The church and the conference have been locked in a fight that has lasted for more than a year over who should lead the church. Founded 175 years ago, Mt. Bethel is one of the largest congregations in the conference with 10,000 members at its last census count.
Mt. Bethel’s decision to leave the UMC is unrelated to recent news that 70 Methodist churches in Georgia will formally disaffiliate from the denomination over full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Disaffiliation is a process that involves a vote of the congregation and ratification from members of the conference.
In response to emailed questions, Ray, 52, said that Mt. Bethel will raise half of the $13.1 million settlement through donations. So far, the church has raised $7 million, he said. The goal is to raise the full amount, but he said the church has negotiated to finance the outstanding balance if needed.
The church is obligated to raise half of the amount to pay trustees of the conference through donations, but may finance the rest.
Ray was to be appointed to a new non-ministerial assignment on the conference staff related to racial reconciliation.
Reassignments occur regularly in the UMC, and the clergy usually agree to serve where their bishop appoints them. But rather than accept the new assignment, Ray surrendered his credentials as a United Methodist Church pastor and at that time Mt. Bethel’s leadership named him CEO and lead preacher. The church website now lists him as the lead pastor.
“As a fourth generation United Methodist pastor, this past year has been difficult for me personally to come to terms with separation from the denomination,” Ray wrote. “There was a fair amount of sadness and grief, but I reiterate my profound sense of freedom and hope for the future.”
Ray said there were other factors that the church leadership considered before agreeing to the settlement terms.
“I believe our lay leaders recognized the opportunity to engage in ministry and missions unfettered by a denomination in obvious schism,” Ray wrote. “I also believe they embraced the path that God provided, which offered a resolution to civil litigation, and a way for us to continue in faithful ministry.”
The denomination has been embroiled for years in a debate over full inclusion of the LGBTQ community, including allowing churches to perform same-sex marriage.
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson said in a statement. “As stated in the settlement agreement, we are part of one universal church and all look forward to moving ahead in service to Jesus Christ.”
Ray said the church’s energy and resources are now focused on sharing the love of Jesus and being laser-focused on missions locally and globally.
What looked like “the worst possible thing that could have happened, turned out to be the best thing for us,” said Ray. “Doors opened that we didn’t even know were there. We are in this present position because God moved on our behalf. His fingerprints are all over this situation in ways we didn’t even see at the time.”
The settlement with the conference includes provisions that limit the usage of some of Mt. Bethel’s real estate, according to the Marietta Daily Journal. For a period of 7.5 years, for instance, the church cannot sell any property. The conference would get first right of refusal.
Still, not everyone is satisfied with the outcome.
Friends of Mt. Bethel, formed last year to provide a voice for those members who disagreed with the leadership’s rejection of Ray’s reassignment, now numbers than more 600.
Donna Lachance, a retired corporate executive, said many members left and are now worshipping at other churches. After 17 years there, she doesn’t think she will return.
“This (church) has not only been the center of my faith, but also my community for a very long period of time and now we’re scattering. I hope there can be reconciliation but the fact is this is political, this is not religious.”
Amy Parrish has been a member for about six years and sang in the choir.
She left the church several months ago and plans to attend Sunday services and other events with others using space at a nearby United Methodist church.
”It has been a display of the most un-Christian, bullying, intimidating culture you can imagine. And the fact that they played it out and ended up with the church is so disheartening,” she said.