Methodist Exodus Gets Ugly: Judge Rejects Case by 71 FL Churches, PA Conference Sues Local Church


A Florida Circuit Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed last summer by more than 100 United Methodist churches against the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) who wanted to leave the denomination immediately.

As CBN News reported last July, the main reason involved disagreements over United Methodist clergy performing marriages for LGBTQ couples and ordaining LGBTQ people as clergy in the church. The group of 106 Florida churches wanted to leave the denomination and take their property with them.

The lawsuit said the UMC leadership is not abiding by the church’s Book of Discipline, which deals with Christian doctrine, the denomination’s beliefs, and the ownership of church buildings and properties. 

Eighth Judicial Circuit Court Judge George Wright said in the order released on April 18 that “this Court does not have jurisdiction to adjudicate the claims raised in the Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint.”

slider img 2Even though Wright dismissed the churches’ lawsuit, UM News noted the judge left it open to appeal. 

“We applaud the court’s ruling today. This clarifies that if a church wants to leave the Conference, it must follow the rules established by the denomination,” UMC Florida Bishop Tom Berlin said in the conference’s statement. 

“We have always supported a process that allows for a gracious exit, and which ensures the departing churches meet their financial, legal, and moral obligations to not harm the Conference or the other member churches during their departure,” the statement said. 

According to UM News, 106 churches joined together in the legal action last year. Since then, multiple churches have withdrawn from the suit to instead follow the denomination’s exit procedures. The current lawsuit now involves 71 churches.

A second lawsuit by 36 churches in North Carolina was also dismissed last month, according to Religion News Service

So far, 2,095 congregations — including 17 congregations in the Florida Conference — have cleared the necessary hurdles under Paragraph 2553 of the UMC’s Book of Discipline to withdraw. That represents about 7% of The United Methodist Church’s U.S. congregations, and not all are heading to the conservative Global Methodist Church (GMC), according to UM News.  

UMC Conference Sues Local Church Leaders for Allegedly Violating Denomination’s Bylaws

Meanwhile, the UMC Susquehanna Conference in Pennsylvania has filed a lawsuit against five leaders of the Cortez United Methodist Church in Jefferson Township outside of Scranton for allegedly improperly breaking away from the denomination, The Times-Tribune of Scranton reported. 

The lawsuit alleges church members Daniel Hulse Jr., Cathy Strickbein, Alicia Clarke Witkowski, Ken Witkowski and Abbigale Clarke formed the Cortez Community Church, changed the church building’s signs in February, and also took over the church’s bank accounts.

The congregation reportedly has continued meeting in the same building. 

The case is scheduled to be heard in front of Lackawanna County Judge Julia Munley on May 28. 

As CBN News has reported, according to the UMC Book of Discipline, local churches can leave the denomination with their building and property, but any “decision to disaffiliate” from the mainline denomination “must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote” of the members of the local congregation and the church’s regional governing body.

During an interview with the Times-Tribune, Joseph Layman, Jr., the Susquehanna Conference chancellor, echoed those requirements from the Book of Discipline. He said the Cortez church began the process but did not finish it. 

“You remain a United Methodist Church until the conference says you are not a United Methodist Church,” Layman told the outlet. “The fact they changed the name and claim to be the Cortez Community Church has no impact. We still consider it to be the Cortez United Methodist Church.”

“There are very important principles we have to exercise to protect the denomination,” he said. “We will exercise our right to seek removal from the premises and return it to the United Methodist worship.”

The Rev. Art Yetter, the Cortez church’s former pastor, told Fox News a majority of members voted to proceed with disaffiliation, but alleged a UMC district superintendent tried to cancel the meeting and tried to get the church’s locks changed even telling the locksmith the building had been abandoned. 

“From there, things have gone downhill,” he said. “I’ve always expected that the Conference would make things difficult, but this goes so much farther. They have put a freeze on our bank accounts. The one for the church and the one we have used for our food pantry. The food pantry has existed for over 15 years, and we have never used any money from the church to operate.”

“But despite all this and the weight of impending court proceedings, the church is still surviving. Isn’t it ironic that a church organization like the UMC wishes to keep people from worshiping? It really comes down to power and money. They hold the power and want the money,” Yetter continued. 

“It breaks my heart to see what’s going on,” the former pastor said. 


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