It was going to be a difficult goodbye. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, after Mindy Sutton finished her day as the dean of students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she drove home to Mabank, a small town of about 4,500 an hour southeast. She passed Market Street, downtown’s original main street, where vintage brick buildings housed the Tri-County Library and shops sold decorative signs reading “Blessed” and “Dance like no one is watching.” Four blocks later, she pulled into the parking lot of First United Methodist Church, which her family had attended for 75 years. As the sun set, Sutton walked inside the brown brick building and received a paper ballot on the way to her family’s regular pew. Advent, the four-week season in the Christian church that culminates in Christmas, had just begun. The altar rails were festooned with garlands of greenery, and rows of fluffy red poinsettias lined the chancel steps.
After everyone was seated, the Reverend Cassie Wade ascended to the pulpit. As the district superintendent for the largely rural East District of the North Texas Conference, the regional body of the United Methodist Church, Wade had been walking with the Mabank congregation through a potentially monumental decision for the past six months. “The sole purpose of this church conference is to consider and vote upon a request by the leadership to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church,” she began.
Sutton looked down at her white ballot.
I vote to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church.
I vote to remain in the United Methodist Church.
Sutton checked the second box and placed the ballot in the collection plate.
As a handful of people went into a nearby room to count the votes, Sutton, 48, looked around the sanctuary. When she was a little girl, her mother, the church organist, would bring her along as she practiced the week’s hymns on Saturdays. Sutton passed the time by dancing around the red-padded pews, leaping and twirling as the music filled the empty room. She had watched her brother’s baptism here and wept at both of her grandparents’ funerals. After moving away to attend college and launch her career, she had moved back to Mabank and rejoined the church two years ago. United Methodism, with its support for theological questioning and embrace of multiple perspectives, had always fit her, and First United Methodist felt like home. But tonight, she realized, might be the last time she ever would be in this room.
After ten minutes, Wade returned to the pulpit. “As you know, this was not a unanimous vote. There were one hundred forty-one votes to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church and fifty-eight to remain United Methodist. The measure received the support of 70.85 percent of those voting tonight, which is more than the two-thirds majority required for disaffiliation.” A current ran through the room as she paused. “There is much healing to do, and I hope you will pursue that with honor.”
Sutton left through a side door and ran into Andrea Pickens, the church’s finance chair. They stood in the shadows, blinking back tears as the parking lot emptied. Sutton had expected tonight’s outcome, but it was still a bitter disappointment. The women looked at each other. What do we do now?
Over the past four years, more than 6,200 churches have chosen to leave the United Methodist Church over disagreements about human sexuality—a conflict that has dogged the denomination for decades but, in recent years, has driven a wedge into the church along the United States’ political fault lines. Methodism was founded by John Wesley in the mid-eighteenth century as a reform to the Church of England. It later spread to the American colonies and was established in the U.S. as the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. The denomination has split before: in 1844, disagreement about slavery cleaved the church into northern and southern branches, with offshoot groups later pulling away from both. In 1968, at its General Conference in Dallas, the Methodist Church—comprising the by-then-reunited northern and southern divisions—merged with one of the smaller groups, the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The resulting United Methodist Church counted 11 million members.
A year later, the Stonewall uprising catalyzed the modern gay rights movement in the United States. As institutions responded to the increasing visibility of homosexuality, leaders of the newly formed UMC sought to codify its stance on the issue. The church’s General Conference, its worldwide assembly of elected delegates, in 1972 adopted the position that “homosexuals . . . are persons of sacred worth” but that “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” In 1984, the General Conference added a rule to the church’s Book of Discipline that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” could not be ordained, and in 1996, it voted to forbid clergy from conducting same-sex weddings.
Ever since that initial statement in 1972, groups within the church have tried to change its position. Their efforts continued as membership in the American church crested and declined, while the UMC in more conservative regions overseas grew. (By 2020, the church counted 6.27 million members in the United States in addition to the 7 million in Africa, Asia, and Europe.) In 2019, denominational leaders called a special session of the General Conference to address LGBTQ issues, at which U.S. Methodists who supported same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination expected the church to adopt a plan—termed the One Church Plan—allowing for regional differences in policy to fit the UMC’s widely varying cultural contexts. The West Coast and West Africa, for instance, could have different rules.
But to their disappointment, the Traditional Plan, which reinforced prohibitions and increased punishments for clergy who violated them, won the most support, particularly from overseas delegates. Church leaders, sensing an impending schism, planned to spend the 2020 General Conference developing a protocol for the dueling branches of the church to use to separate. Congregations that decided to leave the UMC in the meantime could follow an approved departure process called disaffiliation. Then COVID hit, and the 2020 meeting was postponed. During that delay, some U.S. clergy defied the bans reinforced in the Traditional Plan, and an openly lesbian bishop elected in 2016 continued to serve. Conservatives, perceiving that these actions had gone unpunished, in May 2022 launched the Global Methodist Church, an alternative to the UMC that had been in development for more than a year. Congregations tired of waiting for resolution now had another option.
In Texas, 711 churches—nearly 40 percent of the state’s 1,784 United Methodist congregations—have voted to leave the denomination. In many disaffiliating churches, whose ranks include both tiny, rural congregations and suburban megachurches, the decision was nearly unanimous. But in communities like Mabank, where the vote was closer, the debate divided Sunday school classes, friendships, and even families. Methodists found that church was no longer a sanctuary from the tribalism and polarization that permeate contemporary American culture.
“Somebody used the analogy of, ‘When you go through a divorce, somebody wins, and it’s usually the lawyer,’ says Dan Gurley, the pastor at the Mabank church. “But in the divorce of a congregation—a church family—there are no winners.”
Gurley, 63, grew up in the Dallas suburbs of Mesquite and Wylie but describes himself as “about as country as a city boy can be.” He sports a gray horseshoe mustache and speaks in a drawl that bends vowels into two syllables. His upbringing was Southern Baptist, and his wife’s was Catholic, so they “compromised,” he says, by joining a United Methodist church when they married more than 40 years ago.
In his first career, Gurley ran video assessments of sewer lines; he got a kick out of telling people he “made dirty movies.” But in his thirties, he went into the ministry, a calling he says he’d felt since his teens. That meant returning to school—which he’d never liked—to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees and complete the Course of Study, a series of ministerial training classes that takes several years to complete, at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He served in several small North Texas churches before being appointed to First UMC Mabank in 2018.
Although Mabank’s population is less than five thousand, it sits at the edge of rapidly growing Kaufman County. The town is one of many surrounding Cedar Creek Lake, a reservoir that doubles as a weekend destination. The pandemic-prompted acceptance of remote work spurred many Dallasites to move to their lake houses full time, and these days, the main road through Mabank is thick with traffic and lined with billboards advertising waterfront real estate. The region’s prosperity coexists with desperate poverty, and the church has long tried to alleviate its community’s suffering. Members take shifts at the Mabank Area Good Samaritans food pantry and visit men incarcerated at a nearby state prison. Through a program called Love’s Outreach, they serve 150 meals each month to residents of Cherokee Shores, an unincorporated area at the edge of a dense forest where meth dealers sometimes hide. Residents live in boarded-up mobile homes, often without electricity and water. Volunteers from the church drive them to medical appointments and the grocery store and even to the church’s locker room for a shower.
Gurley was proud of all these activities but wanted the church to keep setting goals. During a service in January 2022, he invited people to suggest ministry ideas. “More missions,” someone offered. “More kids’ activities.” Then a woman called out, “I want us to join the Global Methodist Church.” An awkward silence followed as Gurley, caught off guard, searched for words. “That was the longest two or three seconds of my life, and I used to ride bulls,” he told me later. When he’d regrouped, he thanked the person and continued.
For the past decade, Gurley had felt increasingly uncomfortable in the United Methodist Church. In his view, the Bible was clear about homosexuality; Gurley is fond of saying, “If God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” He had watched UMC churches across the country defy the Book of Discipline with little to no consequence. Although the One Church Plan had not passed at the General Conference, the North Texas Conference had subsequently voted to aspire to be a “One Church conference,” expressing the majority’s preference for allowing individual congregations to decide how to handle issues like same-sex weddings. What was the point of having a rule, Gurley wondered, if churches were allowed to break it? He felt like he and other conservatives no longer belonged in the denomination he loved.
In May, Gurley asked the congregation’s leadership council to decide whether to explore disaffiliation, and the group voted to research the issue. Privately, Gurley already had decided to leave the UMC—perhaps for another denomination, perhaps to retire. But it was the congregation’s job, not the pastor’s, to determine the church’s future. As one member told me, “The church is the people.”
Disaffiliation had begun to resonate with people like Love’s Outreach cofounder Scott Daniels, 79, who emphasizes that leaving the denomination doesn’t mean the church dislikes gay people. “We just don’t want one preaching to us,” he says. “I already know that they don’t follow Scripture to the letter. And if they don’t follow Scripture to the letter, how am I supposed to believe whatever it is that they’re telling me on Sunday morning?”
Scholars and bloggers on both sides of the debate generally agree that the Bible contains fewer than ten texts that appear to refer to homosexual behavior. When I asked which Scriptures forbid LGBTQ ordination and marriage, though, none of the disaffiliation advocates could quote verses from memory. Daniels and Gurley Googled the prohibition on same-sex marriage and arrived at Genesis 2:24, which reads, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” The language also appears in the book of Matthew when Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees about divorce. What this means, Gurley told me, is that marriage is only for a man and a woman.
Things weren’t so clear-cut for Sutton, who wanted to remain in the UMC. “The Bible, although I believe it was divinely inspired, is written by human beings and has been translated over many centuries,” she says. “I believe there’s room for interpretation.” Sutton’s Methodist upbringing emphasized the Bible’s message that Jesus loved and included everyone. “When you think about some of the Scripture, he ministered to women, to the disabled, to the poor. He didn’t discriminate. That’s the example I look to.”
Scholars, too, differ in their approaches to the verses traditionally associated with homosexuality, often referred to by LGBTQ-inclusive Christians as “clobber passages.” For example, Leviticus 18:22 is often translated as, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Some cite the verse as evidence that the Bible forbids all homosexual behavior. But Susanne Scholz, a professor of the Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology, says that a close reading of the original Hebrew yields a different meaning. An examination of the grammar, a comparison to similar wording in Genesis, and a review of the surrounding context in chapter 18 led Scholz to a reading of the passage concluding that what is forbidden is male-on-male incestuous rape.
In Scholz’s analysis, applying the verse to consensual same-sex relationships is both linguistically inaccurate and harmful. At the end of the day, she says, “To say that [the Bible] has one single meaning that prohibits this, or allows that, is usually too simplistic and ignores the interpretation process that is involved.”
But the conversation at FUMC Mabank was not characterized by subtlety. As the vote approached, the debate intensified. Some members who wanted to remain in the UMC called the secessionists homophobic; the accused bristled at the characterization. One Sunday, an advocate for disaffiliation passed out flyers depicting an event hosted by Oak Lawn United Methodist Church in Dallas that involved drag queens. The implication: This could happen here, too.
By the time the church assembled on November 28 for the vote, relationships were at a breaking point. “The tension that was in this building that night—you could have cut it with a chain saw,” Gurley says. When Wade announced the results, “it was heartbreaking for me. I know they say men don’t cry, but I cried, because I knew that some of our church members were going to leave.”
Eston Williams had been watching these proceedings closely. A “self-avowed practicing liberal” and a retired United Methodist minister, Williams had long advocated for changing the church’s policies on ordination and marriage. The last congregation he served, an 87-member church near Cedar Creek Lake, voted in 2014 to “support and encourage” hosting same-gender weddings—although no couples took advantage of the offer. Since retirement, Williams, who identifies as heterosexual, had attended Celebration on the Lake, an interfaith LGBTQ church near Mabank.
The morning after the vote, two friends from the Mabank church contacted him, distraught. Christmas was three weeks away, and they had lost their church. It occurred to Williams that people at other disaffiliating churches would feel the same way. He and a friend emailed the Reverend Owen Ross, the leader of new church development in the UMC’s North Texas Conference, and Ross agreed to meet with FUMC Mabank’s congregants who had voted to stay United Methodist. They would gather Sunday night in a music studio on Market Street downtown.
On December 4, thirty people from Mabank and nearby Athens, where another church had voted overwhelmingly to disaffiliate, showed up for a meeting that was part therapy session, part worship service. Seated in a circle, they took turns voicing their grief to an empathetic audience. Then someone mentioned buying land to build a new church.
Whoa, Ross thought. First let’s decide if we want to meet again. (They did.) Still, he could see the potential. During introductions, he’d realized the room was full of leaders: church council members, an organist, a finance chair. When Pickens mentioned end-of-year giving, Ross offered to set up an account that would earmark the money for the group. It needed a name: “How about Market Street?” someone suggested. Ross offered them a $15,000 challenge grant from the conference that, if matched, could pay a part-time pastor. Four weeks later, the group—now seventy people strong—had raised more than double the amount.
Williams called a friend who had pastored a tiny United Methodist Church in Eustace, halfway between Mabank and Athens. That congregation had dwindled to a handful of members and had stopped using its building before the pandemic. Perhaps this new group could move in?
An eerie scene greeted the Market Street contingent when they entered the Eustace church. Hymnals and bulletins were still lying on the pews, dishes on the kitchen counter. Three-year-old food lurked in the refrigerator. The volunteers threw themselves into cleaning the carpets, polishing the pews, and trimming back vines that had covered the windows. By January they were holding services in the church with their new temporary pastor.
At a special service on March 26, the North Texas Conference officially chartered the new Market Street United Methodist Church. The Eustace building was too small, so Market Street leaders approached Jim Dees, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Mabank, which had a larger sanctuary. Dees, who moved to Mabank with his husband two years earlier, welcomed the Methodists into the space. When the service began, Dees stepped to the pulpit. “Jesus was well aware that doing the right thing was not always easy,” he said. “Given the circumstances that this gathering of faithful disciples of the Market Street United Methodist Church is facing, I think . . . Jesus would do something just like this. Inclusion, not exclusion. Grace, not condemnation.”
The handbell choir played a hymn, and Sutton read the Gospel. When Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. declared the church officially organized, the congregation rose and applauded. The service closed with the hymn “We Are the Church”:
“The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people.”
By the last chorus, Market Street’s charter members were pointing at one another, giddy with cathartic joy.
“I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!”
The Sunday after the November vote, Gurley walked into the sanctuary wondering how many pews would be empty. Instead, he had a full house. People who had stopped coming to church during the feud had finally returned, and Gurley immediately sensed a change in the atmosphere. Tension and anger were replaced with relief and enthusiasm.
In late December, Gurley officially notified the congregation that he, too, would be disaffiliating from the UMC. Then he and his staff started working through the North Texas Conference’s to-do list for disaffiliating churches. The church had to remove the word “United” from its deed, bank account, website, and social media. It had to make its last payment to the North Texas Conference, a total of $82,000 that included support for UMC efforts such as education and disaster relief and for the conference’s pension fund. It had to remove the cross and flame symbol of the UMC from the church’s exterior sign. Gurley hired a new communications director and began looking for a musician to replace staff who had left. He saw to it that the locks to the church were changed.
The congregation voted in January to join the Global Methodist Church, well before its disaffiliation became official on March 31. Meanwhile, an influx of new families joined. Several had left churches that voted to remain in the UMC. One came because she’d driven past the building and seen that the word “United” was gone.
Despite its growth, Mabank is still a small town, and members of the two churches cross paths at the grocery store, the rodeo, and Little Dribblers youth basketball games. Pickens has good friends who have remained at First Methodist. “To me, it’s just like they belong to a different denomination,” she says.
A tremendous sense of relief has swept over both groups. For some, it is tempered by an occasional uneasiness that the church is just as vulnerable to partisan division as the rest of the country. “I see the same stuff that’s going on within the world going on in the church,” Gurley says. “We can say that, ‘Oh, we’re going to be brothers and sisters, and we’re going to love,’ but when it comes right down to it, there are those that believe that if you don’t agree with them, then you’re the problem.”
For Sutton, the establishment of Market Street UMC has been healing and hopeful. Still, she says, “One of the concerns I have about our society in general is that we’re just surrounding ourselves with people who believe like us.” As First Methodist and Market Street have parted ways, she has wondered: Is this just the natural evolution of institutions, or are we contributing to polarization?
Next year, observers say, General Conference delegates will likely consider proposals to change the UMC’s stances on homosexuality, marriage, and ordination. Those delegates will represent a body with fewer than 80 percent of the congregations the UMC claimed before disaffiliation began in 2019. Intractable differences have once again cleaved the Methodist church into two.
In 1750, John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, wrote in a sermon, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” It’s a sentiment that both Gurley and Bishop Saenz quoted to me, even though they hold opposing perspectives.
While reporting this story, I heard another phrase so frequently I began to listen for it. It was spoken by a man who voted to leave the UMC as he explained why the decision was made by the congregation, not the pastor. It was repeated by a charter member of Market Street as he affirmed that his fellow United Methodists were more important than the buildings he had helped fund at First Methodist. It was woven through the hymn that new members of Market Street sang at the culmination of the chartering service.
The church is the people. But if the people can be divided, so can the church.