A regional body of the United Methodist Church (UMC) filed a lawsuit against five members of a Pennsylvania church for allegedly improperly disaffiliating from the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Leaders of Cortez United Methodist Church in Jefferson Township, about 15 miles outside Scranton, allegedly violated the UMC bylaws regarding disaffiliation when the congregation unilaterally broke off to form Cortez Community Church, according to the lawsuit filed in Lackawanna County Court and reported by The Times-Tribune of Scranton.
The lawsuit filed by the UMC Susquehanna Conference names church members Daniel Hulse Jr., Cathy Strickbein, Alicia Clarke Witkowski, Ken Witkowski and Abbigale Clarke as defendants.
The suit, which is slated to be heard before Lackawanna County Judge Julia Munley May 28, alleges the church changed its signs to reflect its new name Feb. 9 and then took action to take over the church’s bank accounts Feb. 19.
LAWYER REPRESENTING METHODIST CHURCHES TRYING TO LEAVE SAYS CONTENTIOUS SPLIT IS ABOUT ‘POWER’ AND ‘MONEY’
The congregation, despite its new name and affiliation, reportedly has continued to meet on the church property where it has historically gathered.
According to Paragraph 2553 of the UMC Book of Discipline, which was approved by the General Conference in 2019, UMC churches are permitted to leave the denomination with their church buildings and property if they obtain the approval of two-thirds of their congregation and their regional governing body.
“You remain a United Methodist Church until the conference says you are not a United Methodist Church,” Joseph Layman, the conference chancellor, told the Times-Tribune. “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.”
Layman reportedly fired off a letter to the congregation Feb. 23, warning it the UMC will take steps to take back the church property, including changing locks and freezing assets. His entreaties to cooperate went unheeded, according to the suit.
“It really comes down to power and money. They hold the power and want the money.”
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The Rev. Art Yetter, who pastored Cortez UMC for nearly 18 years until retiring in January, told Fox News Digital that the church began moving toward disaffiliation at the end of his tenure.
“As a congregation, we had talked about pulling out of conference ever since the disaffiliation had been put forth,” Yetter said. He claimed a majority voted to proceed with disaffiliation, even though the district superintendent tried to cancel the meeting and have the church’s locks changed by telling the locksmith the building had been abandoned.
“From there, things have gone downhill,” he said. “I’ve always expected that 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.”
“It breaks my heart to see what’s going on.”
Rev. Dr. Kathleen Kind, director of Connectional Ministries for the Susquehanna Conference of the UMC, told Fox News Digital in a statement: “We are deeply saddened by the divisions within the United Methodist Church. But we also believe that churches and church members have the right to self-determination.”
“I am one of four individuals working with every church in our Conference that is exploring disaffiliation, and we are all personally committed to making the process transparent and fair. Unfortunately, in this one situation out of more than 100, a church went outside the clearly defined disaffiliation process. We were unsuccessful in efforts to resolve the issue directly, and legal action was the very last resort,” Kind added.
UNITED METHODIST SPLIT GROWS MORE CONTENTIOUS AS GEORGIA CONFERENCE BLOCKS CONSERVATIVE CHURCHES FROM EXITING
The lawsuit comes as the UMC fractures over issues of sexuality and church government. More than 2,000 U.S. churches have disaffiliated from the UMC since 2019, when the General Conference voted 438-384 to uphold the church’s ban on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriages.
Traditionalist members of the Methodist clergy told Fox News Digital in June many of the departing churches have left because some liberal leaders in the denomination have not enforced the General Conference’s vote, choosing instead to perform same-sex marriages and ordain LGBTQ clergy anyway.
Nearly 200 churches in the UMC North Georgia Conference recently sued the denomination for halting the disaffiliation process amid alleged “misinformation” spreading about the process. The North Georgia Conference was one of several that paused that disaffiliation process until next year, by which time the disaffiliation clause in the Book of Discipline will have expired and the rules for leaving subject to change. Hundreds of other congregations have sued their regional conferences over the disaffiliation process.
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Dan Dalton, an attorney who is representing multiple congregations attempting to leave the denomination, recently told Fox News Digital denominational infighting is mostly about power and money. As the UMC hemorrhages congregations, the UMC’s General Conference is slated to receive its lowest budget in nearly 40 years, according to UM News.