3 Polk churches under 106 suing to leave the United Methodist Denomination

Bishop Kenneth Carter, leader of one of Florida’s largest Christian denominations, believes the United Methodist Church should serve as a “great tent” embracing churches with a broad spectrum of doctrine.

Carter and other church leaders are now faced with the reality that the tent may just be too big for some members.

More than 100 churches have joined a lawsuit filed last week to expedite the exit process from the Florida Conference of the Lakeland-based United Methodist Church. The lawsuit exacerbates long-simmering tensions between the congregation and some conservative churches, primarily over sex and gender politics.

Of the 106 churches participating in the lawsuit, three are in Polk County: First United Methodist of Fort Meade, First United Methodist of Frostproof and Lake Gibson United Methodist Church in Lakeland.

“My faith has always led me to believe that we are not enemies,” Carter said in an interview with The Ledger on Friday. “And we seek a charitable, dignified exit for those who wish to exit.”

The pastors of the three congregations in Polk County did not respond to requests for interviews.

Although he refrained from going into details of the lawsuit, Carter revealed that he was pained by the possible withdrawal of about 15% of the conference’s 650 or so churches.

“My strong encouragement all along the way is that we are a big tent community and that speaks for all of us,” he said. “It’s just gotten more difficult in recent years. Part of that has to do with society. Some of this has to do with the polarization in our politics. Some of this has to do with the stress of the pandemic. And it’s just gotten harder to do. But that was my calling, to try to unite us and not harm each other.”

Continue reading:106 Methodist churches complain of division. Check out the full list

So far:Methodists meet as some churches ask to separate from the denomination

Comment from Cary McMullen:For feuding Methodists, a split is imminent

The churches filed the lawsuit in Bradford County, home of lead plaintiff Grace United Methodist Church in the city of Lawtey. The lawsuit aims to force a more abrupt breakup than the phased process proposed by the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the global faith community.

Lake Gibson United Methodist Church is one of three Polk County churches participating in a lawsuit against the Florida United Methodist Conference.  More than 100 Florida churches are trying to pull out of the conference.

In the lawsuit, the churches challenge the denomination’s policy that all church property is held in trust by the conference. Grace United Methodist claims the Florida Association requires a “large lump sum payment” to leave and keep their property.

The lawsuit names Carter and the Florida Conference Board of Trustees as defendants. Five conference executives are also listed as accused, along with eight regional superintendents.

The dispute, which has been going on for years, revolves around disagreements over the denomination’s approach to same-sex marriage and the role of LGBTQ leaders. The lawsuit alleges Carter flouted official conference doctrine by allowing a lesbian bishop to serve and a St. Petersburg pastor whose Pinellas County church focuses on issues such as “LGBTQ liberation,” undisciplined, the USA TODAY-Florida Network reported.

The United Methodist Church has not changed its official doctrine, endorsed 50 years ago, that declares homosexuality “incompatible with Christian doctrine.” But tolerance of churches conducting same-sex marriages, as well as discussions about possible doctrinal changes, has prompted some more conservative churches to seek separation.

The lawsuit states that differences arose between Grace United Methodist and the conference over their “conscious and significant theological shift.” Most exiting churches reportedly want to join the newly formed Global Methodist Church.

The leadership approved the withdrawal of 14 churches during their annual state convention held at Florida Southern College in Lakeland last month.

In a “Frequently Asked Questions” section on its website, the Florida conference says it is not aware of any official votes to leave held by the congregations of the 106 churches involved in the lawsuit.

“I believe in the FAQ, we say that we discovered that there were pastors who didn’t know their church was on this list,” Carter said, “and that there were lay leaders who didn’t know that their churches on that list were on that list.”

Plaintiffs’ lead counsel, David Gibbs III, is President and General Counsel of the National Center for Life and Liberty, based in Clearwater. Gibbs rose to fame for representing the parents of Terri Schiavo, who was the subject of a 2005 lawsuit over the removal of life support devices for a woman in a prolonged vegetative state.

He has appeared on Fox News and is the author of books such as Keeping Christ in the Workplace.

NCLL Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Bailee provided a written response to the conference’s statement on the lawsuit.

The bailiff said the trustees are legally able to act on behalf of the churches in the lawsuit. He said church councils have the power to make decisions for the church during periods between annual church leadership meetings, known as summons conferences.

The trustees, or councils, of the 106 churches passed joint resolutions and their corporate leaders signed litigation, Bailee said.

“The bishop and trustees are asking for sums of money as a condition of leaving the conference that are not required by The Discipline, are not backed by audited finances, and are well in excess of what the smaller churches could possibly pay,” the statement said from the NCLL says. “This tactic is designed to make it impossible for these churches to leave the conference. Bishop Carter and the conference have flatly rejected any alternative method of resolution offered by the churches, further proving the repressive purpose of these actions.”

The lawsuit symbolizes the difficulties in maintaining a mainline Protestant denomination with a wide range of member churches. The Florida Conference includes small churches in conservative, rural areas as well as large congregations in more progressive cities.

Another major denomination, the Presbyterian Church, has also experienced fragmentation over the decades. At least two churches in Polk County left the Presbyterian Church (USA), the main denomination, in 2017 to join the more conservative ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

United Methodist Church leaders proposed a “spin-off plan” in 2019 to set up a process for the churches to leave. The plan must be ratified at the church’s general conference, which has been postponed three times during the pandemic and is now scheduled for 2024.

“I would say, once the lawsuit has been brought to our attention, we are responding with integrity on behalf of our conference’s mission, which we believe is important, and we want that mission to thrive and be preserved,” Carter said. “And as such, we take the lawsuit seriously and have taken steps to respond. When one person takes another person to court, you simply have to be prepared and react. And we didn’t initiate the lawsuit.”

Without discussing the details mentioned in the lawsuit, Carter said he had not abandoned the Church’s teachings during his decade as Florida denomination leader.

“As a bishop, I have also tried to strengthen the churches beyond the labels of conservative, centrist or liberal,” he said. “And I don’t like the labels, but I’ve tried to be fair across the spectrum of types of churches. And while I believe in our traditional, orthodox beliefs rooted in Scripture, I have also always believed that we must adapt our doctrine and scriptures to people’s changing circumstances.”

Carter made it clear that he identifies inclusion and openness to all as priorities for the Florida Conference and its churches. He said the faith community is “on track” to better accept what he called the LGBTQIA community –– an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/interrogative, intersex and asexual.

“It’s not so much ideological as it’s about the families at a local church,” Carter said. “It’s about the kids in a youth group. And that’s what our church and every church, denominational and non-denominational, every church is trying to do just that. And it doesn’t mean giving up our historical beliefs. It applies that belief to the real lives of the people in our churches. And that is our current work. And I believe we can do this together. We don’t have to separate for that.”

Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

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