East Cobb’s Mt. Bethel to leave UMC denomination

Mount Bethel United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Jody G. Ray (shown in 2019) became emotional during his Sunday sermon following the divisive vote over LGBT full inclusion. (Courtesy of Mount Bethel UMC)

Mount Bethel United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Jody G. Ray (shown in 2019) became emotional during his Sunday sermon following the divisive vote over LGBT full inclusion. (Courtesy of Mount Bethel UMC)

The pastor of one of the largest churches in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church on Monday surrendered his credentials as the east Cobb congregation took steps to leave the denomination.

At issue is the planned reassignment of its prominent senior pastor, the Rev. Jody Ray, who served in that capacity for more than five years.

Ray, 51, is now CEO and lead preacher of Mount Bethel.

In a statement, Ray said he takes those steps “with a heavy heart, but also with a clear conscience.”

According to the church’s website, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson announced earlier this month that Ray would be appointed to a new assignment on the conference staff related to racial reconciliation.

In the new position, according to the conference, Ray’s job would be to enhance congregational development and to develop a ministry addressing matters of race in predominantly white congregations.

Ray contends he was not consulted about the move.

That appointment would have been effective July 1.

During a press conference Monday morning, Ray stuck to the context of a statement.

“Unfortunately, my options were to accept the move, take a leave of absence, or surrender my credentials,” he said in the statement. “That’s not consultation, it is merely notification, and it violates both the spirit and letter of the covenants that bind us together.”

He called the bishop’s actions “hasty and ill-conceived” and said that the planned move “has undermined her credibility with the people of Mt. Bethel Church and jeopardized the health and vitality of this great congregation that is a beacon of hope and light in this community and beyond.”

The North Georgia Conference is the regional governing body for the area’s United Methodist churches.

Ray and the church leadership tried unsuccessfully to have that decision reversed.

The Administrative Council of Mount Bethel unanimously approved a resolution directing the leadership of the church to proceed with the disaffiliation process from the United Methodist Church, according to a statement. The process, which can be lengthy, would go by the Book of Discipline, which outlines the law, doctrine, administration and procedures of the UMC.

In an April 26 pastoral letter, Haupert-Johnson said spring is typically when new assignments are made.

She wrote that the “reassignment of a pastor is not done out of spite. The placement of a pastor is not done as a form of punishment. The reassignment of a pastor is not designed to persecute.”

Later, she specifically mentioned Mount Bethel. Ordinarily, Haupert-Johnson wrote, she would not discuss a particular church or leader, but the situation at the church needed “clarification.”

“When the district superintendent and the assistant to the bishop met with church leaders to further consult about the projected appointment,” she wrote, “they refused to have any meaningful conversation, and instead threatened that $3 (million)-$4 million would walk out of the church if they were not allowed to deviate from the appointive process and keep their pastor.

Mount Bethel has been part of the community for more than 175 years, according to its website. In the late 1870s, the original building stood at the intersection of what is now Richmond Hill and Charlsie Drive. It later moved to Lower Roswell Road.

The United Methodist Church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States with more than 467,000 members in Georgia.

The 2021 North Georgia Annual Conference will be held virtually June 3-5 and will include an online clergy executive session, a virtual annual conference business session, and two live-streamed worship services with limited in-person participation.

The denomination has been in a state of flux for some time over LGBTQ-related issues. The divisions are likely to split the church between more traditional and conservative congregations and those that are more progressive.

The North Georgia Conference includes nearly 800 churches and roughly 340,000 members.