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UMC pastor suspended after Arkansas Conference rejects second disaffiliation vote

 First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas
Attendees participate in a worship service at First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas, on July 3, 2022. |

A regional body of the United Methodist Church has suspended the senior pastor of an Arkansas congregation that held a second vote to disaffiliate from the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country amid the schism over homosexuality.

The UMC Arkansas Conference suspended Senior Pastor John Miles of the First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro after the vote held by the FUMC last week in which a majority of members voted again to leave the UMC after the conference voted last month to reject the ratification of the church's first disaffiliation vote. 

The suspension comes following a formal complaint against Miles filed by five district superintendents. 

UMC Bishop Gary Mueller said in a statement Friday that the second disaffiliation vote "was in violation" of the denomination's Book of Discipline "and illegal according to Arkansas State law." Mueller added that Miles was "instructed not to hold the unauthorized meeting" held last Thursday. 

Additionally, the conference invoked a disciplinary process by declaring "exigent circumstances." This action "immediately vests title to all property of the First United Methodist Church Jonesboro in the Arkansas Conference Board of Trustees for the protection of the rights of the United Methodist Church and those United Methodists wishing to continue to worship in their church in Jonesboro."

"I am deeply saddened that we find ourselves in the current situation," Meuller said. "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. While it is a difficult and painful time for all involved, I remain resolute in the hope that is found in the birth of the Christ Child." 

According to the tally of the vote shared on the church's Facebook page, over 629 people voted not to remain a part of the UMC while nine voters wished to remain part of the denomination.  

FUMC Jonesboro also voted overwhelmingly to change the church's bylaws to appoint a team of "managers" to replace its administrative board.

Despite the suspension, Pastor Miles preached at the church on Sunday, just as he assured he would last week in response to the suspension. He said, "this is all part of the legal process" and that lawyers are "working through all this, and they'll get this settled."

"I'll plan to be here for the following Sundays," Miles said in a video message to his congregants after the suspension.

"Right now, let's just trust the Lord, but also, let's trust our lawyers. ... Let's enjoy church, let's enjoy Christmas, let's enjoy one another."

In May, the Global Methodist Church launched as a theologically conservative alternative to the UMC, which has attracted many congregations as hundreds of churches have left the UMC this year.

In its special session in November, the Arkansas Conference reached a majority vote approving the disaffiliation of 35 congregations but voted down the disaffiliation requests from FUMC Jonesboro and two other churches.

"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," noted the conference in a statement at the time.

In response to the conference's refusal to ratify FUMC Jonesboro's disaffiliation, Miles assured the congregation that the rejection was "not the end of the line" and there was "much more we can do." 

Earlier this month, more than 400 congregations in Texas voted to leave the UMC, with most planning to join the GMC.

The total number of departing congregations includes 294 of the 598 churches belonging to the Central Texas Conference and 145 of the 201 churches belonging to the Lubbock-based Northwest Texas Conference.

The departing congregations constitute nearly half of all UMC congregations in Texas, joining hundreds of churches in other states that have had their departures affirmed by their regional bodies. 

At a special called session of the UMC North Carolina Conference last month, delegates voted 957-165 to approve the disaffiliation votes of 249 congregations seeking to leave the denomination.

According to a statement from the North Carolina Conference, the number of departing congregations represented 32% of the regional body's member churches and about 22% of its membership.

The Western North Carolina Conference has also reported that 41 of their 990 congregations voted to disaffiliate earlier this year, with at least seven others recently beginning the process of discernment for disaffiliation.

Fifty-eight churches disaffiliated with the UMC Louisiana Conference during a special session last month. 

In June, 70 congregations disaffiliated from the UMC North Georgia Conference, representing 9% of its churches and 3% of its members.

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