DOTHAN, Ala (WDHN) — A Houston County judge has sided with Harvest Church-Dothan and ordered a temporary restraining order against the United Methodist Church and its Alabama-West Florida Conference.
The church is concerned that the conference could try to confiscate church property if it votes to leave the denomination.
While the temporary court order is in effect, it bars the UMC Alabama-West Florida Conference from all property held or owned by Harvest Church. The UMC will not be able to file any documents claiming ownership of the church, dissolve or close the church, or interfere with everyday activities and duties. It is set to expire on Nov. 20.
Harvest Church plans to let its congregation decide whether to disaffiliate from the United Methodist church.
Some conferences have asked churches that leave to pay a percentage of the property value of their church buildings.
In annual regional gatherings across the U.S. earlier this year, United Methodists approved requests of about 300 congregations to quit the denomination, according to United Methodist News Service.
The flashpoints are the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriages and ordaining openly LGBTQ clergy — though many see these as symptoms of deeper differences in views on justice, theology, and scriptural authority.
Those departing are still a fraction of the estimated 30,000 congregations in the United States alone, with nearly 13,000 more abroad, according to recent UMC statistics.
But there are large United Methodist congregations moving to the exits, including some of the largest in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.
This spring, conservatives launched a new Global Methodist Church, where they are determined to both maintain and enforce such bans.
A proposal to amicably divide the denomination and its assets, unveiled in early 2020, has lost its once-broad support after years of pandemic-related delays to the legislative General Conference, whose vote was needed to ratify it.
Now the breakup and the negotiations are happening piecemeal — one regional conference at a time.
“We live in a world of division. Just look at our political front,” said Bishop David Graves, who oversees the South Georgia and Alabama-West Florida conferences.
Both conferences have dozens of congregations moving to the exits, though the large majority are staying so far.
Graves said he wants to help enable churches to leave if they want to but has spent long hours urging them to consider all the factors and be sure it is God’s will.
“It’s very taxing,” he said. “Those are intense meetings.”
Conservatives are complaining that denominational leaders are making it hard for congregations to leave.
Currently, churches may leave after paying two years’ worth of apportionments — essentially denominational dues — plus their share of unfunded pension liabilities. Conferences may also impose additional requirements, and some are asking for a percentage of the property value of church buildings.
Their share of unfunded pension liabilities, and conferences can also impose additional requirements.