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Methodist church in Fayetteville aims for amicable separation

Methodists try a new approach by Frank E. Lockwood | February 25, 2023 at 9:08 a.m.
Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville is shown Friday Feb. 24, 2023. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

With members of Arkansas' largest United Methodist Church divided over whether to leave their denomination or stay, leaders of both camps are trying to avoid a "winner-takes-all" outcome, preferring to find a solution that allows for a peaceable parting.

Together, the opposing sides at Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville have crafted what they're calling an "Amicable Reconciliation and Separation Agreement."

Discussed Thursday at a joint meeting of Central's Church Council and its board of trustees, it "received wide support" at the gathering, according to an email from the church's executive team to members of the congregation.

The precise language was not made public, but the email provided a summary.

"In broad terms, this agreement allows for Central to remain a United Methodist congregation on Dickson Street while blessing and financially assisting the launch of a new evangelical independent Wesleyan congregation elsewhere in Fayetteville," the email said.

"As part of the agreement, those who plan to join the new church will be replaced on our various boards and committees by persons who plan to remain at Central. The new Staff-Parish Relations Committee would work with the Bishop and [District Superintendent] to provide for appropriate pastoral leadership for Central, while the current pastors would leave to be a part of the new launch," it said.

The board of trustees has also recommended that the church sell its south Fayetteville satellite campus, Genesis Church, to the members worshipping there, allowing it to spin off and form a new independent congregation.

The price would be nominal -- $1 -- "so that they can continue to use their resources for the needs of the Kingdom in South Fayetteville and not be encumbered by any debt," the letter stated.

Concerns about the status of Genesis Church had resulted in a pause in the Central's disaffiliation process.

Members of United for Central, which favors staying, and Central Wesleyans, which favors breaking away, met with Central's senior pastor, Carness Vaughan, and the chair of its board of trustees, Brock Gearhart, in an "attempt to come up with a solution," the email stated.

A special "charge conference" has been scheduled for March 5 to consider the proposal.

The charge conference "is the basic governing body of each United Methodist local church and is composed of all members of the church council," according to the denomination's online glossary.

Reached by phone Friday, Vaughan stressed that the proposals have not yet been approved.

"Nothing's official until March 5 at the charge conference," he said.

Regardless of how the vote goes, Vaughan and the rest of the pastoral staff will be among those eventually departing, though he said he plans to remain until June, the month when clergy assignments frequently take effect.

Vaughan also emphasized the collaborative nature of the process.

Leaders of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church have been kept apprised, he said.

"They've been working with us throughout the process to perfect the document," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Arkansas Conference did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Under a provision in the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline that was added in 2019, U.S. congregations can disaffiliate "over issues related to human sexuality."

The rule, known as Paragraph 2553, was passed at a special session of the denomination's General Conference, which also reaffirmed its ban on same-sex marriages and the ordination of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals."

Disaffiliation cannot occur unless a congregation completes a discernment process and then votes, by two-thirds or more, to disaffiliate.

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.

The disaffiliation must also be ratified by members of the Annual Conference. Thus far, 35 of 38 agreements have been ratified in Arkansas; more than 2,000 nationwide.

The three rejected in Arkansas were First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro, Searcy First United Methodist Church and Cabot United Methodist Church.

Jonesboro, with average attendance of 1,577, is the state's second-largest United Methodist church. Only Central, with average attendance of 1,886, is larger.

In the wake of the rejection of their disaffiliation attempts, the Jonesboro and Searcy congregations have filed lawsuits. A majority of the Cabot congregation walked away to form a new, independent church.

In the email to members, Vaughan and the rest of the executive team noted the conflict church-wide votes sometimes generate.

"The reality is that no one wins with the disaffiliation vote. Regardless of the outcome, many members of Central would feel disenfranchised. Even if Central reached the required 2/3 threshold required to disaffiliate at a Church Conference, the Arkansas Annual Conference would still need to ratify the disaffiliation at a special Annual Conference in May. There is great uncertainty whether that would happen, given the outcome of the previous Annual Conference in November where three of the four largest churches on the list were denied the ability to disaffiliate. If that were to occur, Central would be left with the likelihood of possibly protracted and costly litigation or, for those who desire, to leave Central and form a new church," the email stated.

Bruce Johanson, a leader of Central Wesleyans, confirmed that both sides have been working to come up with a good solution.

"There has been a spirit of willingness to try to make it the best outcome possible," he said.

In an email Friday, Bill Kincaid, one of the United for Central leaders, voiced support for the compromise.

"We are hopeful that this resolution will receive final approval. This agreement would bring a final and gracious end to this process, and let everyone move forward in a positive spirit. While no agreement can be perfect, we are grateful that it would allow Central to remain a welcoming presence in the heart of Fayetteville as part of the United Methodist Church. We especially want to thank Trustees Chair Brock Gearhart for his outstanding leadership, and appreciate Pastor Carness Vaughan and the Central Wesleyan leadership for their important roles during this process," he wrote.


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