What’s next for North Georgia United Methodist churches?

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Court ruling clears way for roughly 185 churches to leave the denomination

Officials of the North Georgia conference of the United Methodist Church are considering whether to appeal a Tuesday court ruling that cleared the way for 185 member churches to leave the conference.

Following a day long hearing, Cobb County Superior Court Senior Judge J. Stephen Schuster ruled that the conference could not prohibit its member churches from taking a vote on leaving the conference, which now has 700 churches and about 320,000 lay members.

Sybil Davidson, a spokeswoman for the North Georgia Conference said it was exploring whether it would appeal the decision.

“While details of the order are yet to come, after they are received, the conference board of trustees in conversation with Bishop ( Robin) Dease and the cabinet will communicate plans and timelines,” Sybil Davidson, a spokeswoman for the North Georgia Conference she wrote in an email.

Attorney David Gibbs III, who represents the nearly 200 churches in the complaint said he hoped the process would end “decently and in order ... I certainly don’t want to see unnecessary stress on the conference with their June 1 meeting.”

The conference, is one of the largest in the nation. It will hold its annual meeting June 1-3 in Athens. The matter of disaffiliation is not on the agenda at this time.

Gibbs, who is based in Florida, also serves as the president of the National Center for Life and Liberty which is described on its website as a nonprofit legal ministry that protects and defends Bible-based values.

.Gibbs said he would like to see a special conference called in the fall so a vote could be taken to allow churches that want to leave be able to do so.

“I think it’s fair to say the discernment process is over,” he said.

The denomination has been divided over several issues, largely over the ordination of openly gay clergy and same sex marriage. But those are not the only issues, church members say. Some said they feared the denomination was moving away from biblical principles and was becoming too progressive.

Churches that have left or plan to leave say they will join other Methodist denominations, become independent or join the more conservative Global Methodist Church.

In March 185 churches sued the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, former Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, current Bishop Dease and the conference’s board of trustees among others to allow them to proceed with the disaffiliation process to leave the denomination.

What is does is open the door for churches and congregations to be able to vote whether or not to leave as allowed under paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline.

Schuster told people packed into the second-floor courtroom and two overflow rooms that “there is absolutely no question that the United Methodist Church, and whatever you call it, has been a backbone of America since the 1700s and it’s painful to watch this church go through what at best can be described as a schism.”

He made it clear he was not there to look at the theological issue, which is “an issue inside the walls of the church.”

Religious organizations are always fighting with issues of modernity and the change in their members or lack of change in their members, he said.

“It is difficult to watch this Church go through this,” he said in issuing the ruling. “It truly, truly is.”

Before the judge issued his ruling about 20 people gathered in a room on the fourth floor of the courthouse to pray. They prayed for healing and for God’s will to be done.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

At issue was a “pause” from the North Georgia Conference that temporarily halted requests to leave, citing “factually incorrect and defamatory” information circulating about the process for disaffiliation.

Davidson said the North Georgia Conference will continue “diligently addressing misinformation about the church and will continue to insist on integrity.”

It has created a webpage, https://www.ngumc.org/BeUMC that offers resources to that end.

The churches that leave the conference will pay any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months immediately prior and an additional 12 months of apportionments, plus unfunded pension obligations, direct-bill obligations and other liabilities. They depart with assets and property.

The issue of sexuality has been brewing for decades within the denomination.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

In 2019, during the UMC’s General Session, delegates approved a plan upholding and strengthening prohibitions against the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ clergy and performance of same-sex marriages.

The Rev. Charles W. Savage II, pastor of Sardis Methodist Church, was in court yesterday as a witness and to show support for churches who want to disaffiliate.

His Atlanta church was among 70 that left the denomination last year after a vote was taken at the annual conference in Athens.

He said his church was growing and was about to launch a new ministry.

“It’s a blessing in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s just a great feeling from the standpoint of being where we are and not being part of the conflict.”

Reached on Wednesday, the Rev. Carolyn Moore, lead pastor of Mosaic Church in Evans, was happy with the ruling.

Her church was among the 185 or so that named in the lawsuit.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“Annual conferences all over the country have been able to walk through this process and we are excited to be able to walk through it too.”