POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- The Agee Church on W Highway was alive with the voices and laughter of the local congregation once again Sunday as church members made a joyous return to their sanctuary.
Church members were locked out of their building May 22 by District Superintendent Brent Mustoe under the order of Bishop Ann B. Sherer with the Missouri Area of the United Methodist Church because they expressed a desire to break away from the Methodist denomination.
After spending last Sunday worshipping in a barn, the congregation was told by local lawyer Danny Moore that there were no legal restrictions keeping them from holding services in the church building.
"It's our position that our clients own that church, and they can do with it whatever they wish," Moore said. "I looked at the deed, and I don't know of any law in Missouri that allows a third person to lock you out of your home."
Moore said, "The real question is under what authority did the Methodist hierarchy change those locks. If they've got a legal reason, I'd like to see it."
As he interprets it, Moore said, the law is that only the church trustees can make any conveyance of real estate.
The church's assets were also frozen last month by the denomination, including an estimated $13,000 from the building fund.
Moore stated that the money is not quite the same as the real estate, but because it came from local contributions, he thinks that it also belongs to the congregation.
"I'm confident the money does belong to members of the Agee Church," Moore said.
Decision to secede
The congregation's unanimous decision to secede from the United Methodist Church and become a non-denominational church stems from a loss of members and financial strains.
Members have spent the past two weeks in conflict with the Missouri Area of the United Methodist Church over who owns the Agee church building and property. According to the United Methodist's Book of Discipline, the property belongs to the denomination under an implicit trust clause that claims that the church property is only held in trust by the local board of trustees.
The Agee congregation knows its return to the church may be a short-lived victory, but it is prepared to do all it can to keep its church. The congregation plans to hold Sunday services at the church, which members renamed the Agee Fellowship Church.