'Our best days are ahead': Hope follows somber disaffiliation vote

'Our best days are ahead': Hope follows somber disaffiliation vote

Central United Methodist Church hosts 945 for the historic April 22 Special Called Session of the Holston Annual Conference for the purpose of ratifying disaffiliation requests of 264 churches. Photo by Ben Smith

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- After the somber and procedural vote, when the representatives of churches that wanted to leave the denomination had achieved their mission and left the building, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett stepped before the surprisingly still full grand sanctuary of Central United Methodist Church and smiled.

“Here we are, and I’m so glad you are here,” she said to a congregation that seemed fatigued but eager to soak up her words.

“I remind us that today the sky has not fallen.”

On April 22 at a Special Called Session of the Holston Annual Conference, the requests of 264 churches to leave The United Methodist Church was ratified with a nearly unanimous vote of 859 voting members.

The vote was proceeded by worship and Holy Communion and followed by talk about the future for leaders of the 578 churches remaining in the Holston Conference.
Bishop Wallace-Padgett assures
Holstonians while Rev. Kim Goddard
looks on during visioning segment.

“I see 578 churches who now have the opportunity and the calling to set a new course. There is no reason to waste a good crisis,” said the Rev. Kim Goddard, prompting her listeners to laugh. Goddard is dean of the Cabinet.

The decision of some “traditionalist” congregations to separate from the denomination was triggered by long conflict over issues around human sexuality and other matters. A church law expiring at the end of 2023, “paragraph 2553,” allows U.S. congregations to exit with property if they also meet specified financial and procedural requirements.

The exit of about one-third of Holston churches will initially reduce Holston’s membership from 148,580 to 117,378. As most of the departing churches are smaller in membership, Holston Conference total membership will drop by about 21% when disaffiliations are effective May 29.

Sixty-six percent or 175 of the 264 disaffiliating congregations have fewer than 100 members, the Rev. Tim Jones, communications director, said in a Holston news release. Out of 25 Holston churches with more than 1,000 members, 23 will remain United Methodist.

See list of disaffiliating churches at end of worship book.

“Though we are sad to see them go, we wish them the very best as they move into a new future,” Wallace-Padgett said.
Rev. Richard Richter prays over pews,
leaving prayer cards for incoming members.

The long-anticipated day began with a “prayer walk” joined by about eight participants who paused over every pew to pray for each body to come and then left “you have been prayed for today” cards to notify them.

Members of Central United Methodist welcomed participants to their church and extended other acts of hospitality. Most voting members and guests arrived well before the 10 a.m. starting time, packing Central’s historic downtown sanctuary an hour before. To ensure integrity of the vote, guests were seated in a downstairs fellowship hall. Total attendance -- including voting members, guests and staff -- was 945.

“It is a poignant day as our churches and withdrawing pastors have played an important role in this Annual Conference across the decades,” Wallace-Padgett said in opening remarks. “The fact that churches will be disaffiliating and some pastors withdrawing does not in any way change the impact that they have had upon us.”

Wallace-Padgett was joined by members of her Cabinet in sharing scripture and prayer during worship. Following Holy Communion, Mike Eastridge, chancellor, explained the events and processes that led to the Special Called Session, calling it “one of the most consequential votes that this Holston Conference has ever taken.”

During the later “visioning” segment for those members remaining United Methodist, Wallace-Padgett led the congregation in saying the Apostles' Creed, more than once, unpacking and accentuating each phrase.
Bishop Wallace-Padgett leads worship.

“I’m truly convinced that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us,” she said to applause, before lifting up “common theological convictions” in the Apostles' Creed. “We are a diverse group of Christ followers with a variety of perspectives on many matters. Our commonalities, though, far, far, far outweigh our differences.”

Goddard followed with a “vision and hope” message.

“I hope we don’t see this day as a pivotal moment in the life and history of our Annual Conference because we are free of an element that held us back,” Goddard said. “Rather, this can be a new day because it begins with an acknowledgment that we need to make some course corrections that we can be better, we can do better.”

She spoke about the Invitation Team, which came together as members from different theological spectrums to agree that Holstonians “are better together than we are apart.” She spoke of her granddaughter, representing all children, who will need faithful Christians to teach and lead her in the future.

“Help her to see that Christ followers are those who love God and love people,” she said. “Make sure she understands that we don’t get to pick and choose our neighbors -- that everyone is a child of God, just like her.”
Rev. Jimmy Sherrod, Central UMC pastor,
sings "All to Us."

Goddard’s presentation was followed by messages from Becky Hall, conference lay leader, and the Rev. Susan Arnold, director of congregational development. Arnold shared a "Breakthrough Prayer" to prepare Holstonians for the approaching Annual Conference on June 4-7.

The session concluded about 1 p.m., one hour after its planned noontime conclusion. Wallace-Padgett joked that the session had begun at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time and successfully finished at 12 p.m. Central Standard Time.

After opening with the rousing “Be Thou My Vision,” United Methodists ended with singing the nostalgic Methodist hymn, laced with history and longing, “And Are We Yet Alive.”

Livestream recording of the April 22 Special Session is posted on YouTube.

Holston Conference includes member churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, with main offices in Alcoa, Tennessee. Sign up for a free email subscription to The Call.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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