LUBBOCK — The Northwest Texas Annual Conference of United Methodist Churches started like a regular church service. Participants sang, took communion, then prayed before voting to split from the United Methodist Church, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.
“We are a broken body,” Presiding Bishop James G. Nunn said as he explained to his hundreds of congregants how the communion bread represented both the broken body of Jesus Christ but also the tension within the faith. “But it teaches us that the breaking is not the end.”
Nunn continued, calling the accompanying communion juice “cups of forgiveness.” He prayed for the congregation’s mercy and forgiveness toward one another.
“Even in the best of circumstances, there are feelings that are hurt, and sometimes, relationships are rendered in two,” Nunn said.
The Northwest Texas Conference includes 200 churches from far West Texas up through the Panhandle. The Lubbock gathering included 145 of those churches — about a third of the 439 Texas churches that finalized their departure from the denomination on Saturday. The split, organized by more conservative church members, comes after years of infighting that stems from the UMC’s more inclusive stances when it comes to congregants and its acceptance of gay marriage and other divides that mirror, and are likely to intensify, America’s broader, ongoing polarization. The measure in Lubbock passed by a vote of 261-24.
Hundreds more are expected to similarly depart in the coming months after getting final approval from church leaders and join the Global Methodist Church, which would follow the same beliefs more conservatively. The UMC has four regional bodies in Texas, two of which met on Saturday: the one in Lubbock and another and the Texas Annual Conference in Houston.
There, in the nation’s fourth-largest city, 1,245 members voted to approve the disaffiliation, with 3% voting to oppose the split and another 4% abstaining. Nearly half of the UMC congregations in East Texas — 294 churches — voted to leave the denomination.
The fight within the denomination occurs as the UMC has expanded into more conservative areas of the world. And it comes amid a national reckoning in broader American Christianity over similar questions about inclusivity and doctrinal alignment that have intensified.
“It parallels this moment in the broader world,” said the Rev. Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe, senior pastor at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Houston, which is remaining in the UMC. “It’s a hard time to bring people together. We really reflect the brokenness of the culture and the world.”
In Lubbock, the Northwest Texas Annual Conference greenlighted the exits of nearly 75% of the region’s congregations. According to the conference workbook, it is anticipated that the northwest division will cease to exist.
Archie Echols, a retired deputy minister who has been part of the conference for 75 years, was the only person to speak before the vote to disaffiliate. He referenced a scripture that says to prepare a way for God and said closing the church to gay members goes against that.
“I think there’s a whole mass of God’s children,” Echols said. “And I feel, instead of preparing a way with that mass of people, who happen to be gay, we’re making a block that doesn’t let them in. May we open up the table and not cause people to be left out.”
When church members were asked to raise their hands in favor of disaffiliation, dozens of arms flew up.
In response to the vote, St. John’s United Methodist Church in Lubbock released a statement saying it will continue being part of UMC and advocate for church policy changes at local and denominational levels.
“We will continue to work at being an affirming and inclusive community for all,” the church said in a statement.
Many of the Texas congregations say they’ll join a new, more conservative breakaway denomination, the Global Methodist Church, that was created earlier this year.
The mass exodus in Texas significantly exacerbates ongoing issues for the UMC: Since 2019, when UMC delegates approved initial disaffiliation plans, more than 1,300 of the UMC’s 30,500 American churches have voted to leave, and the denomination is bracing for massive spending cuts and 30-year budget lows, the denomination’s news service reported earlier this year.
The split is likely to further religious and political partisanship as United Methodists — who make up a huge portion of more moderate, mainline Christianity — lose influence, said Ryan Burge, an Eastern Illinois University professor of religion and political science who for years has studied the decline and polarization of American religious life.
Burge noted that mainline Christian denominations have been hemorrhaging members and power for decades as younger generations become increasingly nonreligious. He said the new breakaway denomination is much more likely to align with strands of conservative evangelicalism that are already the dominant force in American religion and Republican Party politics.
“It’s going to accelerate religious polarization because the mainline is going to be even more marginalized, and they were always the moderates,” Burge said. “We are losing the middle tranche. They have always been the counterpoint to evangelicals.”
UMC fight history
The UMC debates date to the 1970s, a few years after the 1968 merger of the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church that created the denomination. As the sexual revolution and other progressive social movements of the 1960s continued to flourish in more liberal parts of the country, the UMC attempted to reconcile its ranks’ divergent views on gay rights and other issues.
At the UMC’s 1972 meeting, Don Hand, a San Antonio lawyer and Methodist layman, sought what he thought was a compromise on the issue: an amendment to the faith group’s doctrinal stances that said all people were created equal by God, but that homosexuality was nonetheless “incompatible” with Christian beliefs. “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality, and consider this practice incompatible with Christian doctrine,” Hand wrote at the time.
That 16-word addition, known as the “incompatibility clause,” has grown more contentious in the 50 years since, as Americans — including many Methodists — increasingly accept same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, the denomination has increasingly expanded globally, giving more power to voting blocs from conservative countries. And, after the United States legalized same-sex marriage, American ministers were forced to decide whether they’d condone it.
Bledsoe, the pastor of St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Houston, said he is sad to see so many churches depart from the UMC, but he is hopeful for a future.
“In the very short term, it hurts,” he said. “We’ve fought a lot, and not talked about what it means to love our neighbors or what this seemingly endless fight does to our witness. And I am hopeful that, moving forward, we are able to do more interesting things that make the church look a little more like the Kingdom of God.”