By Walter Fenton, Good News Magazine.
One of the fastest growing local congregations in the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church has parted ways with the denomination. Over the past two decades, Wesley UM Church in Quarryville, Pennsylvania, has grown from a worshiping congregation of 30 to 700. Local pastor Blake Deibler, who has served the church for 20 years, leads the conservative-evangelical congregation.
“We did not take this step lightly,” said Executive Pastor Larry Rineer. “A great deal of prayer, conversation and thought went into it. The idea of leaving the denomination was a grassroots movement in the congregation that had been welling up for years, but in the past we did not think the timing was right.”
Like many local churches in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, a pair of high profile clergy trials forced congregants to carefully consider Scripture and official UM Church teachings regarding the practice of homosexuality and same sex weddings.
In 2004 the Rev. Beth Stroud was defrocked after announcing to her congregation in Philadelphia that she was living in a partnered relationship with another woman. Although she was defrocked, the church hired her directly and she continued to serve there for a number of years.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, an elder in the Pennsylvania Annual Conference, was defrocked in 2013 for presiding at his son’s same-sex wedding. However, upon appeal to a Northeastern Jurisdiction judicial panel his credentials were restored and the Judicial Council, the UM Church’s highest court, confirmed the decision. Schaefer continues to serve as a UM pastor in Santa Barbara, California.
Members at the church grew increasingly perplexed and frustrated by the seeming inability of the UM Church leaders to speak with one voice and to hold pastors accountable. The highly publicized trials and the ongoing attempts by progressives to liberalize the church’s teachings finally prompted their decision to formally explore parting ways with the denomination.
“For us it really came down to the authority of the Bible,” said Rineer. “People grew dissatisfied with the leadership of the general church and the direction they seemed to be heading. It didn’t seem in keeping with Scripture.”