Nebraska United Methodist Church congregations split with denomination over LGBTQ issues
By Holly Edgell / Midwest Newsroom
June 2, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
In a 655 to 29 vote Wednesday night, the Great Plains conference of the United Methodist Church ratified legislation to allow a total of 156 member churches in Kansas and Nebraska to split from the main church.
The rift is largely due to disagreements about LGBTQ issues, such as whether to allow gay clergy and whether ministers should officiate at same-sex weddings – issues that remain up for debate among church members. At the heart of the matter are fundamental differences about the future of the church.
“We still have about 750 churches,” said Bishop David Wilson, who leads the Great Plains UMC. “And so these are folk who are more like-minded in terms of how we do ministry. And of course, looking here and even around issues of human sexuality.”
The vote came via an online session attended by church leaders from both states. Todd Seifert, a Great Plains UMC spokesman, said the process has been consistent since the Great Plains UMC began considering disaffiliations in 2020.
“Our goal all along has been to ensure churches are not hampered in any way in their ministry,” Seifert said. “Both those of us staying UMC, and those who have chosen to leave.”
Those who are staying are open to LGTBQ members and to the idea of granting them official roles in the greater church. Wilson said the church is making efforts to evolve alongside changes in society, in keeping with its doctrine.
“We look at what the Bible says about human sexuality,” Wilson said. “I see us continuing to move to catch up with what’s happening in society.”
The denomination’s statement on human sexuality starts with this line: “The United Methodist Church affirms that sexuality is ‘God’s good gift to all persons.’” It “affirms that all people are of sacred worth and are equally valuable in the sight of God.”
Wilson said not everyone will agree with the UMC’s progressive position, but the church will continue its plea that families and churches not reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.
“To hear them talk about the pain of not being recognized and not being affirmed as human beings, as sacred people who have worth? That’s always painful for me to hear,” Wilson said.
Through the process of what the UMC terms “disaffiliation,” the departing congregations will chart their own futures after settling with the church over property, pensions and other administrative matters.
According to United Methodist News, nearly 4,000 churches (out of 30,000 nationwide) have parted ways with the denomination since 2019. The UMC is the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination – with about 6.4 million members.
Among the Kansas congregations opting to leave the United Methodist Church is New Hope Church in Topeka, the very city in which Wilson is based. Its Facebook Page no longer includes “United Methodist Church” in the title. Posts indicate church members voted to split from the UMC in October. Requests for comment from New Hope and other departing churches were not acknowledged.
Dialing into hope
About a 45-minute drive west of Topeka sits Wamego, a town of about 5,000 people which some describe as an eventual suburb of Manhattan.
Wamego residents are church-going folk, according to resident Jessica Noller, who attends Wamego United Methodist Church. Wamego congregants opted to stay with the greater UMC – just barely.
“It didn't occur to me that there was like this fringe group that was wanting to split off on even the possibility that LGBTQ folks could be welcomed and honored as part of our churches,” Noller said.
In March, church members voted 129-113 to stay with the UMC. The close decision came after several months of friction within the congregation. A group of about 40 members who supported splitting from the church had disseminated a letter asserting that the UMC would shortly be forcing unwanted changes on its flock around the country – including that LGBTQ pastors and bishops would be forced upon the congregations.
Noller decided to act, devoting herself to disputing the assertions in the letter and offering fellow congregants resources for reading and learning for themselves.
“It was like a part-time job for a few weeks,” she said.
After the vote, Noller said the group that supported disaffiliation left Wamego UMC and is now meeting in a temporary location.
Noller said she immediately saw a way forward for those who remained.
“What was left were folks that were staunchly in support of community, and community means everyone,” Noller said. “We dialed into hope very quickly.”
“That doesn't mean we're not intellectual, and we will still debate things that we read. But it means that we’re open.”
Around the country some departed congregations have joined the conservative Global Methodist Church, launched in 2022. Its online section on doctrine does not make mention of LGBTQ people, but church leaders have stated it will never ordain or marry LGBTQ people.
Wilson said, whatever a congregation’s choices, the Great Plains UMC will survive and both sides of the split can get on with doing God’s work as they see it.
“And so the churches that left will go and continue to do ministry in their communities and cities and towns,” Wilson said. “And we're happy with that. We’re all in this together–trying to move ahead for the gospel.”