This continues the series on the dramatic changes to the United Methodist Church in the American South. Part 1 reported on how the new liberalism has become dominant across America, even in both the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions of United Methodists, and how the aggressive nature of this liberalism, combined with the UMC’s connectional governance, means that no conservative congregation or sub-region can expect to be left alone. Part 2 outlined the spread of destructive rule-breaking to the highest levels of leadership among Southeastern United Methodists so that now even this formerly conservative region has gay weddings and non-celibate gay ministers. Part 3 below provides all-in-one place documentation for how the new liberalism is shaping every non-missionary Southeastern United Methodist Conference.
Even in the Southeast, the United Methodist Church has already transformed into something very different from the denomination which we signed up for, even if you only joined a few years ago.
For the sake of your own faith journey, any family members you bring to church with you, and your local congregation, please at least research and share the facts about what exactly you would be bound to, if you choose to “Stay UMC” rather than take advantage of the limited, rapidly expiring opportunities to disaffiliate.
Even the previously conservative-leaning United Methodist Southeastern Jurisdiction has now crossed the lines of official commitment to LGBTQIA+ liberationist ideology, systemic exclusion of theologically orthodox believers from leadership, a transgender activist minister in the itinerant appointment system, and other liberal extremism.
Southeastern United Methodists should understand the intolerant nature and the recently secured dominance of the new liberalism in even their region, as I outlined in Part 1 of this series.
Even the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church now includes gay weddings and non-celibate gay pastors, thanks to denominational leaders openly breaking the church rules they promised to uphold, especially in Florida, North Carolina, and North Georgia, as documented in Part 2.
Any Southeastern United Methodist who had previously seen the radicalism in other regions of the denomination and thought, “it can’t happen here!” must now face the reality of how such radicalism has already come to dominate and spread across what is left of the United Methodism in the Southeast.
For years, the rest of the denomination allowed aggressive liberalism, intolerance of traditionalist faith, and anarchic rule-breaking to flourish largely unchecked in the Western Jurisdiction. Per the biblical warning that “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough,” the West’s liberal extremism has finally come to dominate the rest of the denomination.
Similarly, the liberalism in each annual conference documented below will spread to their neighboring Southeastern United Methodist conferences. So you will want to not only scroll down to first see about your own annual conference but also note the trends in your neighboring conferences. After all, your next bishop will be either one of the other bishops noted below or a new bishop elected by what will be an even more thoroughly liberalized Southeastern Jurisdiction.
Every Southeastern United Methodist annual conference (except for the 22 congregations of the Central Appalachian Missionary Conference) has recently seen a major chunk of its congregations leave, as part of a mass exodus of conservatives from the UMC. Those disaffiliating include many of the largest Southeastern United Methodist churches. Now most of the theologically orthodox leaders and votes that previously restrained radical liberalism are gone. The brakes are off.
When I identify specific individuals, I am not denying that these people have also done good things or that (as I have often personally found) they may be pleasant in interpersonal interactions. I am simply sharing public facts of interest to anyone considering being or remaining subordinate to their leadership.
Without further ado, here is documentation of how every non-missionary annual conference in the United Methodist Southeastern Jurisdiction is now already powerfully, increasingly shaped by the UMC’s new, unchecked liberalism.
The Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference was once one of the most theologically traditionalist Southeastern United Methodist conferences. This was reflected in conservatives’ complete dominance of its 2019 delegate elections.
But the subsequent exodus of 240 conservative congregations has shifted what remains to the left. This was seen in the conference’s elections last month of supplemental delegates. The second elected lay delegate was deaconess Clara Ester, who had been publicly advertised before the 2023 conference session as the keynote speaker for a breakfast of the aggressively LGBTQ+ liberationist Reconciling Ministries Network. The third elected lay delegate was Pat Luna, who in recent years has outspokenly promoted liberalization of the UMC’s marriage and sexuality standards, serving on the national leadership teams of two caucuses devoted to this agenda: Mainstream UMC and UMC Next. Mainstream UMC has sometimes been notoriously strident, and its Advisory Board, which includes Luna, has publicly declared “we cannot affiliate” in the same denomination with those who support the values of the Traditional Plan adopted by the majority of the last United Methodist General Conference (i.e., effectively preventing gay weddings and non-celibate gay clergy in the church). Evidently, voting lay members left in this annual conference liked what they saw in these public records.
In Florida, liberalism goes beyond how conference officials have disregarded their vows to uphold the UMC’s supposedly governing Discipline, instead establishing the new de facto reality in which Florida United Methodism now includes gay activist clergy and allows pastors to officiate gay weddings.
Despite the assurances of the board of ordained ministry chair, it is not clear how much clergy candidates are really scrutinized for their commitment to abstaining from sex outside of any sort of marriage. One of the newly approved gay activist clergy there shared in an interview about how this board operates:
“I think if you’re married, you’re asked about your sexual behaviors, but the rest of us candidates aren’t. And so we’re not asked about what celibacy in singleness means, who our partners are. We all sign off on a social media release, but it’s not a part of the process. So we were just never asked and there were assumptions.”
Already by 2021, the Rev. Jay Therrell (then leader of the Florida Wesleyan Covenant Association) reported, “The takeover is complete” in Florida. He cited how that year’s annual conference session adopted a resolution providing for church members to be identified “as male, female, or non-binary,” elected two gay activists as conference lay co-leaders, and largely excluded non-progressives from leadership.
This continued the trajectory set in 2019 when the Florida Conference rejected both a resolution affirming the UMC Discipline’s standards on sexuality and another resolution expressing compassion for abortion-vulnerable unborn children and their mothers (see pages 195 and 198-199).
In 2022, Florida’s bishop at that time, Ken Carter, inappropriately shared that the board of ordained ministry had given gay activist Kipp Nelson “unanimous approval for commissioning in the Florida Conference,” indicates an extreme lack of theological traditionalists in this official clergy-screening board, whose members Carter appointed.
Any theologically orthodox believer hoping for tolerance in this corner of Southeastern United Methodism should consider the exclusion of conservatives from leadership (with few exceptions). They should remember how theological traditionalists were bullied on Bishop Carter’s watch. And they should note how the Rev. Cynthia Weems, the recent dean of the Florida Cabinet, now Florida’s Assistant to the Bishop for Congregational Mission, was until recently part of the aforementioned “Mainstream UMC” Advisory board who declared their unwillingness to tolerate theological traditionalists in a denomination they would shape according to a liberal “New Methodism” ethos.
So far, Florida’s new bishop, Tom Berlin has (to my pleasant surprise) not taken the punitive attitude of other bishops towards congregations seeking disaffiliation. But traditionalists hoping for indefinite fair treatment if they choose to remain should consider the record of how he, along with Bishop Carter (now of Western North Carolina) and other liberal leaders, extracted huge, extraordinarily painful concessions from traditionalists in the Protocol negotiations, but then after these one-sided advantages became effectively secure for liberals, abandoned their end of the bargain. His infamous 2019 General Conference speech likening theologically traditionalist values of biblical morality and Wesleyan accountability to a deadly “virus” like Ebola raises the question of how this understanding could encourage anyone to accommodate traditionalist values in their church, rather than seek to root out all traces of such a “virus.”
Last year, the Holston Conference considered two liberal resolutions affirming LGBTQ+ liberationist ideology, narrowly approving one and voting down the other. But then last month, after many conservative congregations had left, this conference adopted a liberal sexuality motion (aspiring to a future of United Methodism in which “LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered in the life and ministry of the church … including as laity, clergy, in the episcopacy, and on boards”) by a strong majority of over 60 percent. This resolution (see page 151/157) basically affirmed, verbatim the “Queer Delegates’” resolution adopted by the Southeastern and every other United Methodist jurisdiction.
This is another Southeastern United Methodist conference that has “crossed the Rubicon” and will only become increasingly liberal.
In the Kentucky Conference, conservative and moderate church members would be interested in Bishop Leonard Fairley’s recent track record in North Carolina. After a congregation faced ridiculous criticism for (gasp!) failing to display LGBTQ+ pride flags, Fairley sought to try to protect his own reputation by throwing this congregation and its talented, young Latina church pastor under the bus. Fairley actually distributed in this congregation’s neighborhood a groveling apology letter, expressing sorrow for the conference having somehow caused “harm” by supporting a United Methodist church plant “which was not fully affirming of the LGBTQ+ community.” For him to stab this congregation in the back, by going out of his way to encourage its local mission field to harbor unfair prejudices against the church even after it left the UMC, showed an extraordinary lack of goodwill towards theologically orthodox believers.
Fairley’s actions indicate that any theologic traditionalist Southeastern United Methodists remaining under his leadership cannot expect his support for planting new non-liberal churches, and cannot count on their bishop ever having their back if they, too, come under unfair attack.
Mississippi had been also known as one of the most conservative Southeastern United Methodist conferences.
Last month, Bishop Sharma Lewis did bring accountability for two clergy who reportedly officiated a same-sex wedding. But that sharply contrasts with how she recently handled the same issue in Virginia (see below).
Furthermore, it reflects on the Mississippi Conference’s clergy that when they elected delegates to represent them at the next General Conference, their first reserve was Connie Shelton.
Without her election by the rest of Mississippi’s clergy, she would not have been able to springboard from there to be elected bishop last fall. This in turn empowered her to pursue her heavy-handed liberalism, to the point of openly violating church rules to ordain a same-sex-partnered man and to suddenly, without prior warning, shutting down a theologically orthodox “vibrant, closely knit congregation of devout Methodist Christians” and seizing its property, leaving members “devastated and brokenhearted.”
That is now Mississippi’s primary influence on the rest of Southeastern United Methodism.
With well over 200 congregations having left Mississippi since it elected Shelton, what is left of this corner of Southeastern United Methodism is also becoming more liberal.
Now that roughly half of its congregations have left the denomination, what is left of North Alabama has also liberalized. Last month, the conference adopted a resolution, which declared that “The voting members of the North Alabama Annual Conference support the removal of all language pertaining to homosexuality from the Book of Discipline by the next General Conference.”
This corner of Southeastern United Methodism has also now become a liberal conference.
Under the Mississippi section above, we noted how Bishop Connie Shelton has taken her heavy-handed leadership of the (eastern) North Carolina Conference liberalism to extremes of breaking church rules against ordaining non-celibate gay clergy, as well as needlessly closing a conservative congregation and abruptly bullying its blindsided and heartbroken members out of their building.
In 2019, this conference adopted a resolution “Supporting Full Inclusion of LGBTQIA+ Persons and Rejecting the Traditional Plan” (i.e., rejecting the decision to ban gay weddings and non-celibate gay clergy). Then in 2022, it adopted a resolution from the Methodist Federation for Social Action which, among other things, encouraged looking to long-radicalized annual conferences of New England and the Western Jurisdiction on LGBTQIA+ non-discrimination (see pages 14-15).
This Southeastern United Methodist conference once made significant orthodox contributions to the denomination but has now been thoroughly taken over.
This spring, one congregation in this conference, Open Table UMC in Raleigh, hosted “a family-friendly drag show in our sanctuary,” called Drag Me to Church, in apparent protest of conservative backlash against some LGBTQ+ activists targeting children with sexually suggestive drag shows.
Conference leaders chose this drag show congregation’s senior pastor, Sarah Majors – who uses both “she” and “they” pronouns – to serve as a spiritual leader and role model for 151 youth at a subsequent retreat.
Last fall, the annual radical “Wild Goose Festival” shared that they had received “support” from the North Carolina Conference’s New Faith Communities. Speakers at that event included Jennifer Martin (a practitioner and advocate of “polyamory”—concurrent multiple sexual partners) and Alba Onofrio (CEO of the militant LGBTQ+ activist group Soulforce, and co-founder of the Sexual Liberation Collective). Onofrio’s latter organization is a self-described “group of sex educators, sex workers [i.e., prostitutes], and sexual healers.”
While North Carolina’s “big tent” now extends into such radical territory, it has hardly been kind or inclusive towards traditionalist Christians.
Bishop Fairley was not alone in his recent actions, mentioned above in connection with Kentucky, to undermine and demonize a congregation over its pastor’s failure to vocally support LGBTQIA+ liberationist ideology. His letter, with its suggestion that the North Carolina Conference would take steps to avoid future non-liberal church plants, was also endorsed by several prominent remaining North Carolina Conference leaders: Conference Secretary Gray Southern, District Superintendent Mike Frese, Tim Catlett (Executive Director of New Faith Communities), and Lisa Yebuah (Spiritual Director and Advisor on Diversity and Equity).
A lot has changed in North Georgia in recent years. This goes deeper than the North Georgia congregations openly violating the rules banning same-sex weddings.
In 2021, conference leaders issued a document entitled “Love is Making Room.” This document promotes the liberal perspective that the UMC Discipline’s “restrictions on marriage and ordination” are “harmful” and “should be removed.” The fact that this was issued in the name of not only the aggressively liberal bishop at the time, Sue Haupert-Johnson, but also conference lay leader Bill Martin and the district superintendents indicates that non-liberals had already been excluded from these top leadership positions in this Southeastern United Methodist conference.
In last month’s annual conference session, North Georgia joined Holston and other conferences in adopting a cookie-cutter resolution (see pages 149-250) to affirm the self-described “Queer Delegates” agenda.
This corner of Southeastern United Methodism is already moving into new fronts in the sexual revolution.
Last year, Neighborhood Church in Atlanta marked the Trans Day of Visibility by “celebrating” how its own co-pastor “Andy Woodworth shared that they identify as non-binary trans femme” and how this Southeastern United Methodist congregation had encouraged this pastor to embrace a transgender identity. Woodworth was featured at a regional RMN event last month. The congregation’s website identifies the co-pastors as United Methodist elders Anjie Woodworth and Andi (with an “i”) Woodworth, with the latter looking like a young woman and using both “she” and “they” pronouns.” Just last year, this same page reported that the two were married, and showed Andi looking like a young man, albeit using “they/them” pronouns. A 2020 profile of the Woodworths’ LGBTQ+ activism reported that these two Candler alumni were married and have co-pastored the congregation since 2016.
The North Georgia online clergy directory now includes a page for an “Andromeda Woodworth,” aka “Andi Woodworth.” In 2021, this same webpage identified this individual (with the same contact info, appointment, and clergy status) as “Andrew Woodworth.”
Yes, this is just one transgendered pastor among hundreds of non-trans North Georgia pastors. But as conservatives leave the UMC, Woodworth will become increasingly celebrated as a pioneer, encouraging others to follow. As an elder, Woodworth has a guaranteed appointment, in a denomination whose new leaders have made clear that they regard any congregation not welcoming an LGBT pastor appointed over them as unacceptable bigotry.
In South Carolina, Bishop Jonathan Holston has been relatively more conservative than others.
So it was disappointing when, in response to last year’s Supreme Court ruling, he chose to promote the pronouncement by the UMC Council of Bishops one-sidedly defending abortion rights and avoiding concern for the value of human life in the womb.
It was also surprising that he allowed one of his district superintendents, Robin Dease, as one of his top deputies, to publicly serve on the leadership team of the South Carolina UMC Next chapter. This divisive, unofficial caucus is committed to not only eventually making the Discipline’s sexuality standards more permissive, but also in the meantime to “resist” implementation of the Discipline’s present standards, apparently by any means necessary.
It also reflects on the clergy in this corner of Southeastern United Methodism that in 2019, they chose someone as liberal as Dease to be their second-elected clergy delegate to General Conference (from which she went on to be elected bishop).
In 2018, a 71 percent majority of the South Georgia Conference voted to “affirm the present standards of our Discipline” on sexuality. Since then, however, some 60 percent of its congregations have disaffiliated, the largest percentage of United Methodist disaffiliations in the Southeast. Among those who left were all of the top-five congregations by 2021 worship attendance (see under “Churches by Size”). With such a dramatic hollowing out of conservatism and the continuing liberalizing influence of Georgia’s Candler School of Theology, this corner of Southeastern United Methodism will soon look very different. A liberal shift was already reportedly seen in the conference’s delegate elections last month.
The Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference was formed in January 2022 as a merger between the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences. At the previous year’s annual conference sessions, their reported combined total membership of 175,987 included over 60 percent of the latter and less than 40 percent of the former. Thus, the perspectives of the larger (central) Tennessee Conference can be expected to dominate.
Such perspectives include the larger predecessor conference’s 2019 adoption, by a large super-majority, of a resolution denouncing that year’s General Conference decisions (upholding bans on gay weddings and non-celibate gay clergy) as allegedly having caused “harm” to “LGBTQIA+ persons, their families, their friends, and the body of Christ,” and making a formal apology.
It also reflects on the merged conference’s leadership that Bishop Bill McAlilly previously allowed his right-hand woman, Lynn Taylor, to serve as a leader of an unofficial liberal caucus group, misleadingly named “Uniting Methodists.” We have reported earlier on the focus of this caucus on making United Methodist sexual-morality standards more permissive and many of its other leaders support other liberalizing agendas. In mid-2020, Taylor retired as Director of Missional Alignment for the Memphis and Tennessee Annual Conferences (a position that “encompassed the responsibilities of the Assistant to the Bishop”).
Such liberal perspectives will increasingly dominate this Southeastern United Methodist conference, as more and more conservatives leave. Among those who have already left for the Global Methodist Church is Christ Church Memphis, which was the largest-membership congregation in the old Memphis Conference.
Virginia has become decidedly liberal. In 2019, not only did it elect only liberals as General and Jurisdictional Conference delegates, but it also adopted motions supporting liberalizing the UMC’s sexuality standards and encouraging “delay” of enforcing clergy adherence.
Virginia Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson has for several years served on the national Convening Team of the unofficial, divisively liberal UMC Next caucus mentioned in connection with South Carolina above. Such open, ongoing leadership of such a “partisan” caucus by an active bishop was previously almost unheard of, given how bishops are supposed to be trusted servants of all the people in their conferences.
Haupert-Johnson’s bullying of conservatives when she was North Georgia’s bishop has been widely noted, and bodes ill for any non-liberals who may remain under her leadership. At one point, she even rather non-humbly defended her liberal leadership by declaring that she “speak[s] for Jesus Christ”!
Previous Bishop Sharma Lewis was known as more orthodox, and exhorted clergy to respect the prohibition on gay weddings. But when this rule was violated in Virginia, it is not clear how her approach fundamentally differed from that of liberal bishops imposing indefinite “abeyances” on accountability processes (aside from Lewis not using that word).
Several have reported on how under Bishop Lewis, Pastor Drew Ensz faced a complaint for officiating a same-sex wedding in 2019, and then the process stalled over multiple years. In a legal brief, she submitted to the UMC Judicial Council last fall, Lewis absurdly claimed that when a complaint is filed against a minister’s misconduct, processing a judicial complaint can be delayed for “six years from the filing of the original complaint” (emphasis original) and defended her dragging things out by noting “only three (3) years have passed”!
If the Judicial Council had followed Lewis’s lobbying to enshrine this particular argument in church law, that would have been extraordinarily damaging throughout the denomination for both effective accountability and due process rights.
Furthermore, Lewis inexplicably chose to delay accountability until another bishop took over Virginia in January, knowing that her successor was likely to be more liberal and to resolve the complaint without real accountability.
Indeed, last month, a “just resolution” was finally reached, although its details were suspiciously not publicized.
However, this year’s Virginia Conference clergy session took note of this and another “just resolution” for another minister who committed the same offense. Reportedly, in both cases, there was no record shared of the just resolution including any sort of penalty or even a promise by the offending ministers to not violate church rules again, the bishop did not exhort clergy to not violate the Discipline in this way, and the two covenant-breaking ministers were actually rewarded in a way, by being gifted a platform to defend themselves, their actions, and their liberal views.
At one point, this year’s Virginia Annual Conference session even featured multiple rainbow banners on stage.
It’s a new day for Southeastern United Methodists.
For Western North Carolina, it would take an entire article to document Bishop Ken Carter’s breaking trust, dictatorially suppressing free speech, juxtaposing theologically orthodox believers with racists, and effectively inviting clergy to violate the Discipline’s standards “related to LGBTQ clergy and same gender weddings.” Such an article has already been written, including documentation of how the rest of the conference has overwhelmingly committed itself to an intolerantly liberal new direction.
Some Southeastern United Methodist readers may still think, “Well, my current bishop is generally theologically orthodox and a decent, trustworthy individual overall.” You may be right. But again, once you get a new bishop in a few years or less, the leadership of the other bishops noted above and/or the new politics of Southeastern United Methodist bishop elections will hit home.
By then, with the ongoing trajectory of liberal United Methodist officials increasingly blocking the exit doors, combined with the attrition of individual conservative church members slowly trickling away, it may be too late for your congregation to have a feasible chance to leave.