(RNS) — Nearly four years ago, the United Methodist Church approved an exit plan for churches wishing to break away from the global denomination over differing beliefs about sexuality, setting in motion what many believed would be a modern-day schism.
Since then, a new analysis has found, it’s fallen well short of that.
That analysis of data collected by the church’s General Council on Finance and Administration shows 6.1% of United Methodist churches in the U.S. — 1,831 congregations out of 30,000 nationwide — have been granted permission to disaffiliate since 2019. There are no good figures for international departures among the estimated 12,000 United Methodist churches abroad.
The denomination’s disaffiliation plan gives churches until Dec. 31 to cut ties, and many have already made known their desire to leave. Those churches can take their properties with them after paying apportionments and pension liabilities. Others are forcing the issue through civil courts.
But whatever the final tally may be, the analysis suggests the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination — numbering 6.4 million U.S. members and 13 million worldwide — may weaken but is unlikely to break.
“You think of a schism as 50% or even 35% (split),” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and a lead researcher for the 2020 U.S. Religion Census. “This is not a real schism.”
RELATED: South Carolina’s Largest UMC Church Set To Leave Denomination
The 1,831 church departures come as United Methodist bishops say they’re battling misinformation from conservative groups that encourage churches to leave the denomination for the newly formed Global Methodist Church, which has declared it will never ordain or marry LGBTQ people — the crux of the conflict.
In turn, the Global Methodist Church and groups like the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a network of theologically conservative churches, argue that the denomination’s regional conferences are making it prohibitively hard for churches to leave.
The high-stakes duel has hit some regions of the country harder than others. But four years into what has been depicted as a breakup of the denomination, the picture is less climactic than anticipated.
“Some are leaving but the number of churches and members moving forward is far larger,” said Hope Morgan Ward, retired bishop of the North Carolina conference. “It is important to focus on who is staying and moving forward in the continuing United Methodist Church.”
The past year has brought “mixed emotions,” according to Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the New York Annual Conference, who leads the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops. Bickerton described it as a “period of disunity.”