UMC conference rejects 3 Arkansas churches’ disaffiliation requests: 'Uncharted territory'

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

A regional body of The United Methodist Church has voted down the disaffiliation requests of three congregations in Arkansas that want to leave the mainline Protestant denomination amid a nationwide schism over the denomination's stance on homosexuality.

Last Saturday, the UMC Arkansas Conference held a seven-hour special session at the Hot Springs Convention Center to vote on the requests of 38 congregations that voted to leave the denomination over its ongoing debate on LGBT issues.

According to a statement Monday, the conference reached a majority vote approving the disaffiliation of 35 congregations but voted down the disaffiliation requests from three churches: First United Methodist Church of Cabot, First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro and First United Methodist Church of Searcy.

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"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 statement. 

The churches had all cleared the requirement of a congregational vote with at least two-thirds favoring disaffiliation.

For the 35 congregations whose disaffiliation requests were approved, their next steps will include creating a new legal church entity, transferring property and other assets to this new entity and completing payment obligations to the UMC.

After these steps are completed, the departing congregations can transfer church property to the new entity.

The second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States has experienced divisive debate in recent years over its official opposition to same-sex marriage and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, as outlined in the Book of Discipline. 

Although theological liberals have failed to change the UMC's stance on these issues, many progressive leaders within the denomination have refused to enforce the rules.

Amid much consternation held by theologically conservative churches over the denomination's inability to enforce the Book of Discipline, the 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church established a process for disaffiliation. The process requires two-thirds approval from eligible church members in each congregation and a majority vote from annual conference members. 

The three Arkansas churches whose disaffiliation requests were voted down cleared the two-thirds threshold but could not secure a majority vote from the conference. 

"What happened was people voted, and this is going to sound trite, but they voted their heart about whether they felt a church should disaffiliate," Arkansas Conference Bishop Gary Mueller told UM News.

Mueller suggested that those churches have the right to resubmit the disaffiliation agreement, calling the disaffiliation rejections "uncharted territory."

Rev. John Miles, the pastor of the First United Methodist of Jonesboro, shared a video on Facebook informing his church members that the conference voted down their disaffiliation request.

"It's very discouraging. But it's not the end of the line," Miles said. "There is much more we can do. We'll regroup, and we'll think about it. ... When we get back from Thanksgiving, we'll get together with our administrative board, we'll get your input, and we'll begin to look at our options for what's next. But hey, whatever else happens, let's keep putting Jesus first in our lives." 

In May, the Global Methodist Church, birthed from the Wesleyan Covenant Association, was officially launched as a theologically conservative alternative to the UMC, with many UMC congregations voting to join the nascent denomination.

Several UMC conferences in the U.S. have scheduled special sessions to vote on church disaffiliation requests with most being approved. 

Responding to the disaffiliation rejections in Arkansas, Rev. Jay Therrell, the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and Lonnie D. Brooks, general conference reserve delegate in the UMC Alaska Conference, said in a joint statement that the "only reason to reject a disaffiliation agreement is if there is credible evidence offered by the annual conference that the church conference vote was made illegitimate by some violation of the prescribed process."

"Otherwise, we should trust the church and its people to discern what's best for them," they wrote. "That's the spirit in which paragraph 2553 was adopted by The United Methodist Church. Votes of 66.7% represent two-thirds of the church — a large margin. Yes, all sides are using 'get out the vote' strategies. Let's be honest about that. Two-thirds is a significant hurdle and should be respected. We use that number to amend the United Methodist Constitution. If it's good enough for that, it should be good enough in this instance."

Last week, a special session of the UMC North Carolina Conference approved the votes of 249 congregations seeking to leave the denomination. This represented nearly a third of all member congregations in the North Carolina-based regional body.

"The future is bright, especially because God has something to do with it," said North Carolina Bishop Leonard E. Fairley in a statement released by the conference.

"We know the end of this story because of who Jesus Christ is. May you hold each other dear regardless of what we voted on here. Hold each other dear in your prayers."

The disaffiliation of North Carolina churches will be effective Dec. 31 for churches that completed all parts of the disaffiliation agreement. 

In early November, 58 churches disaffiliated with the UMC Louisiana Conference during a special session. In June, 70 congregations disaffiliated from the UMC North Georgia Conference.

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