ST. SAINT PETERSBURG, Florida. Even before one enters the Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, he already knows that this is a receiving place.
A welcome message displayed at the entrance explains why Allendale is a “refuge for all”. And everything means everything – regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, origin or beliefs, age, physical condition or marital status.
But dozens of other United Methodist churches across the state, such as Oneco United Methodist in Bradenton, disagree with moves to make the church more inclusive and diverse.
Pastors performing same-sex marriages and allowing ordination of LGBTQ members have become the subject of controversy.
“We believe what the scriptures teach about marriage, sexuality, and gender,” said Rev. Jeremy Rebman. Rebman, a pastor, is president of the Wesley Covenant Association, an advocacy group that helps guide churches leaving the United Methodist denomination.
But Reverend Andy Oliver just wants people to know that they can find the love of the pastor, the church, and God in Allendale.
“There is a lot of hatred and discrimination coming out of Tallahassee or the culture in general. I am happy that Allendale is a safe place where LGBTQ people and their allies and people of all kinds can come together to become a beloved community together,” Oliver said.
In April, the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church voted and approved the withdrawal of 55 churches across the state.
A provision added to the Book of Discipline in 2019 by the Florida Conference, which expires later this year, provides for a process for churches to disaffiliate and retain their assets, including their property.
Church leadership must first notify the district superintendents of their desire to leave the conference. This superintendent or other district representative then explains the direction of the church and why the conference thinks they should stay.
The decision is then put to a vote, requiring a two-thirds majority of church members. The conference must then vote to approve the exit with representatives from churches across the state.
If approved, the church must then provide proof that it has received civil liability insurance and pay its dues for 2023, another year of fees, and a clergy pension payment.
These 55 churches had until June 1 to fulfill these obligations.
“We ask churches to leave in a way that does not harm retired clergy in the annual conference ministry,” said Rev. Alex A. Shanks. “And in return, they are exempt from the clause of trust and can continue their ministry.”
Shanks is Assistant Bishop of the Tom Berlin Conference.
“I hope that the United Methodist Church will become a more inclusive denomination in the future. And I also respect those who are more traditional in their beliefs,” Berlin said.
Some churches that want to leave are struggling with dues, either because they can’t afford it or “because it’s not in their conscience.” A district court judge in Stark last month ruled in favor of the conference, upholding a procedure that included the fees the conference requires churches to withdraw from and keep all of their property.
David Gibbs, President and General Counsel of the National Center for Life and Freedom, a non-profit legal ministry, presents some of these churches and about 2,000 across the country.
“If it’s a reasonable amount, a lot of churches say, ‘You know what, let’s just get it over with and move on.’ But it’s really painfully unfair,” Gibbs said. “It’s really about power. It’s about money. It’s about assets.”
The Florida case is pending in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Tallahassee.
In Allendale, progress began about seven years ago when Oliver was appointed pastor of the church. At the time, it was in danger of closing due to declining membership.
“Allendale lived as if the rules had already changed. We live what the church will look like in the future,” Oliver said. “We want to be an example to our sister churches of what beloved communities can look like within the walls of the church, and especially outside of it, when we live our faith in the community.”
More churches are expected to leave the church, with a meeting scheduled for next week and another meeting scheduled for December to approve the departure.
55 United Methodists who have already left:
- Canal Point United Methodist at Canal Point
- United Methodist Community in Belle Glade
- United Methodist Community of Hope at Loxahatchie
- Georgiana United Methodist on Merritt Island
- Roseland United Methodist in Roseland
- United Methodist Community in DeBarry
- DeLeon Springs United Methodist in DeLeon Springs
- Dundee United Methodist in Dundee
- First United Methodist in Clermont
- First United Methodist in DeLand
- First United Methodist Tavares
- United Methodist Pine Castle in Orlando
- United Methodist Alturas in Alturas
- Bay Hope United Methodist in Lutz
- First United Methodist in Lutz
- New Hope United Methodist in Brandon
- United Methodist Palma Ceia in Tampa
- Sylvan Abbey United Methodist in Clearwater
- Tampa Korean United Methodist in Tampa
- Crystal River United Methodist at Crystal River
- Grace in Ft. Clark is an unleashed Methodist in Gainesville
- Little Chapel-Santos United Methodist in Ocala
- New Hope United Methodist in Sitra
- Spring Life United Methodist at Spring Hill
- Faith United Methodist in Jacksonville
- First United Methodist in Callaghan
- Lakewood United Methodist in Jacksonville
- Middleburg United Methodist in Middleburg
- Pierson United Methodist in Pierson
- Riverdale United Methodist in St. Augustine
- St. James United Methodist at Palatka
- Welaka United Methodist in Velaka
- First United Methodist in Alachua
- First United Methodist in Lake City
- Deer Lake United Methodist in Tallahassee
- Killearn United Methodist in Tallahassee
- Salem United Methodist in Havana
- United Methodist Waukeenah in Monticello
- United Methodist Community in Marathon
- South Florida Korean American in Tamarack
- Hispanic United Methodist Church of North Hialeah in Hialeah
- Alva United Methodist Church in Alva
- Lehigh Acres United Methodist Church of Christ
- United Methodist Church of Christ in Venice
- Edgewater United Methodist Church in Port Charlotte
- Englewood United Methodist Church in Englewood
- Estero United Methodist Church in Estero
- First United Methodist Church in Moore Haven
- First United Methodist Church in Sebring
- First United Methodist Church in Clewiston
- Grace United Methodist Church at Cape Coral
- Oneco United Methodist Church in Bradenton
- Port Charlotte United Methodist Church in Port Charlotte
- St. James United Methodist in Sarasota
- St. John United Methodist Church in Sebring