MELBOURNE, Fla. -- The Rev. John Hill would rather talk about anything else: Jesus, feeding the poor, helping someone in need.
But in recent weeks, Hill and other United Methodist pastors are hearing more challenging conversations re-igniting heated passions over the future of his denomination.
"It's distressing to me that we're still focusing on minor issues, same-sex, homosexuality," said Hill, senior pastor of the 2,700-member Suntree United Methodist Church in Melbourne.
Hill is also one of several hundred Methodist pastors who signed a statement Friday calling for the church to remain unified and respectful of differences over the issue.
"Others may feel different, but the real issues that Jesus called us to confront are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and not necessarily this issue. It's maybe important but not essential."
Talk of a possible schism in the United Methodist church — the nation's third largest denomination, with 7.6 million members — has vexed the mainline Protestant group for more than a decade and will likely be a topic of discussion even as clergy, lay leaders and others from the state's 660 congregations gather for the Florida Conference, which opens Wednesday in Lakeland.
But even as more Americans approve of same-sex marriage and as homosexual unions gained legal status in 19 states, the denomination's leadership is seeing the discussion reach an impasse of doctrine and scripture.
Last month, a group of 80 pastors and theologians in talks for six weeks about the future of the United Methodist church went public with the view that the controversy over homosexuality is too great a doctrinal divide and called for an "amicable" denominational split.
"We need to recognize the reality that we — laity, clergy and even the Council of Bishops — are divided and will remain divided," the pastors stated in a letter published on the national Goodnews.org forum for Methodists.
"Talk of a 'middle way' or of 'agreeing to disagree' is comforting and sounds Christ-like. However, such language only denies the reality we need to admit. Neither side will find 'agreeing to disagree' acceptable."
That notice came after a group of 50 Texas pastors in April called the divide a gulf between traditional Methodists and those with more liberal viewpoints, including clergy who have blessed or sanctioned same-sex marriage ceremonies in violation of church guidelines.
The issue is framed by opponents as a part of an increasingly bitter American discussion that pits Christians against Christians, divided the Boy Scouts of America and further soured the political arena.
In 2012, rancor over same-sex marriage moved congregational leaders within the Episcopalian church in South Carolina from the national denomination — and from about a third of its own state membership — as the issue of same-sex marriage reached a fever pitch, according to the Diocese's website.
The clergy in the state, however, pointed to the Episcopalian church's struggles between traditionalists and the modernist approach of leaders like Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the first woman to oversee the U.S. denomination.
Today, the matter is in court, where decisions will be made over who will get church property and other assets in the state.
"Division would be so difficult. There are property issues, because each Methodist church has a trust clause and the property is owned by the conference," Hill said. "How would you get out of it? The same is true with pension issues. I think we're going somewhere with all this, and there's going to have to be some resolution. "
In Brevard County, where there are 22 United Methodist churches and missions with 19,500 members, pastors are watching the debate but are not taking any formal stands. Those like Hill said they would not violate their ordination oaths to perform same-sex marriages.
Other pastors, like Fred Ball of First United Methodist Church in Titusville, believe there should be room for a multitude of opinions in the denomination without forcing a split.
"There have always been people who have been fringe groups, you have people who are pro-gay and anti-gay," said Ball, whose congregation is made up of retired space industry engineers, teachers, conservatives and liberals. "I don't see room for (division). We are pro-people. We've been loving the community where they are for 100 years."
Ball also recalled another time when the Methodist church struggled with change. The year was 1964 when Florida became a focus of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading youth protests in St. Augustine, and the Beatles demanded integrated audiences at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. During that year of cultural change, Ball was sitting in the pews of Ocala First United Methodist Church and heard that the congregation was now open to integration.
"Whole white families rose up and walked out that day, even though it wasn't until 1985 that the first blacks were welcomed in. It's the same situation here," he said.
Today, the Book of Discipline says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching in the denomination, a guideline that for now forbids weddings or ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions. The Rev. Joe Jursa of Satellite Beach United Methodist Church says that regardless of the discussion, he simply wants to focus on nurturing his congregation spiritually.
"My bottom line is that The Book of Discipline has not changed in the 38 years I've been doing this, and I'm pretty comfortable with where it is," he said. "You do have people who get involved with politics or who have their own ideas. I'm worrying more about marrying and burying my folks, not people with strange ideas."
Others agree. A new poll shows that more than 90 percent of the denomination's members believe the church should not split over questions or concerns about human sexuality, according to the survey conducted by the Greensboro, N.C.-based Corporate Research and Research Now of Dallas. Another 63 percent of those surveyed said the controversy over same-sex marriage was diverting the church from other more important issues, including poverty, falling membership and engaging youth.
Members like Mac McInnis, a 76-year-old lifelong Methodist who leads the Saturday morning Bible study sessions at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Indialantic, feels that whatever same-sex couples "do out of the church, I wouldn't have a problem with." But the self-described conservative said that he would not approve of the church sanctioning or performing wedding vows for such couples.
"If the church did that, then I'm not sure I would want to stay. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Maybe it's my upbringing, but that's what I believe."
McInnis said that while he hasn't heard any direct talk of splitting the denomination, "it doesn't surprise me. It seems like the whole nation is divided right now."