Eureka Springs congregation latest in Arkansas to become ‘Reconciling’

By Amy Forbus Editor First United Methodist Church Eureka Springs on Jan. 29 voted to affiliate with the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). RMN is an independent organization that advocates for fully including persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church. First UMC Eureka Springs is the third Reconciling Congregation in the Arkansas Conference. Quapaw Quarter UMC Little Rock affiliated with RMN in 2010, and Mount Pleasant UMC Little Rock followed suit in 2013. In addition to these three congregations, the Arkansas chapter of Methodist Federation for Social Action and half a dozen Sunday school classes in the state are listed as “Reconciling Communities” on rmnetwork.org. Since 1972, the United Methodist Book of Discipline (the church’s law book) has declared the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” A decade later, a group of United Methodists who disagreed with the statement began to coalesce. RMN is a result of that movement. Last summer at the Eureka Springs church, the Seekers Sunday school class began examining homosexuality and the Bible. After the study ended, they offered it as a Wednesday evening series, which kicked off with a viewing of the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So. The screening drew 60 people in a congregation that has an average attendance of about 100. In the remaining weeks of the study, 20 to 25 people participated. When it concluded in October, there was immediate talk of joining RMN, but leaders decided to wait until 2014 to make a final decision. The group drafted a welcoming statement and sent it to the administrative council for consideration and prayer. “We wanted people to have time to really absorb this,” said Suzie Bell, a member of First UMC Eureka Springs’ administrative council, and of the Sunday school class that began the Bible study. After discussion at the Jan. 29 council meeting, the vote on affiliating with RMN was taken by secret ballot. It passed, but not unanimously. In the weeks that followed, leaders prepared for the possibility that those who disagreed would leave the church. So far, Bell says, that hasn’t happened. In an area with a strong presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons, First UMC Eureka Springs sees its Reconciling affiliation as a move to reach out to the surrounding community. “A lot of them are unchurched, they feel unwelcomed, they’ve been hurt by the church from past experiences—‘the church’ in general, not the Methodist church,” Bell said. “We just feel like we’ve got a vast mission field open to us.” Bell sees the RMN affiliation as in line with the congregation’s character. “We already have LGBT members of our congregation; that’s never been a secret,” she said. “We just wanted to make this official and we wanted to affirm them, because they are leaders in our church. They’re not just members, they are flat leaders. “If we say we’re ‘open doors,’ we’d better practice it,” she added.