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Arkansas United Methodists weighing option of splitting for Global Methodist Church

Methodists divided on church’s stance on homosexuality by Frank E. Lockwood | March 19, 2022 at 2:54 a.m.
Supporters of gay ordination and same-sex marriage, pictured at the United Methodist Church’s 2019 special General Conference in St. Louis, react after failing to change the denomination’s position on homosexuality. Despite winning the debate at General Conferences for decades, conservative congregations are prepared to withdraw from the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination, but they want to be able to keep their real and personal property. (AP/Sid Hastings)


With their denomination headed for schism, Arkansas United Methodists are debating whether to stay, leave or wait awhile to see what happens.

A new, more conservative denomination, the Global Methodist Church, is set to launch May 1, organizers announced earlier this month.

At Jonesboro First United Methodist Church, one of the state's largest, many worshippers have already expressed a willingness to break away.

"We did a straw poll in December and over 80% of our church wanted to join a more traditional denomination," said the pastor, John Miles.

The 2,632-member congregation will decide whether to leave "in the coming months," Miles said.

"I suspect we will vote to go but we have not voted yet," he said, noting that parishioners would ultimately make the decision.

The departure, if it occurs, would be significant. With average weekly attendance of 1,577, the Jonesboro congregation was the state's second-largest Methodist congregation in 2019. Only Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville was bigger, with average attendance that year of 1,886.

Conservatives, Miles said, have long been concerned about the direction of the church and its ability to get things done.

Arguments over homosexuality have dominated recent meetings of the denomination's General Conference, which normally meets every four years to conduct church business.

"The presenting issue is human sexuality, but the deeper issues have been there for years," he said.

They include "the authority of Scripture. The importance of salvation over social action. ... [and] also just the sheer incompetency of our bureaucracy. I mean, we can't even have General Conference [meet]. And every time we do, we can't get anything done," Miles said.

Acknowledging "profound differences," Bishop Gary Mueller of the church's Arkansas Conference has asked the state's Methodist clergy to meet with him later this month "to pray, reflect and discuss the future."

In-person meetings will be held March 28 in Little Rock and Stuttgart, March 29 in Batesville, March 30 in Fort Smith and March 31 in Malvern.

Similar meetings for lay people in leadership roles will be held, via Zoom, March 28-31 and April 4.

In an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday, Mueller portrayed the split as sad news.

"My heart is heavy that the process of separation has now begun in The United Methodist Church. Most congregations will remain, although some will depart. While I believe these differences are contrary to Jesus' mandate for unity in the Body of Christ, it is where we are," he said.

WEIGHING OPTIONS

While some Methodist congregations are weighing whether to leave, others are reaffirming their support for the existing denomination.

Writing to members of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church "family" in Little Rock, senior pastor John Robbins said its focus remains unchanged.

"After May 1, 2022, our staff will keep doing tremendous work in the name of Christ. We will continue to provide meaningful worship services, mission opportunities, small group events, and programming for all ages. In other words, we are not leaving our beloved denomination with the 'break-off' group," he wrote.

"We are United Methodist Christians who are not going to let squabbles stand in the way of who we are and what we are about. In other words, as far as I am concerned, nothing will be different for us. The name and the mission of this church is unchanged!" he added.

Betsy Singleton Snyder, pastor of Pinnacle View United Methodist Church in Little Rock, said her congregation supports the United Methodist Church and believes in full inclusion for gay men and lesbians.

Rather than aligning with a conservative alternative, she predicted the congregation's efforts at inclusion would only intensify.

"We're in west Little Rock and there are gay people who live in west Little Rock and progressive people and they're starting to show up on our doorstep," she said.

The church they encounter will be warm, welcoming and United Methodist, she said.

"My church is not going anywhere," she said.

Bud Reeves, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith, said his congregation has "people with different opinions ... but there's no momentum for leaving."

Reeves said he supports the denomination's global outreach and its "theology of grace" and he wants to see it become more inclusive.

"I was raised Methodist and the United Methodist Church has been very good to me my entire life," he said. "I won't be going."

SECOND LARGEST

The United Methodist Church is the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, formed in 1968 following the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Initially, the denomination rivaled the Southern Baptist Convention in size, with a U.S. membership of roughly 11 million.

Today, the church has roughly 13 million members, but only 6,268,310 of them are in this country.

At last count, Arkansas had 607 United Methodist churches with a total of 113,159 members.

American Methodists have been divided over the issue of homosexuality for a half-century, revisiting the issue every four years at the denomination's quadrennial General Conference.

Thus far, theological conservatives have repeatedly triumphed at these gatherings, ensuring that the denomination continues to define "the practice of homosexuality" as "incompatible with Christian teaching."

They have struggled, however, to get some church officials to uphold provisions in their Book of Discipline, which bar "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from being ordained to the ministry and which prohibit the solemnizing of "homosexual unions" by Methodist clergy or inside Methodist churches.

Conservatives are frustrated by the flouting of church discipline in some of the U.S. church's 54 regional bodies, known as annual conferences.

Progressives are fed up with denomination-wide positions they view as unjust.

In 2016, the church's Western Jurisdiction, encompassing seven Pacific and Intermountain conferences, elected a San Francisco pastor, Karen Oliveto, as the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church. The denomination's Judicial Council subsequently determined Oliveto had been duly elected.

Decades ago, a majority of General Conference delegates from the United States would have opposed gay ordination and same-sex marriage, according to Mark Tooley, a lifelong Methodist and president of the theologically conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy.

That is no longer the case, he added.

The Book of Discipline's stance on homosexuality has not softened, however, because the existing stand is supported by a coalition of American traditionalists as well as United Methodist delegates from overseas.

It was reaffirmed, most recently, at a specially called General Conference, in St. Louis in February 2019.

While U.S. Methodist membership has steadily declined over the past half-century, membership in Africa is growing.

As a result, the denomination's stance on human sexuality has become more conservative in recent years, even as the American church has become increasingly moderate-to-liberal.

These days, roughly one-third of the U.S. delegates are evangelicals, Tooley said.

"Without the African delegates, conservatives certainly would have lost by 2008, probably 2004, maybe even earlier," he added.

Instead, conservatives win the votes at General Conference every four years. But they have failed, thus far, to take control of the denomination's seminaries or its bureaucratic structures.

BROKEN TIES

Frustrated by the impasse, a few congregations -- on both ends of the theological spectrum -- have already broken ties with the denomination.

Others were weighing whether to do so.

Early in 2020, representatives of both camps called for passage of what they called the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.

It would allow the creation of a new, conservative denomination that would retain traditional teachings on homosexuality. Individual congregations, by majority vote, would be able to withdraw from the old denomination and transfer to the new one, without forfeiting their property. Individual U.S. conferences also would be able to transfer, provided the move was backed by a super majority -- 57%.

The default position would be to remain.

If approved, the new denomination would receive $25 million from the United Methodist Church, but would surrender any claims to the existing denomination's assets.

"These structures were always seen as adversarial to conservatives, and now they're seen as bloated and irrelevant to the local church. For conservatives, it was more important to allow local churches to keep their property and local conferences to be able to detach and keep their assets," Tooley said.

Plans for a vote on the Protocol were derailed by covid-19. The denomination's General Conference in Minneapolis, initially set for May 2020, was postponed to the summer of 2021, then rescheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 6.

Earlier this month, General Conference organizers announced that they would delay the meeting for a third time, pushing it back this time to 2024.

Shortly thereafter, theological conservatives announced they would proceed with the new denomination, maintaining they had waited long enough, with some questioning claims by organizers that they needed more time to arrange visas and vaccinations for Methodist delegates from overseas.

OUTCOME UNCLEAR

Without formal approval of the Protocol, it's unclear how the process of disaffiliation would unfold nationwide.

Even with the Protocol in limbo, there is another avenue available for breakaway congregations that wish to keep their buildings.

Under provisions approved at the 2019 special session, congregations can "disaffiliate" with the United Methodist Church, but it's more difficult for them to do so, and they must complete the process by the end of 2023.

In the Natural State, the structure is already in place.

"The Arkansas Conference adopted a process last year for congregations that desire to disaffiliate," Mueller said. "We will implement it in a way that enables them to leave as easily and quickly as possible, but also protects the appropriate interests of the United Methodist Church."

In order to exit, a church would need to undergo a "period of discernment" of no less than three months, laying out the reasons for its desire to withdraw and holding at least three "listening sessions" to discuss the issue with members. Attendance would be kept.

Once the discernment period is complete, a vote on disaffiliation would be held.

Rather than a simple majority, it would require a super-majority of the congregation -- two-thirds of all those voting -- to sever ties with the Arkansas Conference.

In order to keep their property, departing congregations would need to return recent Conference grants, pay their tithes to the Conference for the previous 12 months as well as 12 additional months, and cover their share of any unfunded pension obligations.

The Conference Board of Trustees and the individual church would also need to craft a formal separation agreement which could contain additional stipulations, and the annual conference would need to give its approval.

The congregation would remain responsible for any outstanding debts or obligations that it had incurred."

AMIABLE PARTINGS

When disaffiliations occur, Mueller wants them to be amiable partings so that the Church's Christian witness is not harmed.

"My goal over the next several years is for congregations to end up where they can thrive in making disciples of Jesus Christ who transform lives, communities and the world, because this is what ultimately matters most. Our greatest challenge -- but also our greatest opportunity -- will be to demonstrate how Jesus enables us to have a heart of peace instead of a heart of war so that we are able to assume the best intentions of others, avoid attacking those 'on the other side,' respect the decisions congregations and individuals make and refrain from recruiting individuals and congregations either to leave or remain," Mueller said. "I have faith we will succeed."

His leadership, thus far, has drawn praise from some of those who may ultimately leave.

"He's a great guy, Bishop Mueller. He works really hard to to listen and to work with everybody -- both progressives and traditionalists and those in between," Miles said.

"He's doing his best to be the best bishop he can for every United Methodist in Arkansas," said Bryan Fink, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Stuttgart. "He's trying to walk the middle as best he can."

The congregation Fink leads hasn't made any decisions but "I would not think that they would want to stay in the United Methodist Church on its current trajectory," he said.

Even if the Stuttgart Methodists were to disaffiliate, it's unclear that they would wind up in the Global Methodist Church, Fink said.

"A lot of churches will be looking at other denominations, you know, Wesleyan and Free Methodist and Nazarene and so forth," he said.

NOT IMMEDIATE

Theological conservatives don't anticipate an immediate stampede for the exits.

"Come May 1, we're not going to have a mass exodus," said Jeff Warrick, a Methodist pastor in Cabot who also serves as president of the Arkansas Chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, one of the organizations backing the split.

He foresees congregations, over the next two to three years, transferring to the new denomination.

"Some, perhaps in waves, some individually, just depending on where they are in the process," he said.

"We're not rushing people. We're not pressuring people, but there are strong indications that several Arkansas congregations will do so," he said.

Warrick said there are Methodists in Northwest Arkansas weighing whether to break away.

As far as he knows, none have publicly stated they intend to do so.

Fink foresees a slow process as well. Assuming congregations wait until after the 2024 General Conference to make a decision, they might not depart until 2026, he said.

"This is not an easy process for those who are in favor of it, or for those who aren't. I mean, it's just sloppy, it's messy," he said.

Those who are leaving hope for an amicable separation, he said.

"There's not a lot of anger. There's not a lot of negative language," Fink said. "From my side of the aisle, the people I deal with, it's all very gracious. It's done with respect. It's done with love."

David Bush, pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Dorado, predicts the exodus will be particularly sizeable in his part of the state.

"In south Arkansas, I think the vast majority will leave," he said.

It's an option his own congregation will consider at some point, he said.

"We have not officially made any declarations on any things, but we are studying that," he said. "I would guess we would go Global, but that hadn't been fully determined."

The problem, Bush maintains, is not the denomination's Book of Discipline; it's the failure of church leadership to uphold it, he said.

"I feel like the United Methodist Church has left me rather than me leaving them," he said. "To me, the covenant has been broken."

Many of the overseas Methodists will sever ties, he predicted.

"I wouldn't doubt if the Global Methodist Church is larger than the United Methodist Church within the first two years," he said.


  photo  Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church plans to meet with the state’s Methodist clergy March 28-31 to “pray, reflect and discuss the future.” With some conservative congregations preparing to “disaffiliate” from the church, Mueller is encouraging Methodists to “avoid attacking those ‘on the other side,’ respect the decisions congregations and individuals make, and refrain from recruiting individuals and congregations either to leave or remain.” (Courtesy photo)
 
 


  photo  Debates about homosexuality occur every four years when the United Methodist Church holds its General Conference. The denomination’s Book of Discipline prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being certified as ministers, declaring that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”; some jurisdictions have chosen to ignore the ban. (The New York Times/Edward Linsmier)
 
 


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