The leadership of the United Methodist Church’s North Georgia Conference said this week it would be moving to seize the assets of Mt. Bethel UMC in east Cobb.
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, and the conference’s eight district superintendents “unanimously determined that ‘exigent circumstances’ have threatened the continued vitality and mission of Mt. Bethel … Given this determination, all assets of the local church have transferred immediately to the Conference Board of Trustees of the North Georgia Conference,” the conference said Monday.
The news is another dramatic development in an ongoing upheaval between the conference and Mt. Bethel, which started when the bishop moved to reassign Mt. Bethel’s head pastor, Jody Ray, to another position. Mt. Bethel’s lay leaders had said they would disaffiliate from the UMC entirely to retain Ray as pastor and have taken preliminary steps to begin that process.
Citing the need to “preserve the legacy” of Mt. Bethel, the conference said Monday the transfer was effective immediately and demanded Mt. Bethel transfer its assets to the board within 10 days. The conference said the trustees will assume management of the church and keep it operating for the time being.
“The Trustees are mindful of the concerns of employees, families, and members of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church and the families connected to the Mt. Bethel Christian Academy,” the announcement said. “Employment, instruction, activities, and worship at the church and Academy will continue, but under the direction and control of the Conference Board of Trustees.”
Mt. Bethel’s leaders fired back Tuesday, saying the bishop had again escalated “a crisis of her own making.”
According to the Mt. Bethel statement, the conference has moved to acquire the assets through the courts.
“The people of Mt. Bethel Church will do all in their power to resist the aggressive actions against their church, and they will do all they can to restore the reputational damage Haupert-Johnson is inflicting on many local United Methodist churches that simply want to do ministry without the drama of her intrusive and threatening actions,” read the Mt. Bethel statement.
It wasn’t immediately clear what sort of legal action had been taken, or whether the bishop would be successful in taking over. A representative for Mt. Bethel did not immediately respond to questions about this. Sybil Davidson, a spokesperson for the bishop, deferred to the conference’s Monday statement and a Q&A page about the issue published on the conference’s website.
United Methodist churches do not own property and assets in the traditional sense. The UMC’s Book of Discipline, which governs the denomination, mandates that the assets of local churches are held in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination.
Mt. Bethel spokesperson Johnna Bain previously told the MDJ that Mt. Bethel Christian Academy, a K-12 school, which last year had 680 students, was not subject to this “trust clause,” though the conference’s position on that question is not totally clear.
As the MDJ reported in June, 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. The conference’s reports and statistical tables are not available past 2019.
Church law adopted in 2019, however, 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.
Mt. Bethel planned to use that rule to disaffiliate and in April asked the superintendent over its district to call a church conference, where a two-thirds majority would have to approve the resolution to disaffiliate.
Such a conference has not yet been called — “the Bishop is purposely delaying that process,” Mt. Bethel leaders contended in the Tuesday statement.
Disaffiliation may not be possible, however, since Mt. Bethel is not in “good standing” with the UMC “due to certain actions,” the conference says. Churches must be in good standing in order to disaffiliate under the rules adopted in 2019.
Mt. Bethel’s leadership has maintained that the bishop reassigned Ray without properly consulting the church, and that Ray was being reassigned as punishment for his conservative views. The bishop has said it is within her authority to reassign pastors, that Mt. Bethel refused to engage in discussions about Ray’s new role, and that the pastor she appointed to replace him, Stephen Usry, is also conservative.
Instead of accepting the new assignment working on racial reconciliation for the conference, Ray surrendered his UMC credentials and was hired by Mt. Bethel as CEO and lead preacher.
“Unfortunately, it is Haupert-Johnson’s failure to competently engage in the United Methodist Church’s prescribed consultative process that threatens the vitality and mission of the North Georgia Conference’s largest congregation, both in terms of membership and average worship attendance,” Mt. Bethel’s leaders said Tuesday.
Per the conference’s Q&A page, the “exigent circumstances” include Mt. Bethel signing a 20-year lease of property to Mt. Bethel Christian Academy without following proper procedures.
The conference also accuses Mt. Bethel of improperly changing its governance structure, seeking to limit the role of the new pastor (Usry), hiring Ray as CEO without approval, making plans to use credit, transfer interests and sell property without approval and other violations.
“What has occurred is simply a rejection by the leadership of the rules and procedures for our church as outlined in the Book of Discipline and amount to an obstruction of the appointment process and polity of The United Methodist Church,” the conference says.