“I didn’t feel ‘united’ anymore, in doctrine or in practice.”
That is how Dr. Ray Rooney, digital media editor for The Stand online, described his disapproval of the theological drift in the United Methodist Church (UMC), the denomination in which he faithfully served as a pastor for over 37 years.
Despite most UMC members embracing an orthodox view of Scripture and voting every four years at their General Conference to solidify those views in the UMC’s Book of Discipline, the majority was disregarded by UMC leadership, who continued to promote more liberal and progressive views.
A fracture seemed inevitable, and at the 2019 General Conference, a means by which churches could disaffiliate with the UMC was adopted. The deadline to do so was set for December 31, 2023.
Apparently, Rooney’s sentiment was shared by many pastors and congregations within the UMC, America’s third-largest religious body. By November 2023, over 6,000 congregations had been approved for exit, and it was estimated that the final tally would be over 7,000 by the year-end deadline.
Rooney spoke with The Stand magazine about the denominational split and his views on the future of the UMC.
A long time coming
According to Rooney, the division has been brewing for a long time.
“The human sexuality issue has been chewed on by the United Methodist Church for over 40 years,” Rooney explained.
There was a clear divide between the desires of the UMC leadership and those of the delegates attending the General Conference every four years as representatives for their fellow church members.
The UMC Book of Discipline, based on Scripture, states that no one actively engaged in homosexuality can be ordained into ministry.
“The issue comes up every time, and every time it gets beat down – despite the clear wishes of the conference and despite plain rules,” Rooney said. “Leadership decided they were going to do what they wanted to do, regardless.”
In Rooney’s estimation, it was the leadership’s disobedience to Scripture and complete disregard for church members that finally brought the issue to a head.
To be clear, Rooney explained that leadership was not in favor of a split. What they wanted instead was to legitimize deviant sexual behavior within the UMC, and they wanted everyone else to simply accept it.
But Rooney refused, based on scriptural grounds.
He described the moment when he could no longer be united with the UMC.
“In 2016, the UMC consecrated the first openly lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto, knowing she was ‘married’ to a woman,” Rooney said. “That just did it for me.”
The struggle to leave
Many unfamiliar with UMC governance and church polity often wonder, “Why can’t individual Methodist churches simply leave the UMC and go their separate ways?”
“It could have been that way,” Rooney explained. “There was a suggestion at the 2019 General Conference to just let conservative congregations disaffiliate without penalty, to have an amicable separation of sorts. But the council of bishops wouldn’t allow that.”
In UMC governance, a legally supported “trust clause” exists that can force churches to pay exorbitant fees to the UMC at large in order to maintain their own property and resources.
“Even though the UMC as a denomination didn’t fork over a penny for building a church, or anything like that, they make you pay,” Rooney said. “Our church had to pay two years’ worth of what’s called apportionments and a pension liability.”
The outlandish fees explain why many smaller congregations with limited funds that wanted to disaffiliate could not.
“For some churches, even the smaller churches, the fees were in the tens of thousands of dollars,” Rooney said. “And the bigger churches, it’s hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars. But a lot of small country churches don’t have tens of thousands of dollars on hand. They just couldn’t do it.”
Counting the cost
Though unanimous in their decision to leave the UMC, Rooney’s own congregation paid a steep financial price to follow their convictions and remain true to Scripture.
“I can tell you what leaving meant for us. We had to just zero ourselves out,” Rooney said. “It cost us everything. Every penny we had in the bank was turned over to them just so we could leave.”
But finances were not the only costs associated with departing from their denomination; there was emotional turmoil and pain as well.
“Part of the pain of going through this was that the leadership, though they didn’t come out and say it, implied that we are bigots for taking a stand,” Rooney said. “And it hurts to be viewed as a bigot by a Christian brother or sister, or in this case, by your Christian leaders.”
The future of the UMC
With faithful, orthodox believers leaving the denomination by droves, one wonders what will become of the UMC.
Rooney shared his predictions: “The denomination is already dead as far as I’m concerned, at least in regard to being used by the Lord in culture. It’s just going to continue to lose its relevance. It’s going to be fully embraced by its liberalism, and it will wane in influence.”
Rooney does not believe the UMC will dissolve but will instead attract a different category of churchgoers.
“It’s going to be a magnet for people who want to have their sin accommodated, instead of a place where people go and hear a sermon admonishing them to ‘go and sin no more,’” Rooney believes. “A lot of people want those churches because they don’t want to ‘go and sin no more.’”