Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Lawsuit filed to keep Fifth Avenue Methodist Church open

The Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church has filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church to allow them to reopen for worship services and disaffiliate from the denomination. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — The congregation of a two-century old Methodist church in downtown Wilmington is fighting back after it was suddenly closed in March. 

READ MORE: Fifth Avenue UMC shutters after 175 years

Three months ago, the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church closed Fifth Avenue UMC due to what it said was “declining membership.”

Fifth Avenue UMC was undergoing disaffiliation at the time — the process to leave the UMC — after having celebrated its 175th year of operations in 2022.

After the church’s board of trustees voted 8-2 to disaffiliate, the UMC Southeastern Jurisdiction — a defendant in the lawsuit — came to the church to notify the congregation it was shut down. In the following days, UMC representatives would change the locks and seize the Fifth Avenue property. 

Now, the congregation is suing the UMC Southeastern Jurisdiction and its board of trustees for breach of contract, violation of promissory estoppel (the church claims the conference promised them the building) and fraud and collusion. The case is being represented by Gavin Parsons of Coates and Bennett, PLLC in Cary. 

“This lawsuit was a last resort,” attorney Gavin Parsons stated in a release. “Fifth Avenue gave the Conference every opportunity to do the right thing, but they refused.”

The board of trustees hopes to once again open its doors and continue with the disaffiliation process so it can be approved by the conference at its October meeting — the last chance before the disaffiliation clause expires. 

Irreconcilable differences

The story of Fifth Avenue’s disaffiliation begins in 2019. UMC General Conference held a special meeting to address “ongoing, unresolved divisions regarding homosexuality.” 

Since 1972, UMC doctrine has stated ​​“the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching;” the church prohibits LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage. Thought, not every church has agreed with this, and in 2019, the General Conference met to address its position. It has been at an impasse since.

The delegates came to an agreement in early 2020, allowing churches a path for peaceful separation. The legislation was to be certified at the 2020 UMC General Conference, but the gathering was postponed until 2024 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Since then, a group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association announced it would launch a new denomination — the Global Methodist Church — focusing on more conservative values beginning May 1, 2022.  

Since last fall, more than 200 United Methodist churches in North Carolina voted to disaffiliate from the denomination over its LGBTQ+ guidelines. The North Carolina Conference stated at that time it equaled 32% of its congregations, roughly 22% of membership. 

Fifth Avenue UMC began exploring disaffiliation in fall 2022, according to the lawsuit. During this time, the church received a presentation from a representative of the Global Methodist Church, presenting the denomination as an alternative to the UMC.

Tara Lain, district superintendent of the Southeastern Jurisdiction and defendant in the lawsuit, also visited the church to stress the importance of remaining in the UMC. 

In February, the church’s board of trustees voted 8-2 to begin the disaffiliation process, submitting all necessary documents, including a rundown of the church’s assets and values — over $2 million.

On a Wednesday call with board chair Susan Long, Port City Daily asked why the church wanted to sever ties with the UMC. 

“I’m going to check with my attorney because I want to make sure of what I’m saying,” Long said, indicating she would call back when she could provide more information. 

The lawsuit states Fifth Avenue received confirmation from the North Carolina Conference that it could proceed with a church vote, the next step, to which the church requested be scheduled by the defendants. The lawsuit notes two-thirds of the congregation would have voted for disaffiliation, but it never made it to a tally. 

Instead, Fifth Avenue congregants were notified that Lain would be holding an “informational meeting” on March 26 where members could attend. They were given no indication Lain would announce the closure of the church that day. 

“​​They came in and closed our church so that we were not allowed to vote,” Long said. 

Forever a place of worship 

According to a resolution from the North Carolina Conference, the closure of the church is in relation to the intended purpose of the Fifth Avenue location. 

The resolution states Miles Costin donated the church to the board of trustees in 1847, back when the church was a Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1968, the Methodists and the United Brethren came together to form the UMC. 

“​​Part of the coming together was that the conference, which was composed of both sides, would hold the deed in trust for the different congregations,” Long said. “But with the understanding that anytime they could have their church back.” 

However, the conference’s resolution states the church is going against the original donor’s wishes by disaffiliating with the UMC. It states the property was donated with the understanding the Methodist Episcopal Church South would be permitted to preach God’s word “forever hereafter.”

Therefore, the conference maintains the property is held in trust for the benefit of the United Methodist Church and uses of the property are subject to the UMC’s Book of Discipline. 

The lawsuit notes the board of trustees never intended for the deed to be entered into an irrevocable trust. It states the plaintiff thought it would be able to retain the property post-separation, like other disaffiliated churches, the seizure of property being unprecedented.

The resolution also claims the church’s declining membership as justification for using the facility for different missions — providing services to the unsheltered population, seniors with disabilities, disaster relief, and as a space for UMC worshippers. 

The church’s average attendance, according to the lawsuit, was 20 people with 205 members, but that number was not the lowest or uncommon across other UMC churches in the conference. 

Two days before Lain was set to hold an “informational” session at Fifth Avenue, the lawsuit reports the defendants filed an affidavit of declaration of ownership at the New Hanover County Register of Deeds. The day after Lain delivered the news to the shocked congregation, the locks were changed on the sanctuary and fellowship hall. 

The board of trustees are claiming the defendants’ actions “wrongfully and deliberately” prevented them from their right to disaffiliate.

On June 16, the North Carolina Conference voted to affirm the closure after hearing the arguments from southeastern jurisdiction representatives, all the while approving the disaffiliation of 59 other churches. 

Now, the board of trustees is moving forward with the suit, alleging the UMC violated its code of disaffiliation and conspired to deprive the church of this right. The plaintiff is also asking for a declaratory judgment that the trust is terminated due to it being unlawful, but that if it’s not, the church be able to retain its property. 

If the lawsuit is successful and the congregation gets their vote, it would be the second Wilmington church to disaffiliate from the UMC. Pine Valley Methodist Church was among many that left the UMC in December 2022 over LGBTQ+ beliefs, following a growing split across the country.

Last month in Georgia a judge ruled in favor of 186 churches that chose to leave the UMC, according to the Augusta Chronicle. The Wesleyan Covenant Association stepped in to sue the North Georgia Annual Conference over hindering the process.

Taking a page from the Georgia cases, 36 churches in the western part of North Carolina filed an appeal to a lawsuit against the Western North Carolina Conference of United Methodist Church. According to Fox News 8, they desired to “leave the denomination without having to pay exit fees to get the title to their property.” 

UMC representatives did not respond to an interview request by press. 

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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