JONESBORO. On Wednesday, a judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order against the state governing body of the United Methodist Church, saying he was unsure the local congregation would win its property lawsuit against the state body.
The property in question is owned by the so-called Jonesboro First United Methodist Church, which is insured for $25 million.
On December 15, many members of the congregation voted to leave the United Methodist Church and form a new organization in accordance with the revised Uniform Law of Unincorporated Non-Profit Associations of 2014. However, the congregation retained the name “Jonesboro First United Methodist Church”. At the same meeting, the new organization established a set of statutes that override the rules and regulations of the worldwide United Methodist Church, known as the Book of Discipline.
The Arkansas Conference, which is the state governing body of the worldwide Christian denomination, removed senior pastor John Miles from office and secured a lien on church property, requiring “trust” and declaring “extraordinary circumstances.”
A local congregation called Jonesboro First United Methodist Church filed a silent lawsuit on December 19 in Craighead County District Court, asking the court to prevent the Arkansas Conference from seizing property. Daniel P. Dalton, a Detroit attorney, told Special Judge Gary Arnold that his clients simply want to maintain the status quo.
“Basically, the church is fully open seven days a week and we would like to continue like that,” Dalton said.
He said the Arkansas Conference’s confiscation of church property would jeopardize the daycare, which serves about 75 families and several respected recovery groups.
Dalton said First Church members who do not want to leave the United Methodist Church are free to join other congregations.
After all 12 judges in the 2nd Judicial Circuit cited conflicts and declined to hear the case, Arnold, a former judge from Benton, was appointed to hear the case.
Noting the flurry of motions and evidence filed by both parties on Monday and Tuesday, Arnold said he began reading the new documents at 3:30 am on Wednesday, leading to a hearing scheduled to begin at 10:00 am.
“I’m not complaining,” Arnold told the small but packed courtroom of contestants and observers.
After ruling against the temporary restraining order, Arnold scheduled a new hearing for 1:00 p.m. on March 14.
In the meantime, both sides will continue to file motions and other documentation to support their case.
Among the documents filed this week was a sworn statement from Don Parker, a professional attorney and member of the board of trustees of the First United Methodist Church, who claimed that the real First United Methodist Church had been hijacked.
Lawyer John Baker of Little Rock, representing the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, refuted Dalton’s claims that the Arkansas Conference threatened the local congregation, but acknowledged that she registered the bail and contacted First Community Bank, with which the local congregation interacts. The fact is that the bank was on “thin ice” in some operations, because the property is in trust management of the Arkansas Conference.
Earlier in 2022, the Jonesboro congregation voted to withdraw from the world church, and Arkansas Conference leaders worked out a withdrawal agreement that 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 obligations in relation to church property are governed by the ecclesiastical in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.”
“It was in the contract,” Baker said.
Under this withdrawal agreement, the Jonesboro congregation was to receive real estate in exchange for an annual payment of financial obligations to the worldwide church totaling approximately $800,000.
The new organization will also take responsibility for two loans from First Community Bank totaling $4.95 million.
However, at a special meeting of the Annual Conference in Arkansas on November 19, which was attended by church members from across the state, the agreement was defeated by 335 votes to 254.
Baker also called Bonnie May, Troy Ratliff, and Ron Tart, who were named managers of a new organization known as the Jonesboro First United Methodist Church. All three stated that they no longer considered themselves members of the United Methodist Church.
Miles, a longtime pastor, also testified. He said that the new organization is in the process of creating a new name. United Methodist Church trademark signs are also being removed from buildings.
Although the new organization is no longer part of the denomination, Miles said, “I have not terminated my membership in the United Methodist Church.”
He said the Arkansas Conference would have to formally remove him.
Miles also said that he believes the United Methodist Church itself has deviated from the Book of Discipline, including how the church chooses its bishops.
Laura Merrill, the new Arkansas United Methodist Bishop, will be appointed Sunday at 10 am at a service at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church on Woodlawn Drive in Little Rock.