Settlement finalizes split for Methodist congregation in Searcy

Searcy United Methodist Churchgoers make their split official

The word “United” has been removed from the signs at First Methodist Church in Searcy. After settling their lawsuit against the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, members of the now-independent congregation say they’re happy to be moving forward.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)
The word “United” has been removed from the signs at First Methodist Church in Searcy. After settling their lawsuit against the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, members of the now-independent congregation say they’re happy to be moving forward. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)


SEARCY -- The lawsuit between this city's largest United Methodist Church and the denomination's Arkansas conference has been settled.

White County Circuit Judge Daniel Brock dismissed the case on June 26 at both parties' request.

A majority of the congregation, including Pastor Jeff Jackson, has broken away, opting to become independent.

A remnant who remain loyal to the denomination are now worshipping elsewhere.

The settlement, Jackson said, contained non-disclosure and non-disparagement provisions, but the signs out front telegraph the outcome.

The word "United" has been removed -- from the building, from the vans, from the $35,000 electronic message board that twinkles out front. The congregation is now known, simply, as First Methodist Church.

"It's all over. We have all of our property and all of our assets and we're moving forward," Jackson said.

Sunday, a sizeable crowd showed up for an Independence Day-themed service featuring "America the Beautiful" and a rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by the handbell choir. Jackson, an Army National Guard veteran, both preached and sang, performing "God Bless the U.S.A."

Beaming, he held two grandkids, one in each arm, as the service drew to a close.

Afterward, three longtime members said they're relieved that the dispute has been settled.

"It has been a difficult journey, in many ways, but it's resolved and we're all feeling blessed and we can go on into the future," Susan Hall said.

"I think we're going in a very wonderful direction. We're keeping close to the Scripture. I think the church has a great future ahead," said David Morris, a lifelong member and a former Searcy mayor.

On Sept. 25, the congregation voted 239-96 to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, citing "reasons of conscience ... related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

The congregation reached a disaffiliation agreement with the conference's board of trustees, agreeing to pay $103,709 in additional tithes, plus $147,894 for its pro rata share of the conference's pension obligations.

But members of the Arkansas conference, on Nov. 19, declined to ratify the decision, with 287 voting in favor and 305 against.

The congregation filed suit on Jan. 3.

After the split, Searcy's United Methodist loyalists regrouped and began meeting elsewhere.

They worship, Sunday evenings, in the First Presbyterian Church sanctuary, roughly one-third of a mile to the west.

For months, they were served by a variety of fill-in ministers.

This Sunday, roughly 70 congregants showed up to greet their new pastor, Michael Bolin.

His first sermon, titled "We are God's welcome mat," emphasized the importance of Christian hospitality.

"All of us want this church to be fruitful, to be disciples that make disciples where every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Christ is Lord," he said.

In order to reach the community, "we must be comforting, inviting -- present the love of Jesus and the love of our faith community in ways that are desirable, hospitable, kind," he said.

With the temperature outside reaching 96 degrees, the air conditioner faced an uphill battle. Several worshippers used their church bulletins as makeshift fans.

Outside in the parking lot, male congregants were barbecuing hamburgers and hot dogs for a post-sermon potluck.

"I spoke often and strongly [my] desire to stay in the United Methodist Church," said one of the men, Warren Nicholson.

Despite the split, "I don't desire to throw anybody under the bus. They're friends and I love them," he said.

Terry Cofer, who used to belong to another Methodist congregation, said he's glad that he's now part of the new First United Methodist Church team.

"I think we've done pretty well to survive as long as we have meeting in somebody else's church in a different denomination. We've got a pretty good group of people," he said.

Bolin, who previously served as pastor of Green Forest United Methodist Church, is enthusiastic about his new assignment.

"I'm excited to be there and can't wait to be engaged in ministry," he said.


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