AUSTIN (Nexstar) — More than 400 Texas churches voted this weekend to cut ties with the United Methodist Church (UMC) after decades of disagreements over stances on issues like same-sex marriage.

Members of the Northwest Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church gathered Saturday for a special session, where 145 congregations agreed to leave or “disaffiliate” from the denomination. This includes churches stretching from West Texas to the Panhandle.

On the same day, the Texas Annual Conference met at a church in Houston, and that ultimately resulted in 294 of its 598 member churches across east Texas deciding to officially leave, too.

It’s believed many of these churches will join the more conservative breakaway denomination, the Global Methodist Church.

“The Global Methodist is a very good church and it’s faithful,” said Tom Fuller, senior pastor of Oakwood Wesleyan Fellowship in Lubbock.

Fuller said his congregation voted “98 percent” to leave the United Methodist Church to join the more conservative Global Methodist Church.

These breaks hardly surprised Texas religious scholars, who largely anticipated such moves to happen. In more recent years, the divisions formed on either defying or abiding by UMC’s bans on same-sex marriages and ordaining openly LGBTQ+ clergy. The denomination has repeatedly upheld these bans at legislative General Conferences, but some U.S. churches and clergy have decided to go against them.

“In this case, where you see churches leaving the United Methodist denomination, those conservative churches that are leaving are in a sense to uphold what they see as Biblical principles that have been challenged or attacked by culture,” said Chad Seales, a religious studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “whereas progressives see themselves as being more open and more welcoming of persons, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.”

“It’s a matter of scriptural authority,” said Fuller about his congregation’s decision to leave the UMC. He said it pains him to hear accusations that the move reflects hate or prejudice.

“Everybody’s welcome in the church, up to the point where they demand the church’s blessing on a practice that has traditionally, from the beginning, been considered unacceptable by the scriptures,” Fuller said.

Seales said these latest tensions are a continuation of political patterns that emerged before the 1980s.

“What we see after the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movements and legal terms after the 60s and 70s is institutions realigning themselves to either be relevant to culture, and that’s what progressives saw themselves as doing — or liberal Protestants and mainline Protestants — is to keep the church relevant with culture. They didn’t see that as antagonistic to religious identity,” Seales explained. “Conservatives saw the changes at the federal level as antagonistic to their religious identity.”

Rev. Teresa Welborn, the senior pastor at University United Methodist Church in central Austin, said there are no plans for her congregation to disaffiliate, and she added she feels “grief and sadness” for the people in other Texas communities whose churches made a different decision.

“I wonder and I worry about, for persons who either identify as queer or persons who are allies and seeking a more progressive congregation, where do they find a faith family?” Welborn said.

The UMC Book of Discipline, which lays out the denomination’s doctrine, currently states the church should “define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” It also reads, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The UMC denomination is now fracturing over whether its congregations should abide by that language. Austin’s University United Methodist Church is not following that guidance, and Welborn hopes the UMC will soon change its stances on the LGBTQ+ community.

“I think it’s very painful that the Book of Discipline since the early 70s — pretty much my whole life — the Book of Discipline has used the word ‘incompatible’ to talk about some of God’s children,” Welborn said. “We just think that that’s wrong in our wrestling and understanding of Scripture and in our interaction with so many people that are members of the LGBTQIA community. They’re members of our congregation. They’re giving of their time, talent and treasure, and, yeah, we want it to change.”

The Methodist groups in Texas can get a little confusing, so it’s important to remember only the Northwest Conference, covering West Texas and the Panhandle, and the Texas Annual Conference in East Texas have held votes for congregations to leave the UMC. For those Northwest congregations, their relationship with the UMC will end on December 31.

The two UMC conferences that touch the Austin area have not held votes like these yet. Austin churches are included in the Rio Texas Conference, while the Central Texas Conference stretches down to Williamson County.

‘Tripledemic’ highlights concern over health care staffing in Texas

Statewide cases of influenza (flu), COVID-19 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) are not only affecting families but hospitals too as they deal with the ongoing staffing crisis. 

Kirstine Openshaw’s four-year-old son has a congenital heart defect and her nine-month-old son is a preemie with laryngomalacia, a birth defect in the larynx. Both got sick. 

“It was pretty miserable, it was pretty bad,” Openshaw said. “We had quite a few sleepless nights where he was just having a real hard time breathing, keeping them inclined, doing a lot of breathing treatments.” 

Many hospitals across the state have been experiencing a surge of cases, leaving them without free beds. Hospitals are encouraging families to call their pediatricians before going to the ER, but that wasn’t the case for Openshaw.

Her pediatrician’s office told her no appointments were possible and to bring her sons straight to the ER.

“We didn’t really feel like we had a lot of options as far as where to take them,” she said. “We can’t take him to the emergency room. They’re extremely sick, we go there and sit in the waiting room for a couple of hours — Lord knows what they’re going to catch and come home…we couldn’t risk that.”

She ended up driving them an hour to a neighboring town to be seen by a physician there.

“If we hadn’t gotten appointment…I have no doubt that his situation would have been bad,” Openshaw said.

Dr. Gary Floyd, a pediatrician and president of the Texas Medical Association, said Openshaw’s experience is not uncommon these days.

“Emergency rooms have been inundated,” Floyd said. “Children’s hospitals, as well as adult[s], they’ve seen double their usual daily number. You’re never staffed to gear up that much. So they call in for extra help, but it increases the waiting times.”

New data out Wednesday from the Texas Department of State Health Services shows 13 out of the state’s 22 regional pediatric hospitals have zero ICU beds available — including Austin, San Antonio and Waco.

The surge in cases is not offering any relief for the health care industry as they deal with an ongoing staffing crisis. 

“We definitely have a shortage of all kinds of health care providers right now…It’s been exacerbated by COVID,” said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin.

Howard, a nurse herself, said she and other legislators are well aware of the ongoing staffing shortage. She says determining the causes is an essential component of solving the problem. 

“There are so many factors here that are working toward why we have a shortage,” Howard said. “We’ve got to do more to invest in the workforce pipeline with education, reimbursement, tuition assistance, getting the faculty in place — all those things are going to be significantly important to get the workforce that we need.”

In anticipation of the upcoming legislative session, Howard has refiled H.B. 112, which aims to prevent workplace violence at health care facilities — a factor that may be contributing to healthcare professionals exiting the industry altogether.

“Unfortunately, [workplace violence] has been considered by many over the years to just be a part of the job. And it’s not been reported,” Howard said, “We’re trying to change that culture and have been working on that for years now to where it’s encouraged that this behavior be reported that hospitals do all they can to prevent it in the first place, but then provide appropriate security and interventions, and absolutely provide treatment if indeed, some trauma is experienced.”

Additionally, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, already introduced S.B. 244 to give support to nursing-related postsecondary education. It would include loan repayment assistance to nursing staff. 

Patrick’s priorities shape the course of the upcoming session

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick laid out a list of 21 priorities for the upcoming legislative session. While property tax relief and electric grid reliability topped his list, several of the Lt. Governor’s priorities emphasize rural needs, including expanding access to mental health care and bolstering rural law enforcement.

“When I traveled to 130 cities across rural Texas, it was the highlight of my life,” said Patrick of his campaign’s bus tour. “We do not fund our counties for the most part for anything dealing with law enforcement. They can’t handle it by themselves anymore…I (also) have a program, two and a half billion dollars, to build more mental health hospitals around rural Texas.”

Patrick places property tax relief at the top of his priorities. He is advocating to increase the homestead exemption to at least $60,000, a 30% increase over the $40,000 of a home’s value currently exempted from property taxes.

He says he and Governor Greg Abbott are “on the same page” when it comes to prioritizing property taxes, but their specific ideas differ. Abbott campaigned on dedicating half of the state’s unprecedented surplus on property tax relief, but Patrick has expressed support for less due to constitutional spending limits.

Half of the surplus would exceed the amount of the surplus that lawmakers are allowed to spend by law, and Patrick has remained committed to spending below that cap.

“If you look at the $12 billion we can spend constitutionally in the budget, we’re going to spend close to half of that on property taxes,” he said.

Watch the full interview here:

Patrick also cast doubt on the prospects for amended social laws including new exceptions of Texas’ abortion ban and legalized gambling.

“I’m pro-life. Every life is a life even through rape and incest,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a groundswell argument or a bill on that by Republicans.”

He strikes a similarly unsupportive tone on gambling expansion.

“I haven’t seen a bill even filed on it. I haven’t had anyone mention to me that they are interested in doing anything…a lot of talk out there, but I don’t see any movement on it,” Patrick said.

Lawmakers ask to delay plan to redesign the Texas electric market

After widespread power outages in the 2021 winter storm contributed to deaths across Texas, lawmakers tasked the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to make major changes to the state’s electricity market. That included creating a “reliability standard” for the market.

But lawmakers from both the House and Senate are now asking the PUC to hold off on its planned electricity market redesign until the Legislature can evaluate the plan.

The House State Affairs Committee reviewed the proposals at a hearing on Monday.

“We know we need this change,” said PUC Chairman Peter Lake to the committee, “You all directed us to implement these changes.”

Lake says as Texas continues to grow, so will the need for dispatchable energy, power that can be quickly distributed. Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called on lawmakers to implement incentives to build natural gas power plants.

Mark Bell, the CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, says right now there are few incentives for companies to invest in dispatchable energy.

“There’s a cost to reliability,” Bell said. “It is about making sure that consumers across Texas have the resources they need, or the electricity they need, when they want it.”

“We’re going to have to pay something to get the private sector to invest what they need to invest to meet the demand that’s coming,” said State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a committee member.

Lawmakers and regulators both emphasized the importance of making sure consumers don’t bear the brunt of those costs.

“Companies that sell power should be required to guarantee that power is coming from a reliable source,” Chairman Lake said. “The only question after that is what’s the most the most efficient way to get there?”