After an apparent breakdown in mediation efforts, the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church on Wednesday sued east Cobb’s Mt. Bethel UMC, the latest development in a months-long battle over control of Mt. Bethel.
The 9,000-member Mt. Bethel is the largest church in the North Georgia Conference, itself the largest UMC conference in the country.
The April reassignment of Mt. Bethel’s former senior pastor Jody Ray by North Georgia Conference Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson was the catalyst for the power struggle (Methodist pastors are periodically reassigned by their bishops, a tradition that dates back centuries). Ray and Mt. Bethel’s lay leaders mounted a public campaign against the reassignment and implied Haupert-Johnson was politically motivated. Then came Mt. Bethel’s announcement that it planned to leave the UMC denomination entirely, followed by the conference moving to seize Mt. Bethel’s assets.
The conference, a regional body that governs nearly 800 Methodist churches in Georgia, is asking Cobb Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark to order Mt. Bethel to turn over its assets to the conference. On July 12, the conference demanded Mt. Bethel transfer the assets within 10 days, but Mt. Bethel has not complied, per the lawsuit.
The conference and Mt. Bethel jointly announced in late July that they were entering mediation, but this effort appears to have stalled.
“While the Conference and its representatives have engaged in negotiations with local church officials and have made good faith efforts to resolve the issues without litigation, the current situation has not changed and it is untenable,” the conference announced Wednesday. “The Conference Board of Trustees will continue to take all necessary and appropriate actions to ensure compliance with the tradition and the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.”
Representatives for Mt. Bethel did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In the lawsuit, the conference argues Mt. Bethel has violated the Book of Discipline — the law and doctrine of the UMC. Under church law, assets are held in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination.
The conference said in the lawsuit that Mt. Bethel violated the Book of Discipline by:
♦ Hiring Ray as CEO/lead preacher without proper approval (Ray relinquished his UMC credentials in order to stay with Mt. Bethel);
♦ 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 Steven Usry, the pastor that Haupert-Johnson had tapped to replace Ray;
♦ Failing to elect a new chair of the staff/parish relations committee when the previous chair resigned;
♦ Signing a new, 20-year lease of its property to Mt. Bethel Christian Academy without complying with Book of Discipline policies (such as the approval by the district superintendent, a conference official).
Citing Georgia precedent from a 2010 lawsuit in the Episcopal church, the conference said in its complaint that the Book of Discipline has legal authority because the state of Georgia “recognizes controlling religious doctrine over domestic nonprofit corporations.”
In a June 18 cease-and-desist letter, a lawyer for the conference told Mt. Bethel they must come back into compliance with the Book of Discipline.
Then, at a July 9 meeting, a conference committee recommended Mt. Bethel be closed. The bishop and her cabinet determined at the same meeting that closure was required by the Book of Discipline and that all assets must be transferred to the conference.
The conference then demanded the turnover of the assets on July 12 before entering mediation later that month.
Origins of the riftMt. Bethel, which dates back more than 175 years, also operates Mt. Bethel Christian Academy, a K-12 school which last year had 680 students. The total market value of Mt. Bethel’s church-owned buildings, vehicles and equipment is $34.6 million, according to 2019 North Georgia Conference data, plus another $1.1 million in financial assets and other liquid assets.
Like other denominations, the United Methodist Church is fracturing over issues of gay marriage and LGBTQ pastors. Mt. Bethel is affiliated with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group of conservative Methodist churches. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is planning to split from the UMC to form a new “Global Methodist Church.” A vote to split the church was supposed to take place at the UMC’s 2020 general conference, but the conference was postponed to 2022 because of the pandemic.
“Remember this day, that your daddy didn’t bow the knee nor kiss the ring of progressive theology,” Ray said, addressing his son in an April sermon after his reassignment was announced.
Church law adopted in 2019 allows for local churches to disaffiliate from the UMC and keep their assets, if they do so for reasons of conscience related to the divisions over LGBTQ inclusion within the UMC. Despite Mt. Bethel previously announcing it planned to leave the denomination, that process is a long one that would require the district superintendent to call a church conference where two-thirds of the members would need to vote in favor of disaffiliation. Churches must also be in “good standing” to disaffiliate — the conference has said Mt. Bethel does not meet that criterion.
Both sides of the feud have accused the other of starting it. Ray has implied he was reassigned for his consrvative theological beliefs, which Haupert-Johnson denies, pointing to Usry’s own conservative beliefs. Mt. Bethel leaders also said the reassignment was hasty and that the bishop did not consult with Ray before informing him of her plans. Haupert-Johnson has said it is completely within her authority to reassign pastors and that Mt. Bethel refused to engage in discussions about Ray’s reassignment.
“The leadership of Mt. Bethel, I am very concerned about their ability to lead the church in a healthy way … at the end of the day they are a United Methodist Church … they have cast dispersion on our whole system and dragged it through the press, and I think that is pretty despicable,” Haupert-Johnson said in a June video posted to the conference website.
In moving to seize Mt. Bethel’s assets, the conference in July cited the need to “preserve the legacy” of Mt. Bethel. The lawsuit makes reference to “former members” of Mt. Bethel that “wish to continue within The Book of Discipline and to continue the mission” of the UMC. Haupert-Johnson in the past has said that Mt. Bethel members had been forced out of the church for disagreeing with the decisions of lay leaders.