Members of the Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church voted Saturday to ratify disaffiliation agreements from 35 of its congregations -- including one in Texarkana -- clearing the way for them to break away from the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.
Conference members rejected disaffiliation agreements from three others -- Jonesboro First United Methodist Church, Cabot United Methodist Church and Searcy First United Methodist Church.
The votes occurred during a seven-hour-long special session of the Arkansas Annual Conference in Hot Springs.
In their disaffiliation agreements, the 38 congregations had all cited "reasons of conscience" relating to "the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals."
It takes a two-thirds vote by a congregation's professing members to enter the disaffiliation process.
Twenty-two of the churches seeking ratification Saturday had voted unanimously to disaffiliate: Amity, Asbury (Magnolia), Bellefonte, Bethesda Campground, Bland Chapel, Bruce Memorial, Dalark, Delight, Hebron (Carlisle), Hinton, Holly Springs (Sparkman), Holly Springs (Texarkana), Kibler, Mount Zion (Lonoke), Parker's Chapel, Saint John (Hope), Saint Mark (El Dorado), Saint Paul (El Dorado), Sparkman, theJourney (Cabot), Washington and Westside.
Rather than voting on them individually, the conference members voted on them and three other congregations where the vote had also been overwhelming as a group. The three other congregations were Heritage in Van Buren (98% in favor), Mountainside (94% in favor) and Alma (91% in favor).
The motion to ratify passed easily.
Once that was over, Bishop Gary Mueller paused to acknowledge the churches that will soon be departing. They ranged in size from Heritage, with average weekly attendance of 812, to Smyrna and Dalark, each with average attendance of 10.
"These 25 churches represent hundreds of years of ministry, and tens of thousands of lives touched and I can't move on quickly without naming them and celebrating the difference they have made," Mueller said.
Minutes later, by a show of hands, the members voted to ratify the agreements for Grace Conway (where 87% of the congregants had supported disaffiliation) and Smyrna (87% in favor).
Mount Tabor in Cabot (86% in favor) had its agreement ratified, 323-252, as did Saint Paul in Searcy (also 86% in favor), 337-245.
Heber Springs First (85% in favor), Stuttgart First (82% in favor) and Piney Grove (81% in favor) followed, with the backing of clear majorities in each instance.
Cabot (79% in favor) was the first to fail. The congregation, with average weekly attendance of 485, had endorsed disaffiliation by a vote of 234 to 63.
Disaffiliation opponents Saturday said approval would leave Cabot without a United Methodist congregation. They also read statements from unnamed members of the congregation who criticized the way the disaffiliation discernment process had been handled there.
After floor debate, the motion to ratify failed to receive the necessary majority support, with 296 voting yes and 310 voting no.
Siloam Springs (78% in favor) and Christ, Texarkana (72% in favor) had their agreements ratified, the first by a vote of 418-173; the second by a vote of 461-127.
Fordyce First (71% in favor) was approved as well, by a vote of 327-264.
Searcy First United Methodist Church members had also voted 71% in favor of disaffiliation. But their ratification agreement only received 287 yes votes Saturday; 305 people voted no.
Opposition to the Jonesboro First United Methodist Church disaffiliation agreement was more pronounced, with 254 voting yes and 335 voting no.
Speakers criticized the fairness of the process at both congregations, questioning whether they had been laity-driven.
Jonesboro's July 31 disaffiliation vote had been closer than any of the others on the agenda, passing by a vote of 944 to 412 -- meaning 69% of those voting were in favor of disaffiliation.
With average weekly attendance of 1,577, Jonesboro First is one of the 100 largest United Methodist congregations in the country, and the second-largest in Arkansas.
Many of the 412 people on the losing side of the vote are now holding worship services of their own, meeting in the Valley View School District's performing arts center.
A number of them traveled to Hot Springs to share their stories and to witness Saturday's vote.
Members of Stay UMC Jonesboro, which wants to keep the denominational ties, welcomed the outcome.
"We give thanks today for a vote that recognized the concerns raised about the disaffiliation process at FUMC Jonesboro. We are truly grateful to those who heard and understood our plight and found the strength to stand up for and defend the UMC and advocate justice over inequity, unity over division, giving voice to the voiceless, and acknowledging the generations of faithful United Methodists who built, served, and worshipped in the space we hold so dear," the organization posted on its Facebook page. "We look forward to the opportunity to start afresh, united together in our spiritual home, to make disciples of Jesus and love one another."
On the Jonesboro church's Facebook page, its pastor, John Miles, called Saturday's vote "really bad news."
"We were denied disaffiliation today by the United Methodist Conference. Now that's very discouraging, but y'all, it's not the end of the line. There's much more we can do and we'll regroup and we'll think about it. We don't have to do anything for the next few days," he said.
"Tomorrow, let's have church and then let's have Thanksgiving. And when we get back from Thanksgiving, we'll get together with our administrative board and we'll get your input and we'll begin to look at our options for what's next," he said. "Whatever else happens, let's keep putting Jesus first in our lives."
The conference reported having 634 congregations and 117,440 members in 2020, with average attendance of 43,765.
The 35 congregations cleared for disaffiliation have average attendance of about 3,750.
There are roughly 6.3 million United Methodists nationwide.
Normally, Methodist congregations hold their property in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination. Pastors and congregations are free to leave, but they can't take the property with them.
Paragraph 2553 of the denomination's Book of Discipline, approved in 2019 at a special session of its general conference in St. Louis, allowed local churches to disaffiliate over "issues related to human sexuality."
The provision sunsets Dec. 31, 2023.
Once a church votes to disaffiliate, it must sign an agreement with the conference's board of trustees.
Among other things, the agreement requires breakaway congregations to pay an additional tithe based on their income over the past 12 months.
They also must pay a pro rata share of the Arkansas Conference's outstanding pension obligations.
Disaffiliation can only occur once the terms of the agreement have been met.
Mueller, who presided over Saturday's meeting, told conference members he intended to do so in "an orderly and fair way."
While the disaffiliation agreements had been negotiated between the congregations and the leadership of the Arkansas Conference, "you do have the right to vote however you wish for any reason you wish," he said.
Mueller, who is retiring Dec. 31, said he was grateful for conference cabinet members who had "spent untold hours dealing with the disaffiliation process."
"Quite frankly, it has been exhausting for them. And, quite frankly, they at times have been subjected to abuse far too often," he said.
He also expressed his thanks to the conference's board of trustees, saying they had "worked long and diligently to navigate a process that does not have an operating manual."
The division within the United Methodist Church is painful for those wanting to leave and those who are staying, he noted.
"Grief abounds in this room about what is going on. ... There are strong feelings because that's what happens when people grieve. It's okay to express those feelings. It is not OK to attack, demonize or weaponize parliamentary procedure in an attempt to keep the body from completing its work," he said early in the session.
He encouraged those present to "carry out our business as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ," and to remain afterward to partake in Holy Communion.
After Saturday's special session adjourned, Mueller said he had witnessed "a good, open process that allowed people to make the decisions they wanted to make."
"I was, overall, very, very proud and pleased," he said. "When I asked them to respond appropriately, they did. So overall, in a very tough situation and a long day, I think they did what United Methodist folk do when they get together. They talked, they prayed and they acted."