Methodists to decide 67 Arkansas churches' exit

Members of the Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church gathered in Hot Springs in this June 2022 file photo. A special session of the conference planned for Saturday, May 13, 2023 will consider whether to ratify disaffiliation agreements from congregations wishing to leave. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

A special session of the Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will vote today on whether to allow 67 of its 564 congregations to leave the denomination.

The largest congregations on the list include First United Methodist churches in Dardanelle, Hope and Pine Bluff as well as Greenwood United Methodist Church.

The conference's board of trustees has reached financial settlement agreements with all of the congregations, affirms that the disaffiliation process has been complied with and will recommend that the agreements be approved.

Ratification by a majority of the voters at today's session is the final hurdle that the congregations face.

The rules for today's session call for an up-or-down vote on the entire bloc of 67 churches seeking to break away.

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."

A supermajority vote by a congregation -- two-thirds or more -- is required before it can proceed with the process. In 50 of the 67 churches with disaffiliation bids before the Arkansas conference today, the vote to leave was unanimous.

Nationwide, 3,148 congregations have departed using the human sexuality provision, according to a count by United Methodist News, the denomination's official news agency.

While ratification has been pro forma elsewhere in the country, opposition to disaffiliation has been organized and effective in the Arkansas Conference.

At a special session in November, 35 Arkansas congregations were allowed to leave, some after contentious debates. Three others were denied disaffiliation after speakers questioned the fairness of the local disaffiliation vote and raised concerns about communities being left without United Methodist congregations.

Rather than voting on all 38 congregations as a bloc, the November rules allowed the votes to occur congregation-by-congregation.

(Individual votes, ultimately, were not held for churches voting 90% or higher for disaffiliation.)

Jonesboro First United Methodist Church, which had voted 69% to 31% for disaffiliation, subsequently filed suit after its exit was denied. Searcy First United Methodist Church, which had voted 71% to 29% for disaffiliation, did likewise.

At Cabot United Methodist Church, the core of the congregation opted to walk away after its 79% vote in favor of disaffiliation was disregarded.

Paragraph 2553, as written, did not require the sort of ratification vote occurring today. It was added after the church's judicial council determined it was necessary in order to comply with the church's constitution.

Today's session is being held in the Hot Springs Convention Center's Horner Hall.

Roughly 800 people are expected to attend, conference spokeswoman Amy Ezell said.

In a written statement Friday, Bishop Laura Merrill said she and others are "hopeful the decisions made here will help each member and congregation recognize their full potential for sharing the love of Jesus Christ."

"I pray that we can move away from that which divides us and toward a future full of grace and hope," she added.

The 67 churches listed as seeking disaffiliation today are: Adona, Almyra, Alpena, Altheimer, Bayou Meto, Bearden, Bismarck, Bradley, Brasfield, Briggsville, Buena Vista, Caraway, Cecil, Cedar Grove -- Yellville, Chickalah, Christ United, Congo, Dardanelle First, Dumas Memorial, Everton, Gillett, Good Faith Carr, Good Hope, Greenbrier First, Greenwood, Griffin Memorial, Harmony -- Emmet, Harmony Grove, Hartman, Hebron -- New Edinburg, Hickory Ridge, Holiday Hills, Hope First, Horatio First, Hunter, Junction City, Leachville, Liberty Hall, Little Missouri, Mabelvale, Manila, McNeil, Midland Heights, Morning Star, Mount Olivet, Mountain View -- Mena, Naylor, New Salem, Norman, Piggott First, Pine Bluff First, Plainview, Pleasant Hill -- Texarkana, Pleasant Ridge, Plummerville, Red Hill, Rondo, Salem Palestine, Shiloh -- Dry Fork, Shiloh -- Jonesboro, Tilton, Timothy, Trinity -- Gurdon, Vesta, Wesley Cotter, Wheatley, Wye Mountain.