Leading members of the church's Louisiana Conference will vote in Baton Rouge on Saturday morning whether to approve the exits of 95 churches across the state that intend to leave the world's largest mainline Protestant denomination. If all are approved, nearly 40 percent of Louisiana churches will have left the Methodist body over the past few years.
Delores Williamston, bishop of the United Methodist Church's Louisiana Conference, called the special meeting "for the sole purpose" of voting on disaffiliations tied to "Paragraph 2553" — a provision in the denomination's Book of Discipline added in 2019 as an exit policy for local congregations to leave for "reasons of conscience," such as the church's stance on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
The United Methodist Church currently forbids LGBTQ clergy and punishes ministers who officiate same-sex marriages. At a global level, the church has reinforced that stance, but there is growing dissatisfaction among American parishioners who want to soften the church's approach.
Anticipating potential changes over the issue, some conservative churches across the country have chosen to leave the denomination.
While questions of sexuality are at the forefront of the departures, church officials say other issues — such as disagreements over how to interpret the Bible, opposition to the church's policy of frequently moving ministers, and debates over chuch property — are also at play.
Over the past four years, 69 of Louisiana's roughly 450 United Methodist churches and campus ministries have disaffiliated from the denomination under Paragraph 2553, according to official numbers.
The UMC said goodbye to 58 Louisiana churches in November, when the annual conference held its last special session to grant disaffiliations. Saturday's meeting could be the last opportunity for churches in Louisiana to part ways before Paragraph 2553 sunsets Dec. 31.
While almost 40% of Louisiana churches could leave Saturday, UMC officials said the drop in the number of members is significantly smaller, because many of the departing churches have relatively small congregations.
Delegates from the Annual Conference, the Louisiana UMC's governing body, churches, will convene at 10 a.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church Baton Rouge downtown, 930 North Blvd. According to a meeting agenda the state conference finalized Wednesday, delegates will consider ratifying departures for 95 church bodies that have received disaffiliation nods from at least two-thirds of their respective councils or congregations.
It will take a majority vote from the annual conference for each church to clear the final hurdle for dismissal.
"We are confident that the hope of Christ will help us navigate this period of change and transformation," Williamston said in a statement Thursday. "Amidst the challenges, we find hope in the knowledge that God's presence will always be with us. The Louisiana Annual Conference is confident that we will emerge from this chapter stronger and more resilient."
One of the most noteworthy congregations among the list of possible departures is First United Methodist Church in Shreveport. Nearly 950, or 84%, of more than 1,100 votes were cast in favor of leaving when the 178-year-old church chose to disaffiliate April 16.
The church was at the center of a lawsuit filed earlier this year by a group of former Methodist clergy members, who petitioned for an emergency injunction to block the disaffiliation vote. District Judge Kelly Balfour tossed the lawsuit, ruling separation of church and state prevented the courts from weighing in.
Dr. Steven Bell, First UMC Shreveport's senior pastor, called the April vote a "historical event" in the life of the church, originally founded in 1845. He told congregants to pause, pray, and catch their collective breath in an address to church members last month.
"Our church has been through so much in the past several months, it is time to invite the Lord to begin a healing process among us," Bell said. "A division, whether small or large, has occurred in our church. But God will provide the healing that we need as our family of faith moves forward."
Saturday's special session is closed to the public, but it will be live streamed on the Louisiana Annual Conference's YouTube channel. For more information about the meeting, visit the church's web page here.