Clergy Look to Put Disaffiliation Behind Them for 2023 Annual Conference

Mark Lambert
June 13, 2023

Rev. Austin Rinehart, pastor of Zachary United Methodist Church, greeted old friends in the narthex of First United Methodist Church of Baton Rouge on Tuesday as he passed out programs for the clergy-only session that kicked of the 2023 Louisiana Annual Conference.

For Rinehart, “disaffiliation” was more than just a process that has dominated church business for the last year. When his former church in Monroe voted to leave the United Methodist Church, Rinehart decided to stay, which meant he had to leave – leave his church family and his hometown. He described disaffiliation as “deep trauma and pain."

His former church was “no longer focused on serving Jesus Christ,” he said. “The only focus was on the details of the disaffiliation process. I’m grateful to be in a church now that has moved on from that decision.”

Rev. Allison Sikes is between churches, having just finished an appointment at Moss Bluff UMC in Lake Charles, and now set to begin her appointment as pastor for St. Francisville UMC on July 1. Her former church – and her new church – emerged from a disaffiliation process that revealed strong feelings for leaving and for staying. Both ultimately voted to stay United Methodists.

“It’s been a season for a lot of change,” she said. “The whole process was heavy.”

Rev. Jo Cooper of Gretna First United Methodist Church sat to rest her sprained ankle as she waited for the clergy-only session. She reflected on the disaffiliation process and gave a name to what she and others are feeling.

“It’s grief. You go through loss. You go through anger. You go through all of it.”

In the shadow of the disaffiliation movement, Rinehart, Sikes, Cooper, and other pastors gathered in Baton Rouge on Tuesday to share a sentiment that is appropriate for the 2023 Annual Conference – hope.

“There’s still some difficult work we have to do, but there is a sense of hope,” said Rev. Brady Whitton of FUMC in Baton Rouge. Whitton said he believes that the true United Methodists “began finding themselves a little bit” at last year’s annual conference and will emerge this year with clarity and determination.

Rev. Ed Cooper, pastor of St. Mark’s UMC and Aurora UMC in New Orleans and husband to Rev. Jo Cooper, said the worst part of disaffiliation is behind the church. “I feel like the really hard work, the excruciating work, has already been done,” said. “Let’s just turn the page and move on. We’re United Methodists. That’s who we are.”

Rinehart said he looks forward to the future with a smaller and more nimble conference because “I think we will have permission to experiment, and there will be times when we’ll get it wrong, but we’ll also get it right in serving Christ.”

That sentiment echoed the words of Bishop Delores J. Williamston, who recently told a gathering of United Methodists to use whatever tools they have available to do the work of God.

“If you don’t have a screwdriver, get a butter knife, and it’ll do that same work,” Bishop Williamston said. “That’s the kind of innovative spirit we need as we move forward and reimagine our future. So, let’s do that together.”

Rev. Jo Cooper said she believes the conference “is doing the best it can to move forward,” and so is she.

“One lay person told me, ‘It’s like the world around us is starving, and the church is having a food fight,’” Cooper said, shifting her weight in her seat to find relief for her sprained ankle.

Cooper’s ankle is bound tight, and she can walk fine, just not as quickly as she could before the sprain. It is a short-term hindrance, something that has temporarily slowed her down.

In time her ankle, like her church, will recover.
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