A Georgia-based regional body of The United Methodist Church approved the disaffiliation of 193 churches from the mainline denomination last week due to a longstanding debate over issues related to same-sex marriage and the affirmation of gay clergy.
On Sunday, 193 of its reported 486 member congregations voted to disaffiliate from the UMC. The UMC South Georgia Conference approved the departure.
"Many of these churches have dedicated clergy and laity who truly desire to serve God and their communities. We pray for these churches as they navigate ministry in a new season," Graves said.
"I have great hope for the future of the South Georgia Conference," he added. "While we may be smaller, numbers do not tell the full story or define our ability to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. I believe we will be stronger as we focus on reaching new people with the gospel message."
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an unofficial conservative advocacy group within the UMC, also assisted churches in the South Georgia Conference in deciding whether to disaffiliate from the denomination.
Scott Tucker, senior pastor of Good Shepherd Savannah and a member of the executive committee of the South Georgia chapter of the WCA, told The Christian Post that he was "thankful that Bishop Graves and SGA Conference leadership preserved a fair and transparent pathway for local churches to discern their future, take congregational votes, and receive Annual Conference approval to exit."
"It seems like most churches with [an] interest in disaffiliation have already done so," he noted. "Some churches indicate they will continue to watch what the General Conference decides in 2024 and may open departure discussions later. SGA UMC has promised to keep a path to departure open after the 2024 General Conference."
When asked whether the departures of theologically conservative congregations affected the WCA, Tucker told the outlet that his organization "doesn't exist for itself."
"There are still traditional-minded laypeople and clergy remaining in the SGA UMC," he said. "We will continue to advocate for traditional teaching within the UMC, while we encourage the UMC to continue to have exit pathways for those who wish to depart, especially if the UMC moves toward changing its teachings on marriage."
Many churches across the US have disaffiliated from the UMC over a debate on same-sex marriage and the ordination of same-sex clergy. Although the UMC Book of Discipline prohibits both practices, many theological progressives in the denomination have enforced them.
According to UM News, over 3,500 congregations have left the UMC in recent years, with more than 1,800 departures in 2022 alone.
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Milton Quintanilla is a freelance writer and content creator. He is a contributing writer for Christian Headlines and the host of the For Your Soul Podcast, a podcast devoted to sound doctrine and biblical truth. He holds a Masters of Divinity from Alliance Theological Seminary.