Beacon Churches Shine Amidst Disaffiliation in the Arkansas Annual Conference

In the late summer of 2022, several Arkansas United Methodist Churches began seeing an influx of new faces for worship on Sundays and online. Most of these people were not new to United Methodism, and in many cases, they happened to live more than 30 miles away from the new churches they were visiting in person.

Due to the excruciating discernment process for disaffiliation (referenced in ¶2553 of The 2016 Book of Discipline) thrust upon United Methodist Churches in Arkansas in May 2022, many found themselves just wanting to get away from the tension, untruths, and how ugly people were treating each other within our churches, friendships, and families, even before there was a vote to be taken.

In the beginning of 2023, Bishop Laura Merrill shared the concept of “lighthouse churches” with Rev. Dr. Michael Roberts, Director of Arkansas Restart Initiative and Amy Ezell, Director of Communication and Congregational Vitality. This ministry concept was birthed in the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Conferences. They were collaborating to embody a network of churches who would be committed to remaining United Methodist and who wanted to take upon a radical hospitality targeted to welcoming those who had been affected by disaffiliation. 

After conversations with church leaders in Arkansas, the brand identity of “Beacon Church” was developed for an Arkansas United Methodist network to unite. The scripture that provided a foundation for the work ahead was chosen:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16

In the early spring of 2023, after more and more people were finding themselves without a United Methodist Church in certain areas, it became imperative that the Beacon Church network launch with the great intention of providing safe and comforting space in whatever way deemed necessary. Beacon churches were ready to welcome new people from disaffiliated churches into either a temporary setting for rest and healing, or into a life-long church family.  

Some Arkansas United Methodist churches had already been seeing an influx from areas that were suffering from trauma of just entering the discernment process of disaffiliation. 

“We began seeing a few new faces in the fall of last year (2022). As churches officially disaffiliated following the (first) Called Session of the Annual Conference, we naturally saw more,” shared Reverend David Fleming, senior pastor of Grande Avenue United Methodist Church in Hot Springs. “ We have had two members join our church from the former Piney Grove United Methodist Church, and a dozen people have joined from the former Fordyce First United Methodist Church, “ he added.

After the first Special Session in November 2022, Cabot United Methodist Church did not receive the votes to disaffiliate by the members of the Annual Conference. Most of the church leadership, staff, and ⅔ of the membership left to begin a new faith community elsewhere in the community so the United Methodists could retain occupancy of their property. Cabot United Methodist Church remained steadfast even through many obstacles. 

Rhonda Hunt is a long-time Cabot United Methodist Church member and helped lead a “Stay UMC” campaign throughout the discernment for disaffiliation process. She recently shared, “Cabot UMC is a unique situation since the Annual Conference did not approve our disaffiliation. Moving forward has been overwhelming. Almost all our staff, church council, trustees, SPRC, choir, etc., left, so we have had to try to figure out how to pick up the pieces. There have been many, many challenges. Many of us have worked long, long hours trying to keep everything going. The prospect of failing after having fought so hard to keep our church has been scary.”

And now, Cabot United Methodist Church continues to provide a safe place to land for people being abandoned by disaffiliated churches. “We have had 14 people join our church since July. Four of these people have joined our church from disaffiliated churches in the area,” shared Rev. Jacob Lynn, senior pastor of Cabot United Methodist Church.

Lakeside United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff became the new church for many who did not want to leave with their “home” church that was going to be seeking disaffiliation, and the ministries at Lakeside UMC began to multiply as a result. 

“We began to first see new people from the disaffiliation process after the November 2022 called annual conference. There were just 3 – 5 people at first. They were pretty guarded at first since their church was still in the throes of the disaffiliation process.  Lakeside UMC was very careful to welcome and love but nothing more,” shared Rev. Judy Rudd, pastor of Lakeside United Methodist Church. 

“Some of the people were eager to become involved in Lakeside’s ministries, including our feeding programs and tutoring. Others were deeply hurt and confessed that they wanted a place to worship but were not ready to become members. They were not sure that they ever would be.  Still others were in such pain and anger at the way disaffiliation had been handled at their churches that they needed time to process their emotions and experiences,” added Rudd. 

Claire Campbell is a new member of Lakeside UMC in Pine Bluff and landed there after visiting many churches within a 70 mile radius during her church’s discernment period.  She recently shared, “When we were no longer able to stand the rhetoric at our (disaffiliated) church, we began our search for a new church home.  From July 2022 until the end of that year, we visited other United Methodist Churches. On Christmas Eve, I suggested we try Lakeside.”

“Nothing could have prepared me for the level of love, acceptance and the Christian welcome that we received at Lakeside. We (had) decided not to look back at our loss but to focus clearly on the future. We found opportunities to be involved at Lakeside, unlike any at our previous church.  We never felt we were being pressured or coerced to serve and never, ever felt like outsiders crashing the party.  I quickly joined the choir and within a few months, we were ready to transfer our United Methodist membership to Lakeside. Thankfully, many of our like minded, dear friends have followed suit.  It felt so wonderful to be in a church that practiced the teachings of Jesus Christ, where all are welcome and included.  Lakeside is truly a Beacon Church, where its congregation is diverse and inclusive of all.”  

As votes were being taken in local churches to disaffiliate, there became more and more clusters of people who made it known that they wanted to remain United Methodist. But what was discovered was that each church context was very different and there needed to be support for individuals and not only just for groups.

“Some of our larger groups have wanted to maintain their identity as a United Methodist Church, and some have wanted to connect with other United Methodist Churches nearby. Some of these people have been able to keep their building and some have had to go out and find a place to worship on their own,” shared Roberts, who is the Director of the Arkansas Restart Initiative of the Arkansas Annual Conference. 

“This has been a devastating experience for anyone who has been through the process of disaffiliation, especially to the people who feel abandoned and are left with no church home,” added Roberts. “It is our job at the Annual Conference and through the creation of the Beacon Churches to be ready, willing, and able to welcome these hurting people with open arms and meet them where they are with what they need at the time.”

Reverend Fleming shared, “The greatest opportunity we have had, arose from a call from Rev. Dr. Michael Roberts. He had been meeting regularly with a group of former members of Piney Grove UMC. One evening, the restaurant where their group had been meeting was not available. Michael Roberts called and asked if the group might meet at Grand Avenue, and we were delighted to welcome them to our fellowship hall,” shared Fleming. 

“Our congregation (Grande Avenue UMC in Hot Springs) is excellent at providing hospitality, and that evening was no exception. As a result, the group met in our Fellowship Hall again from time to time. At one of the meetings, we agreed that they could use our Church Parlor to host a Sunday School class and that they would be welcome to join us in worship before or after as they chose.”

It was through some of these instances that it was evident that Beacon Churches could not follow a “usual” discipleship plan focused on welcoming people into their church in a traditional way to hopefully become members. The mindset had to switch to welcoming people in for gathering with their former church group, conducting home prayer meetings, and understanding that these traumatized people may just need a place to land for a short time on their journey. Beacon Churches had to meet people where they were and be open to accommodate, with ease and without pressure. 

“Part of my understanding of what it means to me to be a connectional church is to have a greater vision for reaching people, and to rejoice whenever and wherever we are able to open our doors and serve the needs of the community. My hope is that all of the United Methodist congregations in our area who are so inclined will support the conference in a shared vision,” stated Rev. David Fleming, in support of the Beacon Church network.

See the current list of Beacon Churches across the Arkansas Annual Conference here. Others not listed yet include Conway First United Methodist,  Hamburg First United Methodist, Morrilton First United Methodist, Camden First United Methodist, St. Paul United Methodist in Maumelle, and First United Methodist Church in DesArc. 

If you would like to know more about becoming a Beacon Church and working to open doors to anyone who feels abandoned by the discernment process or disaffiliation, visit this link:

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