodist Church, we understand that some are soured on denominations because of the mistreatment of the United Methodist Church. The GMC’s doors will always be open, and we hope that one day we will all be together,” Therrell said.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, head of the Global Methodist Church, said he expected that some churches that disaffiliate may remain independent for a time while discerning whether to join a new denomination. He said there is no comprehensive list of churches engaged in the process of disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church, but he believes that number is approaching 2,000. (He said he only hears from those interested in joining the Global Methodist Church.)
Since the denomination was launched in May, he said in an email to RNS, “Hundreds of churches have already become congregational members of the Global Methodist Church and hundreds more are in the process of doing so.”
White’s Chapel’s disaffiliation still must be approved by the Central Texas Annual Conference, the regional governing body. In September, a special session of the annual conference approved 81 churches’ resolutions to disaffiliate. The conference next meets in June.
White’s Chapel’s vote was held in accordance with the disaffiliation plan approved by a special session of the United Methodist Church’s national General Conference in 2019, along with legislation called the Traditional Plan, which strengthened the denomination’s language barring the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ United Methodists.
Though many expected LGBTQ United Methodists and their allies to exit the denomination as a result, they vowed to remain and resist. Instead, mostly conservative Methodists are leaving the UMC.
The disaffiliation plan allows church members to vote to leave the denomination through the end of 2023. The resolution must be approved by the church’s annual conference, and the church must pay two years of apportionments and pension liabilities, but it can retain ownership of its buildings and land.
Annual conferences may add their own requirements for disaffiliation, and groups like the Wesleyan Covenant Association have argued that some annual conferences are adding “onerous and punitive requirements” for disaffiliation to prevent churches from leaving.
The Central Texas Annual Conference could not immediately be reached to discuss what it requires from departing congregations.
White’s Chapel says this was the right time for them financially to pay out. The church’s primary concern, its co-pastor McKellar said, was to move forward with its eyes on its religious mission, without the trying politics of either the UMC or its politically minded neighbors.
“There are a lot of churches in our community that endorse candidates,” said McKellar. “They get involved in these issues. We are not that. We want to be that, that middle place, united around Jesus.”
RELATED: Bishop slams ‘negative rhetoric’ as conservative Methodists declare end to moratorium