Fayetteville United Methodist Church votes to drop disaffiliation, split into 3 churches

Congregation set to form 3 groups

Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville is shown Friday Feb. 24, 2023. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville is shown Friday Feb. 24, 2023. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

The state's largest United Methodist congregation is splitting three ways after reaching what it is calling an "Amicable Reconciliation and Separation Agreement."

Under the terms of the settlement, Fayetteville's Central United Methodist Church will remain part of the United Methodist denomination. Genesis Church, the congregation's South Fayetteville satellite campus, will spin off, becoming independent, at the end of this month.

A third congregation will also be formed in the coming months, with Central's current leadership at the helm. Carness Vaughan, the current senior pastor, announced Monday that he and other members of the pastoral staff will be leaving to launch what they're calling Christ Church.

Central has agreed to provide $500,000 in seed money for the startup congregation, which will meet temporarily in the Fayetteville Town Center, with $200,000 due on April 1; $100,000 on July 1; $100,000 on April 1, 2024; and $100,000 on April 1, 2025.

The Wesley campus ministry, which serves students at the University of Arkansas, will "continue to be an important part of Central's ministry efforts," the document states.

Genesis Church will be allowed to buy its campus -- the old Wiggins Memorial United Methodist Church property -- for $1.

Members of the Central church council overwhelmingly approved the agreement at a specially called meeting Sunday night presided over by Blake Bradford, the district superintendent for Northwest Arkansas.

By finding a compromise, Central members avoided the need for a lengthy discernment process and a divisive congregation-wide vote on whether to "disaffiliate."

Under the agreement, disaffiliation efforts have been dropped.

In an interview, Vaughan portrayed the outcome as a potential model for other congregations.

"God has been at work throughout this process. There's no way we could have done it without that," he said. "I really do believe that God is going to bless what's happened here."

Genesis Church's pastor, Jody Farrell, said the agreement has created "beauty out of brokenness," and credited Brock Gearhart, chair of Central's board of trustees, with helping to bring people together.

"We were headed towards a zero sum game where there's a winner and a loser. ... Brock came up with an idea that would basically make it a win-win-win situation," he said.

Moving forward, Genesis Church will continue its focus on "education of young people, poverty alleviation and addiction recovery" as it works "to bring people to faith in Jesus," Farrell said.

With average attendance of 1,886, Central is one of the nation's 100 largest United Methodist congregations.

Of those, roughly 300-350 worship at Genesis Church.

Vaughan anticipates at least 200 of Central's members will be involved in planting the new non-denominational church.

The first official service is scheduled for July 16.

Vaughan said the agreement was supported by Bishop Laura Merrill of the United Methodist Church's Arkansas Conference as well as the conference's entire cabinet.

A conference spokeswoman did not return phone calls seeking comment Monday.

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 two new congregations both favor traditional church teachings on gay marriage and ordination.

It takes a two-thirds supermajority vote by a congregation before it can do so. Disaffiliation agreements between individual congregations and the conference's board of trustees do not take effect unless they are ratified at a session of the annual conference.

Thus far, 35 of 38 agreements have been ratified in Arkansas; more than 2,000 nationwide.

The three rejected were Searcy First United Methodist Church, Cabot United Methodist Church, and the state's second-largest congregation, First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro.

Lawsuits are now pending in Searcy and Jonesboro. Rather than pursuing litigation, Cabot's pastor and a majority of the active members left to start a new, independent congregation.

At Central, both sides worked to deescalate tensions.

"We are very grateful that the Agreement has been approved," said Bill Kincaid, a leader of United for Central, which opposed disaffiliation.

"Central now has the opportunity to come back together and focus on our future -- a process that will involve all members who are staying, well beyond any one group. There is sadness around those who may depart, but we will keep them in prayer as we all seek to serve our community," he said in an email.

A leader of Central Wesleyans, which had favored disaffiliation, also welcomed the outcome.

"With the vote from yesterday's Church Council, the Central Wesleyans are excited about launching a new Wesleyan Orthodox theological church," Bruce Johanson said in an email. "We are also thankful that Genesis Church is now an independent south Fayetteville church and will be able to continue to do the great Kingdom work they have accomplished over the past eight years."

In a video posted on Central's website, Bradford, the district superintendent, praised Central's leaders for "laying aside the divisive and painful process of disaffiliation" and voting "to forge a new path."

"I believe that this choice is one of integrity and it comes from a common belief and desire that God's mission is more important than our divisions," he said.

The three churches, moving forward, will have "more missional impact in the name of Christ and [be] a wonderful witness that it is God's amazing grace that really defines us," he added.

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