ORANGE BEACH, Ala. (WKRG) — It is a turbulent time for United Methodist Church members. Congregations have until the end of the year to decide if they want to remain with the UMC or disaffiliate.

The United Methodist Church is the second largest protestant denomination in the area. There are 117 Alabama UMC congregations and 38 Florida congregations in the WKRG News 5 viewing area.

“That has been the hardest thing, to watch the church being torn apart over an opinion about one thing,” said UMC District Superintendent, Rev. Debora Bishop, who oversees all churches in Lower Alabama and Northwest Florida.

In 2019, the UMC voted by a narrow margin to affirm its stance against same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

“It made it more traditional and more punitive when it came to the issue of human sexuality,” Bishop said.

When the UMC decided to enforce its ban on same sex marriage and gay clergy, it set up a system to allow churches that didn’t agree with that decision to disaffiliate. The process was delayed by the pandemic. Each congregation now has until the end of 2023 to leave and retain ownership of church buildings and property. Disaffiliation takes a two-thirds vote of the congregation.

The system was set up primarily to allow more liberal congregations that opposed the ban on same sex marriage and gay clergy to leave. Surprisingly, however, it has been the more conservative congregations throughout the South that are deciding to disaffiliate.

“There are many pastors and church leaders who are concerned about the direction of the United Methodist Church,” says Rev. Lester Spencer, Pastor at St James – a large church in Montgomery that disaffiliated and joined the new, conservative, Global Methodist Church. Spencer is an area spokesperson for the new denomination.

“We believe in the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline that is based on scripture,” Spencer said. “We support the current Book of Discipline, but  we know there are many who are trying to change the Book of Discipline and, therefore, many are trying to change the definition of marriage and what we believe historically about sexuality.”

Spencer predicts more than half of the 480 UMC churches in south Alabama and northwest Florida will disaffiliate by the end of the year.

In south Baldwin County, both the Orange Beach UMC and the Gulf Shores UMC have voted to disaffiliate. 

“I voted my conscience,” says Allen McElroy, a member of the Orange Beach church. “I feel good about the people here and the Christianity. I do not want anyone telling me how I’ve got  to go.”

For now, Orange Beach is an independent church. Gulf Shores has disaffiliated and decided to join the new, conservative, Global Methodist Church.

Bishop says for many churches and members the process has been like a painful divorce.

“It’s heart wrenching,” she said. “These are people who have walked with you when a child has died, or have served meals when your spouse died, who have visited you in the hospital, who have sent you cards and cared for you. And now, because of this, you can’t be there anymore.”

“Oh it was hard,” says Esther Jackson, who was a member at Orange Beach for more than 20 years. She found there were many there, and at Gulf Shores, who wanted to remain United Methodists. 

“They were heartbroken,” Jackson said. ”They felt like they didn’t have a home. They were just lost and I said that can’t happen.”

Todd Dowdy, a one-time musical director at Orange Beach UMC, says he felt the same way.

“There’s just so many things that the United Methodist Church does, and has done, and has done for so long, and has done so well,” Dowdy said.

So now, Dowdy, Johnson, and other people who attended Orange Beach UMC and Gulf Shores UMC, worship together every Sunday at an events center on Canal Road. Bishop often preaches. She says as many as 70 people have attended services there.

The goal is to create a new UMC on Pleasure Island. As painful as the process has been, all involved say they harbor no ill-will toward their former church-members

“We love our friends,” said Jackson. “There’s no animosity.”

“Regardless of which group you may be a part of, I think both have as their goal to be the body of Christ here in this area,” added Dowdy.

Bishop says churches that have decided to disaffiliate will be announced in May, when they are officially ratified by the UMC. Many more congregations could breakaway by the end-of-the-year deadline.