Poplar Bluff Methodists in property dispute

Friday, May 24, 2002

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- After 117 years of services, the members of Agee United Methodist Church on Highway W will not be in their sanctuary this Sunday. Instead, they'll be worshipping in a barn.

Why? They were locked out of their church Wednesday by the Missouri Area United Methodist Church. At question is who owns the property - the denomination or the local people who support the church.

The conflict arose when the church congregation unanimously voted to secede from the United Methodist denomination and informed that organization that they would no longer pay a pastor's salary or apportionments to support the denomination.

The Missouri Area United Methodist Church responded by freezing the church's bank accounts and hiring a locksmith to change the locks on the church doors so that members could no longer gain entrance.

The bank accounts were frozen May 13. The church treasurer, Diana Clanahan, however, didn't learn this until Wednesday. Checks have been written since then, which are expected to bounce.

Locking the doors

"This is a day that the United Methodist organization has chosen, without any notice, to close the doors of God's house so that people who have attended this church for 40 or 50 years can no longer worship here," said 40-year church member Rita Clanahan after the church's district superintendent, Brent Mustoe, arrived to lock the doors.

According to Mustoe, he was simply doing his job. The order to change the locks came from Ann Brookshire Sherer, resident bishop of the Missouri Area United Methodist Church in Columbia.

Sherer claims that the United Methodist Church was within its legal boundaries in changing the locks and freezing the church's bank accounts. She also said that Rex Henson, the attorney hired by local church members, was informed that both of those actions would be taking place.

In a written statement Wednesday morning, Sherer offered this explanation for her actions: "The trustees of Agee United Methodist Church, like the trustees in every United Methodist Church across the world, hold the church's property in trust for the United Methodist Church.

"If members of Agee United Methodist Church wish to belong to another communion, the church's property reverts to the Missouri East Conference of the United Methodist Church and to those members who remain in the Agee United Methodist Church.

"If persons feel the need to move to another denomination, we shall miss them, and we wish God's blessing on them. We will keep a United Methodist Church in this location." Members of the church aren't at all satisfied with that arrangement. They believe the church and land does not belong to the United Methodist conference because the building was paid for by the congregation.

New facility built

In 1990, due to the poor condition of the original church, the members decided to construct an updated facility. The cost of the new church and the contents within it were funded or donated by the local congregation.

"This congregation saved and worked to build this building," said Rita Clanahan.

She, along with several other members of the church, have personal items inside the building, which they were not able to retrieve because they received no notice that the locks were being changed.

According to Sherer, retrieving anything from the property is an issue that will be handled through the attorneys.

Agee United Methodist Church is one of the oldest churches still operating in Butler County. Established in 1885, the land was originally donated by S.C. Taylor with the stipulation that "should the property cease to be used for church purposes and be used for any other purposes, the title thereto shall immediately revert to the grantor." In 1925, the property was deeded to the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South Butler County, and their successors in trust. The United Methodist Church is not listed on the deed. In fact, the church did not come into affiliation with that denomination until the 1960s.

According to Sherer, in coming under the United Methodist Church, the church accepted an "implicit trust clause" which holds that the local trustees and congregation do not own the church property, but merely hold it "in trust" for the Missouri Area United Methodist Church organization.

"That is what one accepts when one comes under the United Methodist," Sherer said. "The trustees have a responsibility to maintain that church as a United Methodist." Sherer stated that because the local trustees had informed her that they could no longer fulfill that responsibility, the property had been transferred to trustees of the Missouri East Conference branch of the United Methodist.

Members of the church say they did not agree to an "implicit trust clause." According to the board of trustees' reports from the past two years, the church answered 'no' to the question, 'Is the trust clause (Par. 2503) on all deeds?' in 2001 and left that line blank in 2000.

"When you become a United Methodist Church, you agree to come under the discipline of the United Methodist Church," Sherer said. "If the membership wants to be something else, then we wish them Godspeed. But always, the understanding is that the property is not owned by the local congregation. It's held in trust by the local congregation." While Sherer believes that the church members were aware of this fact, they say they had no idea that they were investing so much time, money and hard work into something that belonged to the Missouri Area United Methodist Church, rather than the community.

"Sometimes you are told things and you don't want to accept them," Sherer said. "They have been told this is the arrangement." Members of the church aren't giving up hope that the building will be restored to them. This Sunday, they plan to hold services in the barn of Cecil Darnell and they are in the process of searching for another facility until a decision is made.

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