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Calvary among those disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church

Doreen Gosmire, communications director and spokesperson for the Dakotas Conference, says, so far, 20 of approximately 232 church bodies in the region have chosen disaffiliation, which comprises 8.4% of the total number.

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Bishop Bruce Ough and Bishop Deborah Kiesey present the elements and Words of Institution for Holy Communion from the studio, at the end of the Special Session where 18 Disaffiliation Agreements were ratified. Kiesey and Ough presided over the business and voting. The session ended with worship and communion distributed at each of the four sites and for the presenters at the studio.
Contributed / Dave Stucke, communications associate, Dakotas UMC.

FARGO – Conveying his feelings about Calvary Fargo’s recent disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Henry Jenkins, lead pastor, recalls the 2002 Disney animated movie, “Lilo and Stitch.”

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Rev. Henry Jenkins
Contributed / UMC

“There’s a great line in there, talking about the word, ‘Ohana,’ which means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten,” he says. “I believe we’re still ‘Ohana,’ we’re still family, and I don’t think that should separate us in terms of our love for one another.”

Until recently, the church was called Calvary United Methodist Church. Established in 1879 as Zion Evangelical Church, it also has assumed the name of Calvary Evangelical Brethern.

Jenkins says the disaffiliation process within the Dakotas Conference of the UMC, which includes both North and South Dakota, could be a helpful model for other areas.

“Here, there was a spirit of love when we separated,” he says. “We talked about how it’s not the first split; that this has happened many times before throughout the years. In other places, however, it has not played out as amicably, and that’s a black eye for the Church.”

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Rev. Taryn Ragels and others gathered for the Special Session of the Dakotas Annual Conference on November 19, 2023, stop and pray for the ministry of the 18 disaffiliating churches.
Contributed / Dave Stucke, Dakotas UMC.

But in this region, charity was possible. “A lot of these folks have done things together—gone to camps, done missionary work,” he says, making it easier, perhaps, to continue seeing one another as family.

That is not to say it was without difficulty. “But we decided, we’ve had enough ugliness over the years. Do we really need to continue it?” Jenkins asks. The answer seemed to be a resounding “No!”

A long-unfolding process

The disaffiliation process has been unfolding for years, with stops and starts along the way. According to Doreen Gosmire, communications director and spokesperson for the Dakotas Conference, a special General Conference was called in late 2019 to discuss issues of discord.

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Doreen Gosmire
Contributed / UMC

“At that conference, nothing was decided, by a very slim margin,” she says. “But what we left with was wanting a way to give people an opportunity, if they wanted to leave, to graciously exit.”

From there, each regional body was asked to set up a specific process for such a departure. However, the Covid pandemic, with its new demands for church bodies, slowed progress. As life returned to normal, the issues resurfaced again, demanding attention.

According to Tom Lambrecht, a writer supporting disaffiliation, in a “Good News Magazine” article from Feb. 1, 2021, “The differences between the ‘sides’ in this intra-church conflict are so deep and so entrenched that staying together has become unthinkable for many.”

He added, “The increasing trickle of departing congregations and individual members testifies to the growing sense that we are a church that is coming apart.”

Heart of the divide

Lambrecht said many wrongly assume the primary reason for separation is disagreement over same-sex marriage and ordination standards—such as whether practicing LGBTQ+ persons ought to be ordained—but those are simply “presenting issues for a much deeper divide.”

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Jenkins agrees that, at bottom, interpretation of Scripture and divergence from church guidelines make up the heart of the discord.

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Rev. Howard Grinager leads a prayer at the&nbsp; 2022 Special Session of the Dakotas Conference before a vote is announced regarding the ratification of disaffiliation agreements.<b> </b>
Contributed / Dave Stucke, communications associate, Dakotas UMC

Gosmire says the main presenting issue, that of how to address LGBTQ+-related matters, is not unfamiliar to our region, but not lived out as much here.

“In our context, most people have not had a direct experience with a (LGBTQ+) family member or friend, but we’re seeing more and more people becoming open to the (related) ideas and, of course, realizing that’s part of our culture.”

Recognizing the need to move forward with options, the Dakotas Conference convened this past November 19 for a special hybrid session to vote on final approval for those desiring to leave the UMC.

John Lomperis, United Methodist General Conference delegate, noted in an email that the UMC is in a “slow-motion process of a major split,” with theological conservatives taking advantage of a limited window to depart.

“This is an early ‘wave’ of departures,” he said. “There is a much larger wave of additional congregations in the process, seeking disaffiliation later.” The provision to leave has an explicit “sunset clause,” which will expire at the end of 2023.

Many departing are joining the Global Methodist Church ( www.globalmethodist.org ), a new denomination formed by and for theologically conservative United Methodists, he said.

Gosmire says, so far, 20 of approximately 232 church bodies in the region have chosen disaffiliation, which comprises 8.4% of the total number. “Other churches are in discussions or considering disaffiliation,” which would extend the number to 9.5%.

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Jenkins says an “overwhelming” 98% of Calvary’s membership voted for disaffiliation.

A time to reassess

It’s been an interesting season of transition and change, Gosmire says, but also “a chance to sit back and say, ‘Who are we? What do we believe? And how can we live together even though we know people, for reasons of conscience, are leaving to follow their souls?’”

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Alyssa Warns tallies votes at Special Session of the Dakotas Annual Conference, held in a hybrid format at four locations.
Contributed / Dave Stucke, communications associate, Dakotas UMC

Gosmire echoes Jenkins’ note about the connectedness of people in this region especially. “We’re all neighbors, and we want to live and model that; that we are here in spirit together.”

“I won’t say it’s been joyful. It has been sad; there has been much angst among people—just like within any family at times,” Gosmire also acknowledges. “So, that’s been probably the biggest challenge, not only to live through the process of disaffiliation, but also the emotions of change and transition.”

But there’s been growth, too, she adds, recalling times in the past when division has appeared, and been overcome. “For instance, during the time of slavery, our church became the northern and southern Methodists,” she says. “That evolved to where we are today. People, as well as other denominations, have survived these challenges, these complex issues, and discovered that God has been there through it all.”

Despite the change, she says, the UMC denomination remains the second largest in the United States, and is doing “wonderful work,” such as addressing the issue of hunger, and working to welcome all people into their faith communities—especially at a time when many are leaving.

“There is a difference in theological perspective, but there is not a difference about our love for Jesus and the ministry that we do,” Gosmire says. “When we approved each disaffiliation agreement, we prayed for each of the ministries that had happened of those churches that were leaving, and we continue to pray and hope they will have a fruitful ministry journey.”

Jenkins says Calvary feels stronger than ever as a congregation now. “If feels good to get that dissention behind us, and again, I applaud our conference leadership here in the Dakotas, which did it with such grace and graciousness,” he says. “We were able to bless and pray for one another, which provided healing and brought down some of the mistrust.”

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Now, he says, “We can start authentically following our conscience and conviction, leaning into what it means to not leave people behind. We can do that in a way that honors who we are as individuals.”

Jenkins says he still meets with local UMC clergy here monthly. “We go out for coffee and fellowship,” he says. “Disagreeing doesn’t mean disparaging or diminishing one another. We can still hold the dignity for each other.”

It’s been heartening, too, to sense Jesus’ presence through the process, he adds. “He’s abided and been faithful by reminding us of who our neighbor is,” Jenkins says, noting, “The love of Christ came through and won out in the end.”

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, roxanesalonen.com
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