With more than 100 congregations already gone and others preparing to depart, the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church is cutting its budget and preparing for a smaller, leaner post-disaffiliation future, officials said this week.
"We all know that we look different than we did a year ago and, accordingly, our structure and our finances have to change as well," Brittany Watson, president of the conference's Council on Finance and Administration, told attendees at the conference's annual meeting Wednesday.
She predicted the conference's $8.5 million in annual income would drop by about $2 million, a loss partially offset by the additional year's tithes churches are required to pay as a condition of disaffiliation.
At the gathering in Hot Springs, which ended Friday, more than 500 clergy and lay members acknowledged their changed circumstances while also praying for healing and restoration.
"In the time of ancient Israel, the people of God would gather not only to celebrate together, but to lament together, to cry out to God together when they felt broken and burdened, when they were groaning and grieving. As we gather together, we carry the pain of separation and conflict within our church as well as the hurting of our broken world," Michael Robinson, a youth and college ministries intern at First United Methodist Church in Batesville, told conferencegoers at the start of Wednesday afternoon's session.
Quoting from Lamentations 5:19-22, Robinson said: "You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore to us yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure."
Bishop Laura Merrill, who stepped in following the year-end retirement of Bishop Gary Mueller, urged the audience to steer clear of "junk that will not heal us or save us and whose cost is far too high" -- whether it be on Facebook or elsewhere.
"There are real life voices in our ears of late that have tried
their best to break down this body. Ya'll, we in the United Methodist Church have been told that by extending a broad, open, grace-filled welcome to the table and church of Jesus Christ, we have conformed to the culture of the world, as if the opposite were not actually true," she said, drawing applause and a few "amens".
"We have been told that there is no value in our connection with each other, that it is onerous and unnecessary. We have been told that in making room for questions and differences of opinion and experience, we don't take the Bible seriously. We have been told that in taking the road of humility where we scandalously admit that we don't know everything [and] that we have something to learn, that we don't really believe in Jesus. We have been told that we are sliding down a slippery slope that leads straight to hell. That's what we've been told. I've come to tell you today that it's not true," she said, drawing more applause.
"These are not the voices that we need to listen to. God bless the people who use those voices and may God bless their ministry. I say that sincerely. But they do not speak the truth about the United Methodists of the state of Arkansas. Those words do not speak who we are. They will not give us life," she said.
Once the nation's largest Protestant denomination, Methodists have seen their U.S. membership cut almost in half over the past 60 years, to 5.7 million in 2021.
Arkansas had 113,133 United Methodists that year, according to the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration.
Since then, 102 of its 612 Arkansas congregations have severed ties -- 35 in November and another 67 last month, according to the United Methodist News Service, the denomination's official news agency.
LOCKED IN LITIGATION
The conference has been locked in litigation with two others -- First United Methodist churches in Jonesboro and Searcy -- after they were denied permission to depart, despite overwhelming votes by their congregations in favor of disaffiliation.
The conference's legal costs had already surpassed $200,000 as of last month.
Nationwide, nearly 5,900 of the denomination's roughly 30,000 U.S. churches have departed.
Normally, these congregations would hold their property "in trust" for the benefit of the entire denomination.
Paragraph 2553 of the denomination's Book of Discipline, approved in 2019 at a special session of its general conference in St. Louis, temporarily changed that, allowing local churches to disaffiliate over "issues related to human sexuality," but they must do so by Dec. 31.
A supermajority vote by a congregation -- two-thirds or more -- is required before it can proceed with the process.
Churches that leave are required to pay any outstanding tithes owed to the conference, plus an additional year's tithes as well as money to cover unfunded pension liability.
The extra money has helped to soften the short-term economic blow.
"While reducing our $8.5 million budget by $2 million could be catastrophic, the work of the conference has given us time and a plan and [room] to maneuver as these churches who choose to disaffiliate must pay 12 months of tithes," Watson, the Council on Finance and Administration president, said Wednesday.
"This financial buffer is allowing for us to make this $2 million reduction over the next two fiscal years," she added.
The loss of 102 Arkansas congregations also means fewer people available to serve on the conference's councils, committees, commissions, boards, agencies and other bodies.
This year, largely as a result of disaffiliation, "it was hard to find enough people to fill every spot," Jim Polk, assistant to the bishop, told conferencegoers.
SERVE ON TWO ENTITIES
Thanks to a rules change approved Wednesday, Arkansas Methodists will henceforth be able, in most instances, to serve on two of these entities, rather than just one.
In her message, Merrill said God has a plan for the United Methodists who have chosen to remain.
"If you've survived painful attacks and separation in your local church or even accusations by other Christians in your small town and you're still here, you are here for a reason. If you know, deep in your heart, deep in your life with God, that you are called to resist polarization and cutoff, called to be a voice of kindness and sanity and justice in this world, then you're here for a reason," she said.
"And if we know we're here for a reason, then we can trust God to show us our purpose," she added. "We can be a church that proclaims by word and deed that the kingdom of heaven, the reign of love, is already at hand. It is already in our midst."