Shelby Ruch-Teegarden, center, of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary joins other protestors during the United Methodist Church's special session of the general conference in St. Louis, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Credit: Sid Hastings | AP

When the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy last month, Methodist pastors and churchgoers across America were devastated. A majority of American delegates had voted against the plan, though they were outvoted by more conservative delegates from Africa and other continents.

In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision. In conference calls and clandestine meetings, the disparate groups are discussing options that include splitting the church into two denominations and withholding funds until the pressure prompts the denomination to redo the recent vote at the next worldwide meeting in May 2020 in Minneapolis.

“We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate,” declared North Georgia’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, a co-leader of one of the groups.

Most of these pastors say they would greatly prefer a negotiated solution rather than leaving the United Methodist denomination, which has more than 6 million members in the United States and is the largest mainline Protestant church in the country.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, who is the pastor of the largest Methodist church in the country, with 20,000 members in his Kansas City congregation, is organizing with Haupert-Johnson, Texas’s Bishop Michael McKee and a few others.

Their group has a methodical, political-organizing-style plan for drawing others into their fight: meetings this week and next week in Dallas and Atlanta, each with 30 handpicked clergy and leaders, including seven LGBT leaders. Then a meeting at Hamilton’s church in May for 500 leaders. Then another meeting in the fall, where they aim to draw 3,000 leaders of Methodist churches.

“I’ve been astounded at the number of emails, phone calls, text messages I’m receiving from churches across the country saying we can’t live like this,” Hamilton said. “These churches, they’re centrist. But they’re saying this doesn’t feel like the United Methodism that we have always known and loved. To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for them.”

The vote in February, at a special session of more than 800 leaders of the church that was supposed to settle the years-long fight over sexuality, ended up with 53 percent of voters supporting the “traditional plan” – keeping the ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, and imposing harsher penalties on those who break the rules.

The solutions now offered by those who want to keep the church together don’t sound workable to many who voted against the plan.

Bishop Kenneth Carter of Florida, for instance, favored a plan that would have allowed local pastors to choose for themselves whether to perform same-sex marriages. In light of the new penalties – a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first wedding, and permanent removal from ministry for the second – he is advising a different approach to pastors who ask him about performing a same-sex wedding.

“They could do the premarital counseling. They could read Scripture, they could give communion, they could give the homily. The only thing I discourage them from doing is the vows or signing the license,” he said.

A wedding in which the pastor can’t participate in the central elements that make it a wedding, unsurprisingly, isn’t enough for many pastors. Instead, they’re plotting to resist the traditional plan.

“Right after the conference, people were saying, ‘Are we going to leave? Is there going to be a new denomination?’ Not today. There’s millions of people involved. You can’t form a new denomination by Thursday,” said the Rev. James Howell, a nationally known Methodist writer and pastor of a 5,000-member church in Charlotte. Howell said he has been invited to participate in meetings, online discussions and phone calls with pastors across the country to come up with strategies.

“I don’t know anybody who thinks we can continue to stay together with what we have now. I was someone who dreamed of that for a long time. . . . It’s sad, but it’s just not viable,” he said last week, fresh off a phone call among pastors discussing how to split into two different Methodist denominations, one of which would affirm same-sex marriage. “People on a call like this, we’re talking to each other because we dream of, we believe in a beautiful, fresh, lovely form of Methodism.”

Hamilton said that before his group’s first meetings in Atlanta and Dallas, he envisions two possibly viable paths: splitting and resistance.

If the group opts for resistance, it would probably be financial, he said. Numerous large American churches like his would stop contributing their customary funds to the denomination, in the hope that delegates from Africa and Russia – who led the successful push at last month’s meeting to block same-sex marriage and gay clergy – would agree to a new vote at the 2020 meeting on LGBT issues, to preserve funding for their mission projects.

His second option would involve persuading all parts of the American church – both progressives and centrists who want same-sex marriage, as well as conservatives who want to separate and be done with the debate – to pool their voting power in favor of a split into separate denominations. American churches that favor same-sex marriage would opt into one denomination; most African and Russian churches as well as American churches that oppose same-sex marriage would be in the other one.

A vision for a new denomination will be a major topic at the under-the-radar meetings this week and next: both practical questions, like how a split church could share existing institutions such as schools and hospitals, and religious ones.

“I think this is a spiritual exercise,” said Haupert-Johnson, who favors a split into two denominations, saying she believes population demographics mean Americans will increasingly be under the thumb of African voters unless they split. “How do we go about this in a way that you know is of God, led by God? . . . How do we sense that the Holy Spirit is leading the church now? . . . If the Methodist church has to get leaner and nicer, I’m all for it. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the pettiness. I’m tired of the fighting to win at all costs.”

One signal of the bitterness of the recent battles: The church is investigating, due to an inquiry from a New York Times report that raised concerns about four voters, whether some people who were not even authorized to vote cast ballots in favor of the traditional plan. Leaders opposed to the traditional plan say they highly doubt that a few improper votes swayed the outcome, but the allegations of vote tampering still left them feeling saddened that a church deliberative process could turn out looking like a sordid political fight.

Yet no one thinks the fighting will be over soon. In fact, Howell compared the battles that are still to come to some of the most famous in American history.

“How did the American Revolution happen?” he said. “At first, there wasn’t some super-organized network. Different places, different people didn’t like what the British authorities were doing. So they had a tea party in Boston. Stuff started breaking up all over the place.”

Methodism’s war isn’t over with this vote, he said. Its tea party moment is only about to begin.