Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Temporary Restraining Order Issued Over Methodist Church Property

A temporary restraining order was issued this afternoon by Winston County Chancery Court Judge Edward Fenwick related to the ownership and possession of  property in dispute between Louisville's First Methodist Church  and the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC).  This order bars UMC from taking possession of/ or exercising control of the property in dispute between the local church and UMC until a hearing on a preliminary injunction can be held on June 6, 2018.

The First Methodist Church of Louisville issued the following press release:

On Wednesday, First Methodist Church of Louisville, Inc. and The Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church reached an Agreement that led to the issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order by the Chancery Court of Winston County. The Order holds in abeyance directives from the Bishop and District Superintendent that left most of the church’s membership having to find temporary space to hold worship services and Sunday School this past Sunday. Earlier this year 97% of the Church members attending a church conference voted to leave the denomination. Six members voted to remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church. The Conference also removed the church’s pastor, Rev. Mike Childs, and gave him and his family 30 days to vacate the parsonage which is provided by the church. The conference has also indicated its plans to seize control of the church’s bank accounts and savings.

The church had for several months been pondering, as a matter of conscience, whether or not to remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church pertaining primarily with doctrinal issues. On March 25, United Methodist Starkville District Superintendent, Dr. Embra Jackson, called a church conference as provided for in the Discipline to resolve that issue. Members in attendance were asked to indicate by signed ballots whether or not they wished to remain a member of First United Methodist Church or to withdraw their membership. And, if the later, they were asked to indicate where they wanted their membership transferred. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church provides that persons wishing to vote at a church conference have to be present. Of those attending, 175 members voted to withdraw their membership and have it transferred to First Methodist Church of Louisville, Inc. (a non-profit church organized in 1961 and in good standing with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office.) Six members voted to remain affiliated with the United Methodist Church. After the vote, the District Superintendent sent letters on two different occasions to all members on the church roll who were not in attendance and requested they also vote, notwithstanding the Discipline’s requirement that only those present at the church conference could vote. First Methodist Church, Inc. Board of Directors’ chairman Harry Kemp said, “We couldn’t help but feel the rules were being changed after the fact with these letters being sent to persons who had previously been told by the Conference they could not vote unless they attended the church Conference. No one in the pastoral or lay leadership of our church was notified of the letters being mailed. We could not help but be concerned that the rules were changed after the Conference realized 97% attending the church Conference had voted to withdraw. And, we have not been informed of the results of the two separate pollings that were sent my mail.”

Under Mississippi law, the Temporary Restraining Order can only remain in place for a maximum of 10 days. Consequently, a hearing has been set for Wednesday, June 6 to hear arguments relating to converting the temporary order to a permanent order. At that hearing both First Methodist and the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church will be allowed to present arguments relevant to the issues. Scott R. Hendrix, attorney for First Methodist, expressed his hopes that the Court will then convert its temporary order to a permanent injunction allowing the overwhelming majority of the church members to worship in the building they and their ancestors have paid for and built and to do so until formal litigation can resolve the dispute. “There are numerous legal issues involved in this dispute and, before the congregants of First Methodist Church are evicted by the Conference, they deserve to have their day in court,” Hendrix said. The Temporary Restraining Order does not resolve any of those issues on a permanent basis and the arguments presented represent only one side of the legal argument. However, next Sunday church members and their children will be assured of having a place to worship and attend Sunday Sunday School. And, we hope that will continue beyond this next Sunday so that church members can celebrate weddings and funerals, operate its kindergarten, send its youth to summer camps, and all other church activities while the legal arguments regarding church assets are heard and decided by a court,” Hendrix said.

Rev. Mike Childs said he is overwhelmed by the support from not only Mississippians but from across the United States and even some foreign countries. And, Childs added, “Churches from many different Christian denominations within our community have been so thoughtful to offer their facilities to us during these difficult days. Truly, the Christian community of Louisville and Winston County has been jarred by these manmade decisions. But our faith in Jesus Christ has not been compromised!”

An ecumenical, community-wide prayer service on the Main Street steps of the church in downtown Louisville has been planned for Thursday, June 7.