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Hearing set for Tuesday in suit over assets of breakaway Jonesboro United Methodist Church

by Frank E. Lockwood | March 11, 2023 at 3:56 a.m.
Jonesboro First United Methodist Church, a fixture on Main Street for well over a century, is the second-largest United Methodist Church in Arkansas. Its members voted Sunday, July 31, 2022, to disaffiliate from the denomination. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

A hearing will be held Tuesday in the lawsuit between Jonesboro First United Methodist Church and state United Methodist officials over control of the congregation's assets.

Citing "separation of church and state jurisprudence," attorneys for the denomination's Arkansas Conference argue that retired Circuit Judge Gary Arnold, who is overseeing the case, cannot "second-guess and disregard matters already resolved by the UMC's internal church government's adjudicative process."

The local congregation maintains Arnold has jurisdiction under Arkansas law.

A provision in the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline that was added in 2019, allows individual churches to disaffiliate "over issues related to human sexuality."

In order for that to occur, a congregation must vote, by a two-thirds majority or more, to disaffiliate, reach a settlement negotiation with conference officials and then have it ratified at a "duly called session of Arkansas Annual Conference."

Jonesboro First UMC, the state's second-largest Methodist congregation, voted on July 31 to disaffiliate and subsequently negotiated a disaffiliation agreement with the conference's board of trustees. The deal was ultimately rejected by voting members at a special session of the Arkansas Annual Conference on Nov. 19 in Hot Springs.

Thirty-five other disaffiliation agreements were ratified that day. In addition to Jonesboro, Searcy First United Methodist Church and Cabot United Methodist Church failed to gain approval.

Since then, the Jonesboro congregation has nevertheless proceeded with its disaffiliation efforts.

A faction opposing disaffiliation is worshipping separately.

At a meeting on Dec. 15, members of the Jonesboro church voted overwhelmingly to leave the denomination, approve new bylaws and elect new leadership.

Disaffiliation opponents chose not to participate after Northeast District Superintendent John Fleming said the agenda was ''clearly contrary to the Constitution of the United Methodist Church.''

The following day, the board of trustees for the United Methodist Church's Arkansas Conference filed a lien on the congregation's property, and maintains that the property is held in trust for the denomination.

The congregation's pastor, John Miles, was also suspended, though he has remained in the pulpit.

On Dec. 19, the local congregation filed suit in Craighead County Circuit Court, asking it to declare that the conference and its trustees "do not have any right, title, or interest in its real or personal property."

On Jan. 23, the Arkansas Conference filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Arnold lacks "subject matter jurisdiction" over a dispute within a "connectional or hierarchical" religious body.

In Jonesboro on Tuesday he will hear arguments on the motion to dismiss.

Arnold, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court after a dozen other judges recused themselves from the case, previously rejected the congregation's motion for a temporary restraining order.

Similar litigation is pending in White County between the Searcy congregation and the conference.

A conference spokeswoman this week declined to comment on the litigation.

In a written statement, Holly Hall of Stay FUMC Jonesboro said the issue of disaffiliation has been settled by members of the Arkansas Conference.

Stay FUMC Jonesboro seeks to help "restore the great UMC church we had before this conflict began," she wrote.

Stay FUMC Jonesboro "remains focused on reconciliation within the congregation of our church" she wrote.

Miles said members of his congregation are praying about the situation.

Despite the difficulties, Jonesboro First United Methodist Church is thriving, he said Wednesday.

It added a Spanish-language service in January, attended largely by immigrants from Cuba, he said.

The English language services are also flourishing, he said.

"We're back to having the attendance we had pre-covid," he said. "We're over 1,200 on a Sunday morning and 300 on Tuesday night."

"We all keep saying we're in revival," he said. "We feel like God is really moving and really working."

Print Headline: Lawsuit hearing set over church’s assets


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