Arkansas annual conferences vote to merge
11/25/2002 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn
NOTE: A head and shoulders photo of Bishop Janice Riggle Huie is available at http://umns.umc.org.
By Jane Dennis*LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (UMNS) - Arkansas United Methodists adopted a plan of union Nov. 23 that will merge the Little Rock and North Arkansas annual conferences and create a single statewide church body.
The newly formed Arkansas Conference will be officially launched at the Uniting Conference June 11. The new entity will encompass 737 local churches, 144,000 lay members and 826 clergy, and operate with a first-year budget of more than $11.5 million.
"I am proud of both conferences for making a decision that, in my opinion, is the right decision at the right time for a better future for the United Methodist Church in Arkansas," said Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, shortly after nearly 1,000 voting members of the two conferences approved the plan. The special called session was held at the Statehouse Convention Center in
"The vote of this body will open up a new horizon for ministry in this state," said Asa Whitaker, North Arkansas Conference lay leader and co-chair of the transition team that developed the plan. "We have only begun the journey."
Voting separately during a four-hour special session, Little Rock Conference members supported the plan of union 294-150 (66 percent), while North Arkansas Conference members approved it 282-246 (53 percent). A simple majority was required for passage.
The merger decreases the number of United Methodist annual conferences in the United States to 63. Last June, the members of the Missouri East and West annual conferences voted 747-528 to unite, effective Jan. 1.
"It's like building a building," said the Rev. Jack Wilson, superintendent of the Little Rock Conference's Arkadelphia District and co-chair of the transition team. "The hard part, occupying the building, is in front of us. We now must take full opportunity of what God is calling us to be."
The Little Rock Conference, which covers the southern half of the state, and the North Arkansas Conference, in the northern half of the state, have existed separately yet worked cooperatively since the early 1900s. One bishop has historically served both conferences.
The conferences have considered union at least three times in the past 50 years. Each time, the idea failed to win broad support. In 1998, the two conferences moved toward greater shared ministry by replacing separate conference council on ministry staffs with an Arkansas Area ministry team that serves the entire state. The conferences also share an area newspaper, foundation, insurance program and treasurer, and work cooperatively in other areas, including leadership development and pastoral appointment-making by the bishop's cabinet.
Several factors regarding the health of the conferences weighed on the minds of voting members. Membership has been declining steadily in both conferences, dropping from combined totals of 176,000 to 144,000 in the past 25 years. With fewer people entering the ministry, the number of pastors available to fill pulpits has been in short supply. Each year, more struggling, small-membership churches have closed their doors. In addition, rising health insurance costs have burdened the conferences and local churches.
Opposition to the plan of union came from a group of mostly retired North Arkansas clergy, who produced a two-page document urging defeat of what they termed the "flawed" plan. A motion to suspend the rules of order and require a 60 percent margin for approval rather than a simple majority was defeated.
In the end, voting members backed the plan and signaled agreement with the Rev. David B. Wilson, senior pastor of Hot Springs First United Methodist Church and head of the Little Rock Conference delegation to General Conference. "I believe uniting the conferences will give us a united witness in the state," he said. "We will speak as one voice, not two. We will speak as the United Methodists in Arkansas."
The 12-member transition team, consisting of clergy and laity from both conferences, developed the plan over the past two and a half years. The move to explore union was proposed by the two conference delegations to the 2000 General Conference and approved later at the 2000 annual conference sessions. Afterward, the transition team held 24 listening sessions to hear concerns.
The Uniting Conference will be June 11-14 at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. Huie expressed hope that those attending would view the historic event as "an opportunity to connect more deeply to Christ, one another and our neighbors in the world."
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*Dennis is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper
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