In an extremely rare move, the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church has seized the assets of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta amid a fight over who should be its senior pastor.
The conference announced its stunning decision in a statement released Monday and said it was “acting out of love for the church and its mission” and to “preserve the legacy of the Mt. Bethel church and its longstanding history of mission and ministry.”
Mt. Bethel UMC in Marietta, whose membership has been reported to be around 8,000, has one of the largest congregations in the conference. It also has the Mt. Bethel Christian Academy. According to the statement from the North Georgia Conference, the regional governing body for the area’s United Methodist churches, the title to Mt. Bethel UMC’s real, personal, tangible and intangible property was immediately transferred to the conference’s Board of Trustees, “who may hold or dispose of such property in its sole discretion.”
The statement also said the employment, instruction, activities and worship at the church and the school will continue “but under the direction and control of the Conference Board of Trustees.”
The North Georgia Conference and the leadership at the conservative Mt. Bethel church have been locked in a battle for months.
In April, the Rev. Jody Ray, who has served as senior pastor of the east Cobb congregation for about five years, surrendered his credentials and said the church was taking steps to leave the denomination.
At issue was the planned reassignment of Ray, who was to be appointed to a new assignment on the conference staff related to racial reconciliation.
Ray contends he was never consulted about the move. In a previous interview, he said the reassignment could be due to the church not paying its full apportionments to the annual conference for several years. He also thinks the congregation’s support of the Book of Discipline’s conservative stance on the issue of homosexuality may have been a factor.
Ray, backed by many members of the congregation and the church’s influential administrative council, became CEO and lead preacher.
The Rev. Steven Usry was appointed “pastor-in-charge,” beginning July 1.
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the eight district superintendents “have unanimously determined that ‘exigent circumstances’ have threatened the continued vitality and mission of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church,” according to the North Georgia Conference statement. “Given this determination, all assets of the local church have transferred immediately to the conference’s Board of Trustees of the North Georgia Conference.”
This means the church has no assets or property, according to the conference.
Unless this crisis is resolved by that time, the annual conference in “June 2022 will decide whether to formally close the local church.”
The bishop has discussed the matter several times on videos posted on the conference’s website.
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.”
After the seizure of assets was announced, Mt. Bethel fired back in a subsequent statement.
The statement accused Haupert-Johnson of failing to engage in the UMC’s consultative process.
“While she claims she is acting out of ‘love for the church and its mission,’ enlisting attorneys and the courts to seize assets is a strange way for a bishop to show her love for one of the healthiest churches in her conference,” according to the statement.
Instead, the church said Haupert-Johnson has “hastily initiated an ill-timed and an ill-considered move that not only jeopardizes great ministry and missions at Mt. Bethel but also the health and reputation of her entire annual conference.”
Mt. Bethel’s leaders and attorneys were notified on July 12 about the closure and transfer of assets to the conference board of trustees.
While the move is immediate, the North Georgia Conference’s Board of Trustees has given the acting leaders of the local church 10 days to complete the transfer.
Anne Burkholder, associate dean of Methodist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said while rare, the move falls within the rights and responsibilities of an annual conference.
If Mt. Bethel just walked off with no response from the annual conference, then the conference would be at fault, she said. “The annual conference has to respond to this in a disciplinary way for the good of the church, the annual conference and the general Church overall.”
L. Edward Phillips, associate professor of Historical Theology and Christian Worship at Candler, used the analogy of the breakup of a marriage.
“A marriage is clearly a personal relationship but there it also has legal and financial ramifications,” he said. “One person simply can’t walk out.”
Mt. Bethel is unusual because of its sheer size.
“It’s generated its own gravity,” he said. “It’s been able to operate with some independence from the North Georgia Conference; nevertheless, all United Methodists are connected by the Book of Discipline. It’s like our Constitution.”
The North Georgia Conference includes nearly 800 churches and roughly 340,000 members. The United Methodist Church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
In addition to this Georgia church conflict, the denomination has faced major divisions over the past few years over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.
A split is a near certainty. Earlier this year, conservatives unveiled plans for a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church, which they expect to become official in 2022.
Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church
East Cobb campus: 4385 Lower Roswell Road, Marietta
Mt. Bethel North: 2509 Post Oak Tritt Road, Marietta
History: Mt. Bethel has served the community for more than 175 years. In the late 1870s, the church moved from Richmond Hill and Charlsie Drive to the corner of Lower Roswell and Johnson Ferry roads. In 2016, the church started a North Campus.
Source: Mt. Bethel website