An Arkansas judge rejected last week the request of a would-be former United Methodist Church congregation seeking a restraining order against the Arkansas Conference, the statewide body governing UMC congregations.
First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro was one of 38 Arkansas churches that sought to break away from the UMC in late 2022, and while the Arkansas Conference voted to allow 35 of those churches to go — in their lingo, to disaffiliate — three churches were not given that blessing. FUMC Jonesboro was one of those three. Though it represented a minority of members, a sizable number of FUMC Jonesboro members had formed a group going by the name Stay UMC Jonesboro.
Now, the ownership of the church’s property — which is insured at $25 million — is under debate. Because the property is held in a trust agreement with the Arkansas Conference, which filed a lien against the property and suspended Senior Pastor John Miles, the local congregation filed a request with the local circuit court to keep the conference from taking the property.
The Jonesboro Sun reports:
Daniel P. Dalton, an attorney based in Detroit, told Special Judge Gary Arnold his clients simply want to keep the status quo.
“Basically, the church is a fully, seven-day a week operation and we would like to continue that,” Dalton said.
He said seizure of the church property by the Arkansas Conference would jeopardize operation of a day care facility that serves about 75 families, and several highly-regarded recovery groups.
Dalton said members of First Church who don’t want to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church are free to join other congregations.
Jonesboro’s judicial district has 12 circuit judges, and all of them recused themselves from the case. A retired judge from Benton, Ark., Special Judge Gary Arnold, heard the request for a restraining order. After he ruled against the request, Arnold set another hearing for the matter on March 14.
The Sun continues its coverage of the Jan. 25 hearing:
Among the documents filed this week was an affidavit filed by Don Parker, an attorney by trade and member of the Board of Trustees of First United Methodist Church, who claimed the real First United Methodist Church had been hijacked.
Attorney John Baker of Little Rock, representing the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, denied Dalton’s assertions that the Arkansas Conference had made threats to the local congregation, but acknowledged that it filed liens and contacted First Community Bank, with which the local congregation does business, that the bank was on “thin ice” with certain transactions because the property is in a trust arrangement with the Arkansas Conference.
Earlier in 2022, the Jonesboro congregation voted to disaffiliate with the worldwide church, and Arkansas Conference leaders developed a disaffiliation agreement, which local leaders signed, Baker said.
He pointed to a phrase in the proposed agreement that gives the Arkansas Conference ownership of the property: “WHEREAS, the parties acknowledge and agree that as current United Methodists, their rights and responsibilities with respect to church property are governed by church polity as set out in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.”
“That’s what the contract said,” Baker said.
Under that disaffiliation agreement, the Jonesboro congregation would have received the real estate in exchange for one-year’s payments on financial obligations to the worldwide church that totaled roughly $800,000.
The new entity would also accept responsibility for two loans from First Community Bank totaling $4.95 million.
However, at a Nov. 19 special meeting of the Arkansas Annual Conference, made up of church members from across the state, the agreement was rejected by a vote of 335 to 254.
Read the full story here.
PHOTO: FUMC Jonesboro (ARKANSAS HISTORIC PRESERVATION PROGRAM/Public Domain)