Of the nearly 20 United Methodist churches within Chattanooga's city limits, one has moved, amid a historic schism, to leave the large denomination — and officially did so this week.
Named after a Cherokee chief, with roots in the mid-19th century, Lookout Valley's Wauhatchie Methodist Church spent the past year mulling the prospect of leaving an institution which has grounded the spiritual identity of many families, like that of member Bill Clouse, for generations.
On the question of LGBTQ+ policy, the official doctrines of the United Methodist Church stand, prohibiting both the ordination of gay pastors and church sanction of same-sex marriage.
But Clouse was unsettled. After years of debate over those policies, many U.S. bishops, in a spirit of protest, said they would not abide by those clauses of the denomination's rule book.
"If you're not going to go by it, why have it to start with?" Clouse asked in a video call Thursday.
The concern, he said, ran deeper than any specific church policy; he sensed larger changes afoot in the denomination he called home.
"We don't know where we're going," he said. "That's where it left us."
Yet for the Wauhatchie Methodist Church pastor, Tommy Messer, the disaffiliation question was also freighted with a different concern. In a polarized political culture, people are quick to shunt one another into simplistic categories, creating cultural narratives that many people don't recognize themselves in.
"How do we step outside of that preconceived notion?" he asked on the same video call. "People are going to view us one way or another, when we see ourselves as a local congregation serving God the best that we possibly can."
He said he appreciated that the United Methodist Church was a melting pot. He thinks churches should be safe, welcoming and loving spaces, and he believes that is what Wauhatchie Methodist Church is and strives to be.
As the head of the church's disaffiliation committee, Clouse had to deal with another byproduct of church politicization: "It makes it harder," he said, "to look at an issue and go: 'What are we actually talking about?'"
Since the committee formed in June of 2022, Clouse said he has sought to obtain and transparently disseminate useful information to his fellow church members.
"We did not want them to get to the time of voting and not know what they were voting on," he said.
The committee was tasked with getting perspectives from pro-and anti-disaffiliation camps and establishing a potential timeline for splitting off, keeping in mind the impending sunset of the denominational rule allowing congregations to leave while keeping their property.
In August of 2022, the committee met with the congregation, Clouse said. Soon leadership voted to proceed with the disaffiliation process and informed their district superintendent, Reed Shell, an official of the United Methodist Church's Holston Conference, which spans churches in and around East Tennessee.
The conference mandated churches undergo a 90-day discernment period before voting. Messer said the church met weekly and held discussions in small groups and Sunday school classes. Members posed questions. Speakers came from the United Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has helped form and advocate for the breakaway Global Methodist Church, which bills itself as a theologically conservative alternative to the United Methodists.
Messer said one of the greatest lessons he learned through the process was to be open-minded and unbiased — to let the process just proceed.
"I was on the same journey as the as the congregation was," he said. "We were just trying to figure out who we were and what we're supposed to do."
Whether other churches in the area were doing the same remained a mystery, they said. It was only natural to wonder, but "the conference and the districts were very quiet and hush-hush as far as who was in the process," Messer said.
In any case, Clouse was largely concerned with unity within the Wauhatchie congregation.
"That was one of the goals here," he said. "Whenever we get to the end of this, we don't want a split congregation. We don't want to lose our people."
Messer could theoretically go his own way, but he said he decided to hitch himself to the church he had come to love since arriving in 2017.
"They're loving and nurturing toward one another, and they're going to hug you and kiss you to death when you come into the church, which I think is absolutely beautiful," he said. "There's just a sweet spirit in our church."
On the afternoon of Jan. 22, 2023, Shell, the district superintendent, arrived at what was then Wauhatchie United Methodist Church.
"He said, 'I'm going to need three people to help count,'' Clouse recalled.
Voters had to be present, to check in, get a ballot, get checked against the roll book. Shell conducted a ceremony beforehand, Clouse said, and then the vote took place. The denomination required a two-thirds majority to disaffiliate.
Shell oversaw the count, and the result was read aloud. Sixty-one voted yes. Two voted no. One abstention.
There was much administrative business then to be done, though Clouse said following the vote they took a week-long break.
"You got a break, " Messer cut in with a smile. "I didn't get my break. What are you talking about?"
"We knew you needed to keep going," he said. "You had the paperwork."
The conference gave them packets to fill out, tasks to complete. They had to pay the equivalent of a year's denominational contributions — which Messer said totaled $17,000 — and the church's portion of the liability for denominational pensions totaled another $33,000.
There was no special campaign to raise the money, Messer said. But the $50,000 total "was a big step of faith for us. Huge step of faith."
The persistent question was: What's next? Would the church remain independent? Join another Methodist group? The upstart Global Methodist Church would allow them to join with no cost and leave with no cost. And unlike the United Methodists, it didn't have a clause placing control of church property in the denomination. Plus, Clouse said, its transitional rule book will be basically the same as that of the United Methodist Church.
"That's what we followed," he said. "That's what we want to follow, is what it says currently. Not what changes may be coming to it somewhere down the line."
They voted to join the Global Methodists and turned in paperwork and payment to the United Methodist district before a March deadline.
In April, the church became one of 264 approved to leave the Holston Conference. It was around that time that the scope of the exodus — in the Holston conference, nearly one in three congregations, but a far smaller fraction around Chattanooga — became clear.
Messer turned his United Methodist credentials in to the district superintendent in May. He said it was like going through a divorce. Yet he and Clouse remain proud their own church held together — an accomplishment in today's world. Messer said the person who abstained and the people who voted against disaffiliation still participate in the church.
"You can go to church just coming Sunday — what you see there wouldn't be any different from what you saw a year ago," Clouse said. "We'll be the same, and a year from now we'll be the same thing again."
Messer cut in.
"Hopefully a little bit bigger," he said.
Contact Andrew Schwartz at [email protected] or 423-757-6431.