Two large North Mississippi churches, including one in Southaven, have voted to take the rare step of moving toward a departure from its church affiliation and go in a another direction.

Describing it as starting a "season of discernment," Getwell Road United Methodist Church members have overwhelmingly voted to begin talks with the United Methodist Church (UMC) Mississippi Conference regarding its plans to move from the larger church body.

The Orchard, another large UMC church with seven campuses based in Tupelo, has also voted to move toward a disassociation from the Methodist denomination.

The Tupelo church is reported to be the 15th largest UMC church in the country for worship attendance, receiving an average of 2,700 people at its weekend services.

According to Getwell Road UMC Senior Pastor Bill Beavers, his church of about 2,000 members would become independent if it determines to actually leave the UMC.

Beavers released a statement regarding the church's decision, noting Getwell Road has a 30-year history with the United Methodist denomination, which made the decision a very difficult one to take.

"In the past few years, Getwell’s leadership has watched the growing and divisive debate within the changing political landscape of the United Methodist Church," Beavers said. "It is heartbreaking to see how the myriad issues at hand have allowed divisive cracks to form within what was founded as a denomination full of grace and truth. Our leadership and congregation harbor no harsh opinions of the current denomination—we simply desire to be able to withdraw from engaging in these distractions and move forward with ministry."

No votes to officially cut ties from the United Methodist Church were made, but the "season of discernment" indicates the Southaven and Tupelo churches are moving in that direction.

Among the issues that are causing the local congregations to take this strong step is the denomination's stance on sexuality within its clergy, although Beavers pointed out it is not the only issue.

"Many people may see this separation as a statement on issues facing the denomination that have been discussed in the news, specifically human sexuality," Beavers said. "I, along with the leadership of Getwell Road, want to make it very clear that this decision to peacefully withdraw from the denomination was initiated for reasons that go beyond the more publicized debates that have occurred within the church. Getwell Road’s primary desire is to follow God’s command to reach out to all who need to know the love and transforming power of Jesus in their lives. We will do this as we continue to stand on the authority of Scripture."

Mississippi Conference Bishop James Swanson stated the impasse within the denomination from its churches regarding the United Methodist Church sexuality debates were brought to his attention in a meeting with him, Beavers, the lead pastor for The Orchard, Bryan Collier and officials of the UMC's Senatobia and Tupelo districts.

"The rationale given for this discernment is that within both congregations, there is a deep concern that any legislative or judicial solution to the denomination's current impasse on human sexuality will sow seeds of deeper division within our Church," Swanson said. "They see this division as something that continues and will continue to damage the witness of The United Methodist Church of which they are currently connected. This "period of discernment" will help them discover if they are to remain connected to The United Methodist Church or seek to depart."

Bob Bakken is Staff Writer and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.

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