Arkansas church sues UMC conference after disaffiliation was rejected, pastor suspended

A worship service at First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas, on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.
A worship service at First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas, on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. | Screengrab: Facebook/First United Methodist Church

A United Methodist Church congregation that had its disaffiliation vote rejected and pastor suspended by a regional body has filed a lawsuit to secure control of the property from the mainline Protestant denomination.

Filed in the Circuit Court of Craighead County Civil Division on Monday, the complaint seeks a declaration that the UMC does not have “any legal, beneficial, or equitable interest in any of the real or personal property held by the Jonesboro Church.”

“Jonesboro Church now moves to quiet title and seek a declaratory judgment from this Court affirming that Defendants do not have any right, title, or interest in its real or personal property pursuant to an alleged trust clause or equitable lien,” read the suit, in part.

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Defendants named in the suit include the Board of Trustees of the UMC Arkansas Conference, the Arkansas Conference as a whole and John Does 1-100.

The John Does were described as “the agents, principals, co-conspirators, and/or alter egos of one or more of Defendants and of each other, and that each such Defendant acted within the course, scope and authority of these relationships and that, as a result, each such Defendant and each of them, are jointly and severally liable for the acts alleged herein.”

“Plaintiff is unaware of the true names and capacities, whether individual, associate, and corporate or otherwise, of the Defendants sued herein as DOES 1 through 100, each of them, and therefore sues those Defendants by such fictitious names,” the complaint added.

On July 31, First UMC voted to leave the mainline Protestant denomination, having a reported 1,300 members taking part in the vote, with 69% voting in favor while 31% were against.

First UMC joined hundreds of other congregations across the United States that have voted to leave the UMC largely due to its ongoing internal debate over LGBT issues.

However, the UMC Arkansas Conference rejected the disaffiliation request from First UMC at a meeting in November but approved the disaffiliation votes of 35 other congregations.

In addition to First UMC Jonesboro, the conference also voted down the disaffiliation requests of First United Methodist Church of Cabot and First United Methodist Church of Searcy.

“The three churches who did not receive ratification for disaffiliation, have the option to restart the process or resubmit to the next called session, which date has not been officially announced yet,” stated the conference.

After the conference rejected their disaffiliation request, the Jonesboro congregation held a meeting on Dec. 15 in which over 600 members again voted in favor of disaffiliation from the UMC.

In response, the regional body suspended First UMC Senior Pastor John Miles for holding the Dec. 15 meeting. Arkansas Bishop Gary Mueller argues that the vote violated the UMC Book of Discipline.

In a statement last week, Mueller said that the disaffiliation meeting “was not authorized in accordance with our long-held church structure.”

“Rev. Miles was instructed not to hold the unauthorized meeting but proceeded to do so. The vote, which purported to adopt new ‘bylaws’, was in violation of The Book of Discipline and illegal according to Arkansas State law,” Mueller stated.

“I am deeply saddened that we find ourselves in the current situation. No one wins, and we all lose; most of all the Body of Christ and the mission to which Jesus calls us. I want to ask you to pray that hearts of peace will prevail and a positive way forward will be found.”

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