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67 Arkansas Methodist congregations get OK to exit

‘Issues related to human sexuality’ cited by churches by Frank E. Lockwood | May 14, 2023 at 7:38 a.m.
Wye Mountain United Methodist Church in Bigelow is shown in this undated file photo. The church was one of 67 in Arkansas that were cleared to disaffiliate from the denomination during a meeting in Hot Springs on Saturday, May 13, 2023. (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Arkansas United Methodists voted Saturday to allow an additional 67 congregations to disaffiliate from the denomination -- bringing the total number that have left in the past six months over "issues related to human sexuality" to over 100.

Saturday's vote at a special session of the church's Arkansas Annual Conference will reduce the number of congregations in the state to 497.

Though there was plenty of debate, none of the congregations wishing to leave were forced to stay.

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 if they were dissatisfied with the denomination's stand on issues such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.

A supermajority vote by a congregation -- two-thirds or more -- is required before it can proceed with the process.

Nationwide, 3,215 of the denomination's roughly 30,000 U.S. congregations have departed using the human sexuality provision over the past four years, according to a count by United Methodist News, the denomination's official news agency.

At the conference's special session in Hot Springs, the first 61 disaffiliations were approved as a bloc, by a vote of 411 to 79, on Saturday morning. Fifty of those congregations had voted unanimously to leave. The other 11 had supported disaffiliation by 80% or above.

The remaining six were voted upon individually.

Before lunch, the special session's voting members ratified disaffiliation agreements for Good Faith Carr United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff by a vote of 346 to 147, Greenbrier First United Methodist Church by a vote of 288 to 205 and Greenwood United Methodist Church by a vote of 273 to 219.

After reconvening Saturday afternoon, the session also ratified disaffiliation agreements for Hope First United Methodist Church by a vote of 249 to 216 and Pine Bluff First United Methodist Church by a vote of 250-226.

Wheatley United Methodist Church was the final congregation allowed to go, by a vote of 351 to 102.

Once their business was complete, voting members at the special session received Communion. Bishop Laura Merrill closed the meeting with prayer.

As the room emptied, she praised the roughly 500 Methodists who had gathered for the session.

"I think the body did good work. I'm proud of them. They showed up in a good spirit and I'm glad of it," she said.

Carlton Cross, pastor of Pine Bluff First United Methodist Church, was pleased to see his congregation's wishes honored. When its vote was held on Dec. 5, 69.23% had favored disaffiliation.

"We got through by the grace of God, and I'm very thankful that it was cordial and spirit-led," he said after the meeting concluded. "I think they acted in a spirit of love, and I think that needs to be stated."

David Hoffman, pastor at Faith and Western Hills United Methodist churches in Little Rock, said departing congregations should not have been able to keep the buildings and property acquired by previous generations.

"If they are that determined that Methodism no longer fits them, there are plenty of other places to be and go and do. There's no sin in that. I think they should just move on and find a place where they do fit," he said.

Roy Patterson Smith, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Little Rock, said he doesn't want to force anybody to remain in the denomination.

"I realize there are people who are going to leave and need to leave. The thing I want to do is to see that processes are fair, that we pay attention to all the people in the church -- whether they want to stay or whether they want to go, ultimately -- and that people make decisions out of good discernment, not misinformation, disinformation or fear tactics," he said.

Regardless of what others decide, Smith said he's remaining in the fold.

"I have never questioned staying United Methodist. I may or may not agree with every statement in the church, but I promised to follow it. It is where I found life, and I have a congregation that feels that way," he said.

He's not fretting about the future, he noted.

"If we really believe that this is God's church, we will be fine if we will discern where God is leading us," he said.

American Methodists have been divided over the issue of homosexuality for a half-century, revisiting the issue every four years at the denomination's quadrennial General Conference.

There are differences over scriptural interpretation and church governance as well.

Thus far, theological conservatives have repeatedly triumphed at these gatherings, ensuring that the denomination continues to define "the practice of homosexuality" as "incompatible with Christian teaching."

They have struggled, however, to get some church officials to uphold provisions in their Book of Discipline, which bar "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from being ordained to the ministry and which prohibit the solemnizing of "homosexual unions" by Methodist clergy or inside Methodist churches.

Conservatives, including many of the Arkansans cutting ties with the denomination, are frustrated by the flouting of church discipline in some of the U.S. church's 54 regional bodies, known as annual conferences.

Progressives are fed up with denomination-wide positions they view as unjust.

Although Methodist congregations traditionally hold their property in trust for the broader church, Paragraph 2553 created a temporary exit ramp.

It sunsets Dec. 31.

Once a church votes to disaffiliate, it must sign an agreement with the state 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 conference's outstanding pension obligations.

In the past six months, the Arkansas conference has lost more than 15% of its local churches -- 102 in all.

Thirty-five congregations were allowed to disaffiliate in November, while three others were blocked.

Each of the churches completed a discernment process of not less than three months before deciding to depart. In each instance, supermajorities of two-thirds or better had favored breaking away.

Two of the three denied disaffiliation, Jonesboro First United Methodist Church and Searcy First United Methodist Church, subsequently filed suit.

Thus far, the conference has spent $212,147.76 on legal costs, conference treasurer Todd Burris told the Hot Springs gathering. That figure could well double if the Jonesboro case proceeds to trial in January, as currently scheduled, he said.

At Cabot United Methodist Church, the third church prevented from disaffiliating, a majority of the active members broke away to form a new, independent congregation.

The United Methodist churches cleared for disaffiliation Saturday were: 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.

In a written statement Saturday evening, Merrill expressed thanks for participants in the special session and optimism about the future.

"Today was a difficult day for the Arkansas Conference of The United Methodist Church, but I am grateful for the grace that conference members extended to each other and to me as we accomplished our work," the bishop said. "I look forward to healing and continued ministry with United Methodists who lost their church home today, and I trust that God will open a new and fruitful path before us. We will move forward in faith, sharing the love and hope of Jesus Christ with our neighbors."

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