Estonia Leaves the United Methodist Church

With 97% in favor, the 23 churches of the Estonia district of the Baltic Annual Conference on Friday 16th June decided to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. In a subsequent vote, the delegates decided to ask the district council to deed all property and transfer all assets to the autonomous Estonia Methodist Church. The decisions will come into effect by 1. July this year and the Estonia Methodist Church will be an independent church.

The Estonia Methodist Church has paid their apportionments in full and will not have to pay any compensation to the Baltic annual conference to permit them to take their buildings, including several diaconal institutions and the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary with them.

Though the official position of the UMC remains conservative, the Estonian Methodists have for some time expressed deep concern over the direction the denomination seems to be taking, which in 2022 made them express a strong desire to leave the connection. Due to the laws of the Estonia and the church’s national constitution, the denomination would not be able to prevent the church in Estonia from leaving and take their property with them. However, the Estonian methodists wanted to leave in a peaceful and respectful manner, and the extra central conference decided to accommodate their desire. As the ¶2553 does not apply in conferences outside of the United States, disaffiliation was made possible based on a new ¶554 added to the Northern Europe and Eurasia Book of discipline in an extra session of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference held in March this this year.

The process has not been without tension, and reactions were particularly strong when a mediated proposal, which in addition to the generous provisions for disaffiliation would offer room for annual conferences in the central conference to set their own standards for ordination and for the solemnization of marriage, was altered and only the disaffiliation parts passed.

With reference to two extra sessions of the central conference, the first to change the borders of the episcopal area and move the Ukraine Moldova Provisional Annual Conference from the Eurasia to the Nordic and Baltic episcopal area (April 2022), and the second regarding the future of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference (March 2023), bishop Alsted wrote in his annual report from the central conference council:
“Both extra central conferences were demanding for the relationships and the cohesion in the central conference. There has been much disappointment, frustration and strong emotions involved, and we have hurt each other in several ways. The debate following the conferences has not always reflected how we should behave as a people of God. Again, Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians speaks into our lives with each other. I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Despite our differences could we perceive this time as an opportunity to practice mutual love and dare I say, holiness, in the Wesleyan spirit?”
Despite the challenging circumstances Bishop Alsted was appreciative of the district conference saying: “The conference took place in a solemn and prayerful atmosphere, at times very emotional but always with mutual respect and kindness. Personally, the disaffiliation grieves my heart - I find it unnecessary, and I believe it is a loss to the Methodists in Estonia as well as to the entire UMC. Nevertheless, I respect and honor the decision made by the Estonia Methodist Church, and I stand with my commitment to help all annual conferences, districts and local churches in the Nordic, Baltic, and Ukraine episcopal area to live into a future, where they believe they can serve with integrity.”

The Estonia Methodist Church will be an independent episcopal Methodist church, and until a bishop is elected, the church will be led by district superintendent Robert Tserenkov and the elected church council. At the district conference Robert Tserenkov thanked the many partners, who have been supporting Estonia over the years including the Nordic annual conferences, and he thanked bishop Alsted for his leadership and care through 14 years. He noted that the process had been complex and demanding, and he expressed hope for the future saying: “May God bless and guide the Estonian Methodist Church forward, as He has done by His grace for 116 years!”

As part of the process an agreement of mutual recognition between the Estonia Methodist Church and the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference was signed by district superintendent Robert Tserenkov and bishop Christian Alsted. The agreement includes recognizing each other as constituent members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church as expressed in the Scriptures, confessed in the Church’s historic creeds, and attested to in our common doctrinal standards rooted in our shared Methodist, United Brethren in Christ, and the Evangelical Association history. Furthermore, the agreement includes recognizing the authenticity of each other’s sacraments and the validity of each other’s ordination. And finally, a commitment to seek continued good respectful relations and, where possible, collaboration in mission and ministry and to welcome each other’s members.

The immediate effects of the disaffiliation will be an end to support and funding from the Funds for Mission in Europe, missionary services through GBGM, grants from the Central Conference Theological Education Fund and other support through the general agencies. Additionally, memberships, agreements and relationships with the World Methodist Council, the European Methodist Council, the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, and several others have ended and will need to be reestablished if so desired.
The Estonia Methodist Church has been granted a six-month grace period until the official United Methodist logo “the Cross and Flame” must be removed from all buildings, sanctuaries, websites, and documents.

The church licensed one new local pastor, commissioned two provisional members, ordained one elder, and celebrated the planting of one new church.
In the closing ordination service, there were greetings by representatives from the Finland Swedish Provisional Annual Conference, by rev Sarah Tiainen, and from the Ecumenical Council of Finland, through general secretary rev Mayvor Warn-Rancken, a United Methodist elder, both expressed pain over the disaffiliation and hopes for continued good and positive relationships in the future.

In his sermon at the closing ordination service, Bishop Alsted preached over the separation of Paul and Barnabas over who should accompany them on their journey. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. (Acts 15:36-41) He said: “Despite their sharp disagreement and their decision to part ways, God continued to bless them and make their separate ministries fruitful. I pray that the decisions made this weekend, as difficult as they were, will lead to fruitfulness.

I believe it is possible. Not because, we will no longer be part of the same church; but because there is a God, who loves this world so much that He sent Jesus Christ to us, who lived, taught, was tortured, crucified, died, and rose on the third day. – and He has sent his Holy Spirit to empower us and guide now and forever. And because this is what we live and preach. No matter what, we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
If you remember nothing else, from my 14 years as your bishop, remember this.

Despite our disagreements, at the core of who we are as Methodists, what really matters, is faith working in love.

Practice the General Rules:
Do no harm!
Do good!
And use the means of grace.
May God bless us all! “