EAST COBB — More than 100 members and ex-members of Mt. Bethel Church gathered this week to ask questions of Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, the leader of the North Georgia Conference of the UMC, regarding the settlement agreement that will see their church leave the UMC denomination.

Attendees expressed dismay about disaffiliation, and they were upset that congregants did not get to vote on the question.

The leaders of Mt. Bethel in recent weeks signed a settlement agreement with the conference, a regional body which governs nearly 800 UMC churches, bringing an end to a legal battle over control of Mt. Bethel.

The conservative east Cobb church is one of dozens in north Georgia that are leaving the UMC amid a schism over LGBTQ inclusion.

Under the agreement, Mt. Bethel must pay $13.1 million to the UMC in order to leave and become an independent church. Mt. Bethel has already embarked on a fundraising campaign, and must pay the sum within the next four months.

Tuesday’s Q&A, held just down the road from Mt. Bethel at Mt. Zion UMC, was organized by Friends of Mt. Bethel, a group of Mt. Bethel members who oppose disaffiliation. The group says it has about 650 members — Mt. Bethel reported it had about 10,200 members in 2020.

‘Nobody minding the store’

Mt. Bethel, which dates back more than 175 years, is the largest church in the conference. According to conference data, in 2020 the market value of its land, buildings, cash and other assets was about $36.7 million. Methodist churches’ assets are held in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination.

It also operates Mt. Bethel Christian Academy, a K-12 school with nearly 700 students.

Mt. Bethel’s main campus is in the heart of east Cobb, near the corner of Lower Roswell and Johnson Ferry roads.

The feud between Mt. Bethel and the conference broke out into public view last year when Haupert-Johnson, who oversees the conference, reassigned Jody Ray, Mt. Bethel’s senior pastor at the time.

Methodist pastors are periodically reassigned by their bishops, a tradition of “itinerancy” that dates back centuries. Mt. Bethel lay leaders and congregants created a petition and mounted a campaign against Ray’s reassignment.

Mt. Bethel leaders accused Haupert-Johnson of reassigning Ray as punishment for his conservative beliefs, charges the bishop denied. At the time, Ray made headlines by addressing his children during a sermon, telling them to “remember this day, that your daddy didn’t bow the knee nor kiss the ring of progressive theology.”

Haupert-Johnson tapped Steven Usry, another conservative pastor, to replace Ray. Usry has formally been Mt. Bethel’s pastor-in-charge for months, but was sidelined (Usry told the MDJ that he’s visited Mt. Bethel’s campus and seen parts of it, but church leaders never opened the space to him — he doesn’t even know where the offices are.)

Mt. Bethel announced last summer it would seek to leave the UMC. Ray ended up relinquishing his UMC credentials and was hired by Mt. Bethel as a lay preacher.

Haupert-Johnson said she knew that appointing Usry might ruffle some feathers, but she never expected what came next.

“When they refused an appointment, when they created their executive committee … We realized there was nobody in Mount Bethel who represented the United Methodist Church,” she said.

The conference sued Mt. Bethel last September — Mt. Bethel responded with a countersuit in October.

In response to an attendee asking why the conference “caved” and chose to settle, the bishop said the decision was made by the Board of Trustees of the conference, who had good reason to do so.

Originally, she said, the trustees had hoped that after filing suit last September, a court-ordered transfer of Mt. Bethel’s assets would occur by December. Due to a legal backlog caused by the pandemic, however, the trustees were advised that litigation would drag on for several years.

“We were also looking at a situation where the trustees were concerned about who would be left (at Mt. Bethel) after three years,” Haupert-Johnson said.

In an interview with the MDJ, the bishop also acknowledged that legal costs were a factor — the conference spent about $500,000 on the lawsuit, she said.

Before entering settlement talks, the conference was also facing constant stress and upheaval, Haupert-Johnson told attendees. Mt. Bethel’s legal team was beginning to depose witnesses, and discovery requests had led to the conference handing over 100,000 documents.

The trustees felt that, “if we wanted to settle this matter, which we thought was in the interest of everybody, that it would be better to do it before we entered into the deposition phase, because that would probably be a lot more contentious.”

Under the normal process for churches to disaffiliate from the UMC, two-thirds of a congregation must vote in favor of leaving. But the special circumstances of Mt. Bethel, the fact that its fate was negotiated in court, means that no such vote will take place.

Asked why congregants were denied a chance to vote, Haupert-Johnson said they would’ve had a say if Mt. Bethel’s leaders had followed the typical disaffiliation process laid out in the UMC’s Book of Discipline.

The steps taken by Mt. Bethel leaders precluded that process from occurring, she said.

A committee of the conference recommended that, due to several violations, Mt. Bethel’s assets should be seized, “because we don’t have anybody there to watch the assets, there’s nobody minding the store,” Haupert-Johnson said.

When filing suit, the conference argued that Mt. Bethel violated policies by, among other things:

♦ Hiring Ray as its top preacher without proper approval;

♦ Forming a seven-member executive committee with full authority and no time limits on terms without the proper approval process;

♦ Refusing and seeking to limit the role of Usry.

“I was advocating for a vote to be taken. But that wasn’t going to happen. And so we found ourselves in this nasty legal dispute,” the bishop said.

Haupert-Johnson also told the MDJ Mt. Bethel’s 50-member administrative council, which is elected by the congregation, was moving unanimously to disaffiliate.

“When the administrative board of the church is moving in one direction, in one mind, it’s very hard to say, ‘Well, we don’t agree,’” she said.

Why, another attendee asked, couldn’t the congregation vote on the settlement agreement?

The bishop responded by saying only the parties to the lawsuit could weigh in on it.

Reached for comment, Robert Ingram, a lawyer for Mt. Bethel, said Mt. Bethel leaders repeatedly pushed for a vote.

“We stated in an introduction: let the church vote, we can avoid the entire civil action and litigation if you will simply let the church vote … It was the bishop, the district superintendent and the North Georgia conference that repeatedly blocked all efforts to allow the church to vote,” Ingram said.

‘They fired me’

Donna Lachance, a co-founder of Friends of Mt. Bethel, said in an interview that there was “no way” two-thirds of congregants would have voted for disaffiliation. (Ingram said disaffiliation “absolutely” would have passed, and that “it wouldn’t even be close.”)

Lachance believes that lay leaders wanted to keep Ray at any cost, because they knew he supported leaving the UMC.

“Jody would’ve had to have left, and Steven would have had to come in,” Lachance said. “And they couldn’t control Steven.”

Some ex-members, such as Beverly Campbell, painted Mt. Bethel’s leadership as a group of wealthy, like-minded church members who plotted the split without concern for the broader congregation’s feelings.

“He (Ray) was a fiery preacher, a good preacher,” Campbell said. “He got his little group of people behind him with money and ideas, and they ramrodded this through … The church as a whole had no voice in what happened.”

Lachance described herself as a former member of Ray’s “inner circle.” She used to work in communications for the church. She said she retired on good terms, but later had a falling out with Ray and other church leaders over dissenting views.

Suzanne Tucker, Mt. Bethel’s former choir director, alleged she was forced out of a job for her views. After working at the church for 17 years, she said she was furloughed, then fired, for dissenting.

“I didn’t feel like the choices they made were following the Book of Discipline,” Tucker said. “I feel like they were done in a manipulative manner. I think they used tactics of fear mongering to get people to go along with him, and I just could not support that. So I stuck it out as long as I could, just trying to lead this group of people through worship. And eventually that was not acceptable to the leadership there, and they fired me.”

Ingram said the church would not comment on personnel matters, which are private and confidential.

“Ms. Lachance and Ms. Tucker have been in the opposition group, which is a very small group, from the beginning of this case, and I’m not surprised that they would be critical of the church,” he said.

Ray and his allies, Tucker believes, wanted to be a true mega-church, independent of the UMC’s hierarchy.

“They wanted to take that powerful church to the (Wesleyan Covenant Association),” added former member Amy Parrish, referring to a group of churches that is starting a new, conservative Methodist denomination.

What now?

Congregants must now decide if they will stay at Mt. Bethel or move to another UMC church. The idea of starting a new UMC church in east Cobb was also discussed.

“What’s done is done, it’s over,” one member said during the Q&A. “Now we all have to figure out what we’re gonna do. I, for one, feel abandoned, I feel unwanted, I feel unnecessary in my own church of 38 years. … But my question is, how do we go ahead? I’m missing some spiritual guidance, I don’t have a church right now that I feel like I can go to, that I can worship in.”

Haupert-Johnson said the conference “did not leave you orphaned.” Instead of transferring him to another church, the bishop has assigned Usry to continue working with Mt. Bethel members and ex-members for the next year, providing guidance.

“I would love to connect with you, if I’ve not had a chance to shake your hand, or hug your neck, to make a relationship with you. I am here for you,” Usry told the audience.

Over the last year or so, Usry has met with members one-on-one, in small groups, or sometimes in groups of a few dozen. He has also attended worship at Mt. Bethel regularly.

“Mainly to show people that we might disagree about everything, but we can still be in worship together,” Usry told the MDJ, adding that Jody Ray has been a friend for 25 years. “We’re Christians together.”

While some Friends of Mt. Bethel members say attendance and membership at Mt. Bethel has declined, concrete data is hard to come by. Both Haupert-Johnson and Ingram said they weren’t sure how many members remained.

For Beverly Campbell, Mt. Bethel and other churches like it will have trouble attracting younger people, if they don’t change their culture.

“We can’t do that, broadly, without being more accepting of people that aren’t just like us. … We’ve got to accept everybody. The Methodist church is trying to do that, underneath the disciplines they have, that are really pretty restrictive … The Episcopalians went through this a number of years ago, it’s gonna come around to everybody.”

Speaking to attendees, Haupert-Johnson recalled her childhood, watching her parents teaching Sunday school together. The couple disagreed on many of the issue of the day, such as the Vietnam War.

“But Jesus held them together, and they loved each other,” she said.

Conservative UMC churches last month officially launched a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church. Earlier this month, North Georgia Conference member churches ratified the decision of 70 churches (not including Mt. Bethel) to disaffiliate. Those 70 make up approximately 9% of churches in the conference, and about 3% of members.

The bishop said she still believes the UMC is a big tent with space for everyone. She’s still at a loss to understand how the Mt. Bethel feud became so intense.

“I feel heartbroken,” she said. “I feel just so sad that it ended up like this. But I pray now that we are all freed for joyful obedience, right? I feel, I hope, that whoever’s left at Mt. Bethel will move on. … Our whole job is to make disciples and to proclaim Christ. And so I hope now that people are free to do that.”

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