Beacon of light: First United Methodist Church staying strong in times of unrest

Published 12:10 am Saturday, July 15, 2023

SALISBURY— Rev. Mark Conforti never once thought about leaving. But as senior pastor for First United Methodist Church, he and the church’s council were recently faced with some important decisions that will shape their congregation’s identity.

In the past few years, the United Methodist Church has experienced unrest within. In 2019, during a conference, some of the church delegates voted to enforce stricter bans on LGBTQ practices. This caused a idealogical split within the church that eventually lead to a real split happening. Not everyone agreed on the bans, so an avenue was created for congregations who agreed with them to disaffiliate in what is described as “a protocol for a graceful separation.” It wasn’t until 2022, that those who actually approved of the bans officially disaffiliated to form the Global Methodist Church.

This has caused people all over the country and the world to have to choose between their church and their faith. When first confronted with the idea to disaffiliate, Conforti and the church didn’t think twice about staying with the UMC.

“We’re dedicated to not even having the conversation about the possibility of disaffiliation. Along with that comes, we hope, the assurance if somebody comes from a disaffiliated congregation they can be here with the confidence that’s not going to happen,” Conforti said. “In many ways, it’s the natural consequence of living in a culture where people have choices. There is no state church in the United States of America. People are not forced to participate or show up, it’s always by personal choice.”

First UMC will not only be staying with the UMC, but they will be what is called a “lighthouse congregation” where they welcome anyone whose church disaffiliated, but who personally want to stay in the UMC.

“The doctrine of the church has not changed. We continue to believe in the same God, we read the same Bible, we profess the same creeds. Right now, being a lighthouse congregation means we’re especially hospitable and sensitive and caring to people who may come our way from one of these disaffiliated congregations,” Conforti said.

When congregations go through the disaffiliation process, some church members are naturally for it or against it. When it’s all said and done, it can leave people emotionally damaged. “The people who are not in favor often times experience hurt and pain and sadness and even grief because in their hearts they’re losing their congregation,” Conforti said.

Conforti explains that disaffiliation isn’t done by a single vote, but through several meetings where people work through their decision on it. The lead-up to the final vote can get messy.

“It’s led by either the pastor or one or two very vocal lay members. It usually starts with sending emails. A lot of it is fear driven and a lot of it has to do with property and money and there’s a lot of misinformation that has been emailed. That’s been very upsetting to someone like me,” Conforti said.

Brenda Loflin is the lay leader at First UMC where she has been a member her whole life. “I was born into this church,” Loflin said. Loflin was sad to hear about the separation and what it means for those members who are without a church.

Still, her attitude is optimistic. She is proud that First UMC is a lighthouse congregation and will be a welcoming haven for those who seek a new house of worship. She speaks of the teachings of John Winthrop and John Wesley to demonstrate where the heart of their faith originates. Even though the past is formative, it can’t be considered when deciding on what to do next.

“We can’t look back on what has happened. When I came here in the ’40s, things have certainly changed. We’ve got to move forward to see what we can do to take our mission forward. Which is to make and nurture Christian disciples through the presence and power of God,” Loflin said.

In 2024, Charlotte will host the Methodist Church’s General Conference after it was postponed three times due to COVID. The General Conference is a group of nearly 1,000 representatives from the Methodist Church that meet to figure out policy.

“General Conference is the only voice that speaks on behalf of the entire denomination. We don’t have a central figure like a Pope. The United Methodist Church is in many ways a very American, very democratic denomination,” Conforti said.

Conforti isn’t sure what the future brings. Because of the split, there are now fewer congregations to do mission work and contribute financially. Conforti says that many of the larger churches that are disaffiliating are not joining the GMC, but will stay independent. As with the churches that stay with UMC, the fate of the churches who disaffiliate will be a mystery for the time being.

“What’s going to happen to those churches? We don’t know, it remains to be seen. We wish them well. We pray for God’s blessings upon them. We don’t want any church to go under,” Conforti said.

Conforti wishes for people to take the time to evaluate their own lives in order for the church to persevere. When it comes to the churches that have stayed, their basic practices are still the same, and even though the landscape has changed, they still have the same message as before.

“I think people want to be focused on the central mission of the church which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for love to be put into action, for people’s lives to be impacted and transformed by the love of Jesus. We want to have that be central to who we are and what we do and we don’t want other things to distract us from that,” Conforti said.

Loflin also believes that for those who remain with the church, strength will come from unity.

“We would always like to see the world more loving. So, just to make that bond to be more loving with each other, to be more understanding. That we can work together towards a common goal. That we’re in this together,” Loflin said.