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Bishop Karen Oliveto sees her consecration in 2016 as a breaking point for some of the thousands of people who have made the once unthinkable decision to leave the United Methodist Church. 

Oliveto is the church’s first openly gay bishop and oversees congregations in Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and one church in Idaho. Her service defies long-standing rules in the denomination. Disregard for those church laws is fueling divisions that have already led to the exodus of about 20% of the United Methodist Church’s congregations across the U.S. since disaffiliations began in 2019. The number of members who have left with their congregations isn’t as clear, as the latest figures from 2021 don’t reflect the total number of departures.

According to the church’s Book of Discipline, which outlines church laws, LGBTQ people are banned from ordination. Same-sex marriages are also forbidden. Under church rules, Oliveto shouldn’t be holding her elected position.

For years, these rules have been challenged — and upheld — by the church’s global legislative body, the General Conference. The United Methodist Church among the country’s largest Protestant denominations and has millions of worshippers worldwide. Methodist congregations outside the U.S. that tend to be more conservative have helped keep change at bay, voting among those who want to uphold the existing rules. 

The church largely hasn’t taken action against the congregations that are allowing the consecration of LGBTQ clergy or marrying same-sex couples, and more conservative congregations are typically the ones leaving — more than 6,000 of them, according to a United Methodist News Service tally. That’s about a fifth of all U.S. congregations.

“People aren’t upset at those bishops who were closeted. It was okay for them to not tell the truth. But they’re upset at me for living openly in love and joy,” said Oliveto. “How can we say no to love and joy as a church?”

The Book of Discipline does “implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends” — which Oliveto sees as falling short.

“That’s not acceptance. That’s a conditional welcome,” Oliveto said.

A recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute found the percentage of Americans who aren’t affiliated with any religion increased to 27% in 2022, from 16% in 2006. Thirty percent of those surveyed who have changed their religious tradition or denomination cited negative teachings about or treatment of LGBTQ+ people.

In 2019, the General Conference held a special session and passed a plan for congregations that wished to leave for “reasons of conscience” regarding human sexuality.

The deal says after two-thirds of a local church agrees to leave, it must uphold significant financial obligations to the United Methodist Church, including money for fees and pensions.

An amicable separation plan created by church leaders was supposed to pass the following year, at the 2020 General Conference. But the coronavirus pandemic pushed the meeting — and the plan’s approval — back to 2024.

Churches have until the end of December to decide whether to leave under the current rules.

In 2024, there will be another chance for proponents to try to liberalize the church’s teachings. The conference could also vote to regionalize the church, which could lead to separate rules about LGBTQ ordination and marriage in different parts of the world.

But many congregations aren’t waiting to find out what happens next year, and are leaving to join the newly formed Global Methodist Church, which launched in May of 2022 and stands by rules prohibiting LGBTQ ordination and marriage.

“As the conflict in the church intensified, it became clear that for the health of the church overall, a division was going to be necessary,” said Keith Boyette, who is in charge of overseeing the Global Methodist Church during its transitional period. A former church member, Virginia pastor, elder and even a member of the Judicial Council, which is the church’s highest court, Boyette said he is committed to a theologically conservative presentation of the Christian faith.

Boyette said disagreements over how congregations are handling LGBTQ clergy and marriages aren’t the sole driver of the massive United Methodist withdrawal. The way members understand the authority of the Bible within the church, as well as who they interpret Jesus to be, have also caused divisions.

“We became a church, in my view, that was ungovernable and in chaos,” Boyette said. “There was no standard anymore, and each person did what was right in their own eyes.”

“We decided that it was better to let the United Methodist Church go than to continue in what I would refer to as a cage fight, in which we would fight each other until we’re a bloody pulp and the church would be destroyed,” said Boyette. “I have grief that the church was not able to find its way to make decisions and abide by them that would be honoring of who the church is.”

The United Methodist Church’s southern jurisdictions account for the most departures. According to a study conducted by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, the southeastern jurisdiction alone makes up nearly half of them.

The Rev. Kim Goddard is a district superintendent, whose conference in the southeastern jurisdiction includes churches in parts of Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia.

“It’s been especially hard for me because the district that I serve is my home district,” Goddard said.

Goddard oversaw the disaffiliation of the congregation where she served while a newlywed and where her first daughter was born.

“When we announced the vote, they applauded,” she said.

In many instances, local churches are facing the painful reality of some members leaving, while others remain behind. 

The social community aspect of the church is an important piece of the separations, said Lee Jefferson, an associate professor of religion at Centre College in Kentucky. “The bellwether of United Methodist practice isn’t necessarily Sunday worship. It’s Sunday school,” he said.

“Some congregations would prefer to move on and agree to disagree because that’s kind of like their social network and their home,” he said.

The United Methodist Church now has designated “lighthouse” congregations that accept people who want to remain a part of the church when their local churches leave.

Goddard and Boyette believe the United Methodist divide would have occurred no matter what divisions were happening in society as a whole.

“I think that society at large needs that almost counter-cultural witness that will say, ‘Here is a group of people, and we would proudly proclaim that we do not agree, but we will love each other in the midst of those disagreements,” Goddard said.

Oliveto hopes the future will allow the United Methodist Church to be “more engaged in mission, of relieving human suffering, of fighting injustice and making sure there is room at the table for everyone.”

Jefferson believes conversations like the ones happening in the United Methodist Church could attract more people who haven’t had a strong interest in religion, when they see “a more diverse community, and not just a one-size-fits-all way to practice this religion called Christianity.”

He said it could also open the door for people who distanced from congregations “out of a fear they may not be welcomed.”