Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church staring at departures

Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church speaks in Conway in this Nov. 6, 2021, file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank Lockwood)

The Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, which gathers this week in Hot Springs, is preparing to lose its longtime bishop, Gary Mueller, while bracing, as well, for the departure of a number of its congregations.

Mueller, 68, is retiring after a decade of faithful service, perhaps as soon as November; others are leaving because of dissatisfaction with the broader denomination and its stand on Scripture and human sexuality.

A new, more conservative, denomination, the Global Methodist Church, launched May 1.

First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro, the conference's second-largest congregation, is among those eyeing the exit. On March 27, its leadership team voted 13-1 to begin the disaffiliation process.

Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville, the conference's largest congregation, is also weighing whether to leave.

On April 25, its church council voted to begin what Senior Pastor Carness Vaughan called "a period of prayer and discernment regarding the current state of the United Methodist Church and Central's place within the Body of Christ."

Members of the congregation gathered May 12 to discuss the topic. Another "educational session" is scheduled to be held this evening with a third planned for June 5.

Once the information has been shared, congregants will be surveyed. In late June, the church council will meet again to consider its options, including whether to "take more formal steps,' according to a May 4 letter from Vaughan to the "Central Family."

It's unclear how many Arkansas congregations will ultimately leave.

Currently, there are "just shy of 30 that are formally in the process," Mueller said. "That, of course, ranges from very, very small churches on up."

In certain cases, the outcome may be a foregone conclusion.

"Some of those, I really think, are truly discerning. And some of them are ... of a like mind," he said.

With 6.3 million U.S. members, the United Methodist Church is the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.

It's also the second-largest Protestant denomination in Arkansas, with 117,440 members and average attendance of 43,765 in 2020.

At Central, average attendance was 1,886; at First UMC in Jonesboro, it was 1,577.

Overall, there are 634 United Methodist churches in Arkansas, according to the organization's website.

Disagreements over homosexuality, in particular, and biblical interpretation, more generally, have caused division in several U.S. denominations, including the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

After the 2003 ordination of an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as bishop in New Hampshire, entire dioceses attempted to depart the Episcopal Church U.S.A.

In the years that followed, attendance and membership dropped in virtually every diocese in the country.

With billions of dollars at stake, both sides lawyered up. Nearly two decades later, at least some of the litigation remains unresolved.

As United Methodism divides, Mueller hopes to avoid an ugly, lengthy, un-Christian spectacle.

"My first goal is to get people where they need to end up as easily and quickly as possible," he said.

"For the majority of United Methodists, that's going to be to remain. But for some, it's going to be to go independent, join another denomination or join the [Global Methodist Church]. But I want people to get where they think God's calling them while protecting the legitimate interests of the United Methodist Church," Mueller said.

One of the biggest unresolved issues is how to divvy up responsibility for underfunded pension plans.

Addressing the challenges at hand, Mueller sounds more like a pastor than a corporate lawyer; the Gospel is never an afterthought.

"I want us to be able to give a witness that even in the midst of difficulties and in some separation, that the Spirit of Christ is strong enough to help everyone realize they're still brothers and sisters in Christ," he said.

For Mueller, this likely will be his last annual conference at the helm.

The South Central Jurisdiction, made up of Methodists from Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, is scheduled to meet later this year to elect new bishops.

Under the church's Book of Discipline, Mueller and other bishops in the jurisdiction who have reached age 68 by July 1 will be required to retire, though the timeline has been a little uncertain because of to covid-related delays.

Mueller, who spent most of his childhood in the Midwest, performed most of his ministry in the Lone Star State.

"I grew up in Kansas but went to Texas to go to seminary and stayed."

A graduate of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, he remained in the area for more than three decades, including stints as pastor at First United Methodist churches in Denton and Plano.

Elected as a bishop in July 2012, he was assigned to lead the Arkansas area.

Even after retirement, he plans to stay, he said.

"Overall, it's been a privilege and there have been so many high moments, in terms of working with folks and getting to know folks," he said. "We have fallen in love with Arkansas."

When it comes to diversity, "there's some just wonderful things that have happened" in Arkansas Methodist circles, he said.

"Two of the five district superintendents are African American and two of the five are female. That's all a first," he said.

During his tenure, women were also tapped to serve some of the state's largest congregations, he noted.

During this week's annual conference, roughy 900 people are expected to be on hand to pray, praise, conduct church business and socialize.

Mueller portrayed the gathering as a joyous time.

In the days and weeks to come, the world will be watching the way Methodists resolve their differences, he noted.

"If they see lots of anger and fighting and rancor and division, it is a really poor witness to the power of Christ," Mueller said.

If Methodists can resolve their differences in "a loving, respectful way, that's a powerful witness," he said.

In Arkansas, "we're working really hard to remind everyone that the reason we're here in the first place is mission and ministry," he said. "We're keeping focused on Jesus."