67 Arkansas churches leave the UMC

The installation service for Bishop Laura Merrill of the United Methodist Church Arkansas Conference, held on Jan. 28, 2023 at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas.
The installation service for Bishop Laura Merrill of the United Methodist Church Arkansas Conference, held on Jan. 28, 2023 at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas. | Screengrab: Facebook/Arkansas Conference of The United Methodist Church

Sixty-seven congregations in Arkansas have officially disaffiliated from the United Methodist Church, being part of a wave of departures driven largely by the mainline Protestant denomination’s ongoing debate over LGBT issues.

At a Special Session of the UMC Arkansas Annual Conference held at the Hot Springs Convention Center on Saturday, the regional body voted to approve the departures of 67 churches.

Arkansas Bishop Laura Merrill said in a statement on Saturday that while it was “a difficult day” for the regional body, she was “grateful for the grace that Conference members extended to each other and to me as we accomplished our work.”

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“I look forward to healing and continued ministry with United Methodists who lost their church home today, and I trust that God will open a new and fruitful path before us. We will move forward in faith, sharing the love and hope of Jesus Christ with our neighbors,” Merrill stated.

The ratification of the disaffiliation votes was in keeping with the UMC Book of Discipline, which allows congregations to leave the UMC if they feel compelled to do so amid the denomination’s ongoing debate over sexual ethics.

“If the church conference votes to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, the terms and conditions for that disaffiliation shall be established by the board of trustees of the applicable annual conference, with the advice of the cabinet, the annual conference treasurer, the annual conference benefits officer, the director of connectional ministries, and the annual conference chancellor,” noted the Book of Discipline's section titled, "Disaffiliation of a Local Church Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality."

“The terms and conditions, including the effective date of disaffiliation, shall be memorialized in a binding Disaffiliation Agreement between the annual conference and the trustees of the local church, acting on behalf of the members.”

Last November, the UMC Arkansas Conference voted to approve the disaffiliation of 35 congregations, while also rejecting the disaffiliation requests of three churches: First United Methodist Church of Cabot, First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro and First United Methodist Church of Searcy.

Last December, First UMC Jonesboro filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Craighead County Civil Division against the regional body, arguing that it had a right to leave the denomination with its church property.

That same month, the conference suspended First UMC's pastor, the Rev. John Miles, reportedly over holding a second meeting in which church members again voted to leave the UMC.

In March, Judge Gary Arnold rejected a motion by the conference to dismiss the lawsuit and scheduled a trial for Jan. 29, 2024. Days before the ruling, Merrill announced her decision to appoint the Rev. Britt Skarda as interim pastor for First UMC.

Recently, large numbers of UMC congregations have decided to leave the mainline Protestant denomination due to its ongoing debate over whether to change its official stance on LGBT issues.

According to the UMC Book of Discipline, the Church prohibits the blessing of same-sex unions and bars the ordination of individuals who are in same-sex romantic relationships.

Nevertheless, many theologically progressive leaders within the UMC have actively refused to follow or enforce these rules, prompting many theological conservatives to seek dismissal.

Many of those leaving the UMC have opted to join the Global Methodist Church, a theologically conservative denomination that was officially launched in May of last year.  

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