Toccoa congregations split from UMC denomination

Four Stephens County Churches are among the 261 congregations that recently broke away from the United Methodist Church denomination following years of debate and division between what became two “sides”; one more conservative, one seeking a more progressive stance on denomination rules and standards.

More than 7,250 congregations across the country, and 623 in Georgia, have applied for and received approval for dissolution from the denomination in the past five years, with more than 5,000 of them nationwide taking place this year.

That trend continued earlier this month when, during a special called session of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, disaffiliation agreements for 261 congregations were ratified. 

In the North East District, four Stephens County congregations joined 53 other churches in the 15-county district in stepping away from the United Methodist denomination. According to a release by the North Georgia Conference, this included Confidence UMC of Stephens County, Providence UMC of Stephens County, St James UMC of Toccoa and Toccoa First UMC.

Last week, WNEG News sat down with the pastor at Toccoa First, Rev. Brent White, to talk about what led to the growing division among the denomination, and Toccoa First’s decision to join those breaking from the United Methodist Church. 

Tracing the history of the internal denomination conflict back as far as 1972, White said the disagreement within the denomination centers around whether to change  the traditional doctrine on sex and marriage.

He said one reason that UMC has resisted changing their doctrine on those issues longer than other denominations may be UMC’s growth worldwide. 

White said the conflict continued, with a strengthening of traditional laws within the denomination taking place in 2016, and a decision to being the amicable division of the denomination in 2019, but COVID interfered with the logistics. 

White said the disaffiliations in the North Georgia Conference began 2 years ago when 70 congregations split from the denomination, and he explained the clause included in a 2019 church document that allowed congratulations to leave the church with less financial obligations than would normally be associated with exiting the church.  

And he explained that the Toccoa First congregation voted this year to join those leaving the churches. 

He said that, since 2019, when the denomination strengthened the language in the church’s “law book” holding to traditional doctrines, more and more churches were disobeying the church’s standards, and White said that it was becoming clear that, as soon as 2024, there would be changes in the churches law book moving the church into a stance not holding to the traditional doctrines. 

He said all The First Toccoa church is trying to do is to be faithful to what they believe God has revealed in scripture. 

He added that the decision is heartbreaking, but there is no animosity.

White said he was grateful for the graceful way the matter was handled at last week’s meeting.

He said that those who split are just trying to continue the way they have, that they are not asking to change anything. 

He added that those who are leaving the denomination no longer feel that staying with UMC will allow them to follow their faith.

He stressed that he believes the First Toccoa Church made the right decision.

But, he said, people on both sides are heartbroken to over the split.

He said that, as sad as the division is, the church is more than the name on the side of the building.

He said that the discussion and disagreement over retaining the traditional doctrines regarding sex and marriage does not mean that the church does not love everyoine, and said the church welcomes everyone.

He said it also does not mean they feel superior to churches who chose a different path. 

The separation from the denomination will mean changes that will both be hard to get used to, and will be visible throughout the community, he said. 

White concluded by saying he is excited about the future of the church, and looking forward to the end to what has been constant division within the denomination.