By TONY TAGLAVORE
If you want to kneel in prayer, or just marvel at the architectural beauty and stained-glass windows inside First United Methodist Church (FUMC) in downtown Shreveport, you better hurry.
Tomorrow — May 31 — will be your last opportunity.
No, the historic church founded in the 1800’s isn’t closing.
It isn’t moving.
But it is changing its name.
Starting Thursday, June 1, the church with the iconic steeple at the Head of Texas Street, will legally become First Methodist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana. That’s because last Saturday at a special meeting of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church, FUMC was one of 95 statewide churches which had their request approved to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination.
Other Caddo-Bossier Parish churches whose disaffiliation requests were approved are Ellerbe Road United Methodist, Plain Dealing First United Methodist, and Vivian United Methodist.
The result was expected and had become reality hours earlier. But after his four-hour drive back to Shreveport, Dr. Steven Bell was still trying to process what happened.
“To be honest, that truth is still sinking in,” said the Senior Pastor of FUMC. “I can honestly say I am still in a bit of a state of shock and almost in disbelief.”
At the center of the churches’ wish to leave the United Methodist denomination is sexuality and theology. Many conservative methodist congregations across the country are in favor of upholding bans on same-sex marriages, and the ordination of gay clergy.
In April, 1,120 members of FUMC’s congregation voted on whether to separate from, or remain with, the United Methodists. Nine hundred forty (84 percent) members voted to leave, while 166 voted to remain. Fourteen people abstained.
“There is a huge weight that has been lifted,” said Dr. Bell. “I’ve been a United Methodist pastor for 24 years. I would have been going into year 25. This fight has always been on the horizon — what is happening right now.”
Dr. Bell was expecting the worst at last Saturday’s meeting. This is one time he is glad his expectations were not met.
“It could have been real ugly,” he said. “There could have been a whole lot of talk and debate, motions, and amendments. Lots of arguments. It could have gotten real ugly. It didn’t, and I am grateful for that. I am grateful to the Lord. I am grateful to the delegates.”
But the process to disaffiliate was, at times, ugly.
“It’s been a difficult and challenging 10 months,” Dr. Bell said of what he calls “this season of disaffiliation. There’s been a lot of ugliness. There was litigation. There was a smear campaign — a very expensive smear campaign — directed against our church. All of that is over, and I am happy that it is.”
Like others, First United Methodist Church is paying a price to leave the United Methodist denomination. One requirement was paying the remainder of FUMC’s 2023 connectional giving, and two additional years of connectional giving.
“So, our exit fee was basically three years of connectional giving,” explained Dr. Bell. “Much of 2023 is already paid. When we wrote a check to the (Louisiana) Annual Conference, which was sent just a couple of weeks ago, it was right at — just shy of — $700,000.”
But the move could have been more costly.
Dr. Bell said if FUMC had joined 58 other churches (including Benton United Methodist) whose request for disaffiliation was granted last November, FUMC would also have had to pay “the better part of a half-million dollars in unpaid pension liability. But because our process carried us into 2023, and because of the state of the economy and the shifts there-in, we actually paid nothing in unpaid pension liability.”
Now begins a new process. A process of affiliation. That starts with Thursday’s meeting of the Church Council.
“This will be work that our church does together,” said Dr. Bell. “There are some great options before us. One is to remain an independent methodist church. There is the potential of joining the Global Methodist Church.
“And there are a number of other Methodist or Wesleyan traditions that we can and will consider being a part of.”
Regardless of which direction First Methodist goes, Dr. Bell is confident in the church’s future.
“Our ministry is about to surge even more than it already is. It’s going to explode. We’re moving into a very, very exciting season in the history of First Methodist Church Shreveport.”
Contact Tony at SBJTonyT@gmail.com