Leader: Most of Mt. Bethel UMC congregation would vote to disaffiliate

The Rev. Jody Ray, CEO and lead preacher of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church, says his church hoped for a resolution outside of the secular courts in its battle with the denomination's North Georgia Conference. (Courtesy of Mount Bethel UMC)

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The Rev. Jody Ray, CEO and lead preacher of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church, says his church hoped for a resolution outside of the secular courts in its battle with the denomination's North Georgia Conference. (Courtesy of Mount Bethel UMC)

Rev. Jody Ray says he thinks more than 75% of members would approve the move

This story has been updated to include a statement from the North Georgia Conference.

The Rev. Jody Ray, former senior pastor of Mt. Bethel UMC, said while he cannot know for sure, he thinks more than three-quarters of the east Cobb congregation would vote to leave the United Methodist denomination.

Ray, 52, who surrendered his credentials in April and is now CEO and lead preacher, wrote in response to emailed questions that in April the church’s 50-member administrative council voted unanimously to disaffiliate from the denomination. That process, “which would give our members the opportunity to vote their consciences,” hasn’t happened, Ray said, because Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson “has not allowed that process to move forward.”

The North Georgia Conference refutes those claims.

“The disaffiliation process is not managed by the Bishop. The process is managed by the Conference Board of Trustees, who have been unanimous and consistent in indicating that they will not negotiate disaffiliation terms with any church that is not in compliance with the Book of Discipline,” said a statement from the North Georgia Communications Office.

The statement goes on to say that Mt. Bethel’s local church leaders did not request a disaffiliation vote until after they had rejected the Bishop’s projected appointment and hired Ray as a non-United Methodist minister.

“Simply put, the Mt. Bethel leadership cannot pick and choose which parts of the Discipline they want to follow, and their request for a disaffiliation vote does not release them from their other obligations under the Discipline. Mt. Bethel leaders made the decision to reject their obligations under the Book of Disincline, and they are now dealing with the consequences of those actions. This situation is not about disaffiliation.”

The church, one of the largest in the North Georgia Conference, and the conference have been locked in a battle over several issues, including the reassignment of Ray, who has served as senior pastor of the Marietta church since 2016.

Mt. Bethel and the conference were already heading in different directions before the conference tried to reassign Ray.

The parties recently went through a mediation process, but talks fell through.

Last week, the Trustees of the North Georgia Conference sued the church in Cobb County Superior Court in a move that would pave the way for the entity to seize control of the assets.

“I’m saddened to think we are mired in a conflict that many would characterize as a dispute over ‘appointments and property,’” Ray wrote.

What is the process for disaffiliation?

At the North Georgia Annual Conference regional meeting in June 2021, the board of trustees presented the disaffiliation plan that was approved at the 2019 General Conference.

Among the steps is that a local church must be in good standing as a United Methodist Church member; a two-thirds majority of the members of the local church present and voting at the church conference approve the resolution to disaffiliate; and the resolution must then be ratified by the members of the North Georgia Annual Conference session.

Prior to the disaffiliation date, the local church must pay to the denomination any outstanding required payments from the last 12 months along with 12 months of additional allocations, including unfunded pension obligations, and other liabilities, according to the disaffiliation rules.

The Conference Board of Trustees is currently working with a number of local churches wishing to disaffiliate, the Communications Office statement said, but those local churches are compliant with the Book of Discipline, “including their acceptance of pastoral appointments and their appropriate respect of the denomination’s trust clause.”

The next North Georgia Annual Conference session is June 2022.