Arkansas Methodists weigh disaffiliation

The second-largest United Methodist congregation in the state will vote on July 31 on whether to leave the denomination as the single largest seeks feedback from members before determining its next steps.

After decades of debate over human sexuality and scripture, many traditionalist congregations in Arkansas and across the country are considering whether to break.

Jonesboro First United Methodist Church is the largest of about four dozen in the state that is being disaffiliated, according to Bishop Gary Mueller.

Four or five others who had entered the process decided they did not want to pursue it “right now,” Mueller added.

“I expect them to want to wait and see,” Mueller said. “I think it just means they think it’s better to go slow than fast.”

There are approximately 615 United Methodist congregations statewide, with a total membership of 113,159.

None have yet disaffiliated, although churches in some other states have already chosen to do so.

With an average Sunday attendance of 1,577, Jonesboro First has been listed as one of the 100 largest United Methodist churches in the nation.

A mock poll of professing members, taken on June 12, showed that 395 (or 70.16%) supported disaffiliation, with 168 (29.84%) wanting to stay.

To move forward with disaffiliation, his supporters will need to win at least two-thirds of the vote on July 31.

It would cost about $650,000 to complete the disaffiliation process, but the congregation would be able to retain its assets, the church board said in a June 26 letter to church members.

The church has property and assets worth an estimated $20 million, as well as approximately $5 million in debt.

Pastor John Miles declined to comment on the upcoming vote this week, saying he would be able to answer questions once the vote is complete.

Fayetteville’s Central United Methodist Church, with an average Sunday attendance of 1,886, has not decided whether or not to enter the disaffiliation process.

ASK MEMBERS TO WEIGH IN

But it’s asking its members to speak out on “the schism within our denomination,” according to its website.

Little Rock’s Main Street Analytics is overseeing the investigation, which began Monday and will run through July 29.

The company will provide Central management with “aggregate survey responses,” but will not share individual responses in any way.

“So all respondents can be assured of anonymity,” Central said on its website.

The results will be presented to the Central church board at next month’s meeting and will also be posted online.

The goal is “to get feedback from our congregation on the future of the church,” according to an April 26 letter posted online.

While traditionalists have ruled Central for decades, Carness Vaughan, the congregation’s pastor since July 2021, said there are also more theologically progressive members making their voices heard.

Vaughan isn’t predicting what the outcome will be.

“I think what’s important is that we try to cover this whole journey with prayer,” he said. “We can’t get ahead of God on this. We want God to take the lead. And so we really try to walk into every phase of this, every step that we take, bathed in prayer and asking the Holy Spirit to lead us.”

LITIGATION PRACTICES

The United Methodist Church, with approximately 6.3 million American members, is the second largest Protestant denomination in the country.

Unlike other major mainstream denominations, it has not embraced the gay rights movement, opting to retain longstanding restrictions on marriage and ministry.

The church’s Book of Discipline, which contains its laws and doctrines, states that “the practice of homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teaching.”

Therefore, “self-proclaimed practicing homosexuals” are not supposed to be ordained ministers or appointed to serve.

In some jurisdictions, church leaders ignored the restrictions, describing them as unjust and unchristian.

Every four years, concerns come up at the church’s General Conference. In recent years, a majority of U.S. delegates favored dropping the restrictions, but a coalition of U.S. and foreign traditionalists put them in the minority.

More than half of The United Methodist Church members live outside the United States, mostly in Africa.

Unable to agree on church doctrine and discipline, a group of traditionalist and progressive leaders decided that it might be best for the two sides to go their separate ways, drawing up what they called a Protocol of reconciliation and grace through separation.

Unveiled in January 2020, it would have allowed traditionalist churches to leave – and take their possessions with them – if a majority of the congregation had voted to do so. To pass, the plan had to be approved by delegates to the church’s 2020 general conference in Minneapolis, a gathering that was canceled due to covid-19.

Attempts to reschedule the meeting were unsuccessful; the next general conference is not expected to take place until 2024.

MOVING IN PROGRESS

Rather than wait, some congregations are trying to leave now, using a path of disaffiliation established at a special session of general conference in 2019. But the path is difficult, in part because it takes a supermajority to stand. detach.

Not everyone who disaffiliates from the United States is a traditionalist; some progressive congregations also severed ties.

A special online session of the Arkansas annual conference is scheduled for Nov. 21 to review any disaffiliation agreements ready for approval.

Clergy and lay delegates will need to ratify the agreements at the conference before they can go into effect.

Another special session, tentatively set for Nov. 19, would deal with whether congregations in Arkansas can leave The United Methodist Church and move to another denomination. This issue, however, could be moot if the denomination’s judicial board decides that church law does not permit it.

Most Methodist congregations will stick together, Mueller predicted.

“I have always said that I expect the vast majority of churches to remain United Methodist,” he said.

“There is such a shared history, such vitality in the ministry,” he said. “There are so many things that bring people together. And those are stronger bonds, for many, than our particular issues at any given time.”

Nevertheless, he presents disaffiliation as a matter of conscience.

“I believe very strongly in Christian unity, and over the past few years I have been an outspoken voice for that. But it’s also important that people listen to the voice of God,” he said. . “For those who feel they have no choice, I want to bless them and end up where they think God wants them.”

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