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Conferences reach out to those grieving disaffiliation (UM News)

December 16, 2022

The Rev. Charles Anderson doesn’t like the term “orphans” for those who want to stay United Methodist after their local church has voted to disaffiliate.

“These are not orphans; these are pilgrims,” Anderson said. “They’re going to go somewhere, somehow.”

Anderson is superintendent of the Texas Conference’s Northwest District, where nearly 60% of the 91 churches have been approved for disaffiliation.

He’s dealing with a lot of pilgrims, and to help them, he created the Oasis Network. It’s aimed at supporting such people until they are settled in another United Methodist church.

“To me, the most biblically inviting and nonjudgmental image is of an oasis,” Anderson said. “It may not be where you stay, but you know you’re going to rest there for a while.”

They come at a tender time, given the emotions that accompany leaving one’s church.

“We’re all going through a process of grief or loss,” said Gene Bruce, who was a longtime active member of First United Methodist Church in Conroe, Texas, but recently moved to another United Methodist congregation after First Conroe’s vote to disaffiliate.

In a kind of search-and-rescue effort, the Oasis Network is working with both disaffiliating and remaining churches, identifying people in the former who want to stay United Methodist and helping them find another United Methodist church, if they’re ready.

The network also is offering pastoral care to United Methodists who need a while to make such a decision or who are suddenly a daunting distance from a United Methodist church.

“It’s hard on a lot of them,” said the Rev. Susan Smith, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Grand Saline, Texas, and a member of the network team. “They’ve been active in their churches. Now they’re going to be 30 minutes away.”

In the Central Texas Conference, the Rev. Will Cotton has gratefully adopted the Oasis name and idea. He’s planning Oasis Fellowships that will consist of remnant United Methodist congregations meeting in homes and getting communion and other pastoral care from volunteer clergy.

Four “connecting churches,” including First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, are on board to provide streaming worship services and training for leaders of the home gatherings.

One Oasis Fellowship is up and going, in the Eastland and Cisco area west of Fort Worth.

“They came to us and said, ‘Hey, we’re ready to do this,’” said Cotton, executive director of the Central Texas Conference’s Lamar E. Smith Center for Evangelism, Mission and Church Growth.

The Rev. Billy Strayhorn, a retired pastor, came to provide communion one Sunday and recalled that the post-service lunch included “good ol’ United Methodist fried chicken.”

“My job is to provide support and help for next step discernment for those who want to stay United Methodist and are affected by disaffiliation,” Roberts told UM News.

That means offering pastoral care, helping people connect with another United Methodist congregation, organizing new worship communities and figuring out other ways to be of service.

“We’re making it up as we go along,” Roberts said.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina Conference has recently debuted The United Methodist Collective.

The Rev. Tim Catlett said the initiative is about, first, listening — and then trying to find creative ways to offer post-disaffiliation support. So far, the listening has yielded a common sentiment.

“Many folks said they felt abandoned by their church and were looking for ways to stay connected,” said Catlett, the conference’s executive director for new faith communities.

The United Methodist Collective is intended to be an online and in-person missional faith community. Among other things, it’s where United Methodists from disaffiliating churches can park their United Methodist membership as they take a break from church or look for another United Methodist congregation to join.

Already some 360 people have asked to move their membership to the collective, Catlett said.

The collective’s website offers a range of resources, including online United Methodist worship. The effort also includes a Facebook group where United Methodists in disaffiliating churches can offer one another support. 

The Rev. Laura Wittman is leading a group of pastors working with the collective, and she said it’s about providing hope for United Methodists who feel they’ve lost their local church.

“There’s a place for them,” she said. “They’re not alone.”

The Florida Conference and Western North Carolina Conference — both overseen by Bishop Kenneth Carter — moved early to create UMsConnected, an online hub or “metaverse movement” for United Methodists from churches that voted to depart.

Resources include the website, a Facebook page, a podcast and Zoom gatherings. Young adults are invited to participate in “Kindred,” an online spiritual formation ministry.

“We’re just one little planet in the universe of planets that are helping people make it through this tough time,” said the Rev. Steve Harper, a retired Florida Conference pastor who is co-directing the effort with the Rev. Kim Ingram of the Western North Carolina Conference.

The Oklahoma Conference has begun an online worship community called “The Gathering UMC,” aimed at connecting the conference with United Methodists feeling displaced after a disaffiliation. The Northwest Texas Conference has begun one, too.