UMC regional body can keep breakaway congregation's property, judge rules

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

A regional body of the United Methodist Church is the rightful owner of an Arkansas church property that belonged to a congregation whose dissafiliation vote was rejected by the conference, a judge has ruled. 

The UMC Arkansas Annual Conference announced Tuesday that Special Circuit Judge Gary Arnold ruled in its favor in litigation involving the disputed property of First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro.

"Permanent possession of the historic church campus located at 801 S. Main St. in Jonesboro, Arkansas has been granted to the Arkansas Conference. Special Circuit Judge Gary Arnold will release written in the coming weeks," stated the conference.

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Pastor John Miles, the leader of the First Methodist Church of Jonesboro, the breakaway congregation seeking to control the property, said in a video message Monday that he plans to appeal the ruling.

"Unfortunately, the judge ruled against us," said Miles. "This means that we will not be able to resume occupation of 801 South Main for the foreseeable future."

"Our judge has been quite clear that he did not think we had a case from the beginning. Now, I just want to be absolutely clear with you we believe he's in error. We believe we have a strong case. We have our appeal all set up, and we will proceed with that appeal."  
FUMC Jonesboro, part of the congregation that remained with the denomination, released a brief statement on its Facebook page approving of the latest decision in the property dispute.

"First United Methodist Church is most grateful for yesterday's Court ruling in favor of the Arkansas Conference and FUMCJ. As we journey forward together, we remain unwavering in our commitment to reconciliation and unity," they stated.

In July 2022, following an 18-month-long discernment process, First UMC voted to disaffiliate from the UMC, with 69% of 1,300 voting members in favor and 31% opposed.

The vote came as the UMC created a pathway for congregations to disaffiliate amid a longstanding debate over the mainline Protestant denomination's stance on homosexuality. In the last few years, over 7,500 churches nationwide have disaffiliated from the UMC, with the approval of their regional conferences. 

In November 2022, the Arkansas Conference rejected the results of the First UMC dissafiliation vote while approving the disaffiliation votes of 35 other congregations in the regional body.

The conference also rejected the disaffiliation requests of the First United Methodist Church of Cabot and First United Methodist Church of Searcy. In 2023, the Arkansas Conference would approve the disaffiliation votes of 129 other churches, according to UM News.

In December 2022, the Jonesboro church filed suit against the conference after a second dissafiliation vote was rejected. The UMC conference also suspended Pastor Miles, arguing a second disafiliation vote violated the UMC Book of Discipline. 

The breakaway congregation contends that the UMC doesn't have "any legal, beneficial, or equitable interest in any of the real or personal property held by the Jonesboro Church."

Shortly after the church filed the suit, 12 judges recused themselves from the case, citing conflicts of interest or the need to avoid an appearance of impropriety.

The Craighead Circuit Clerk's Office had to request the Arkansas State Supreme Court to assign a special judge to preside over the litigation.

In March 2023, Judge Arnold allowed the lawsuit against the conference to proceed, rejecting a motion to dismiss the complaint and scheduling a trial for January 2024.

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