This is may be just the beginning. The beginning of a historic transformation of the Methodist Church. Mt. Bethel Methodist has fired the first big shot and is disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church. This is no small thing. Mt. Bethel has some 9,000 members and contributes several million dollars a year to the North Georgia Conference to which it has belonged.
In a who-said-what blowup, North Georgia Conference Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson used the authority given her by the Book of Discipline to announce she was moving Mt Bethel’s Senior Pastor Dr. Jody Ray, after 5 years at the church to an amorphous position working on “racial reconciliation.” This despite a petition from 4,700 people asking her not to and Dr Ray saying basically “thanks, but no thanks.”
If you aren’t familiar with how things work in the Methodist Church, a long-standing principle of the denomination is itineracy, a vow by ordained ministers to move from place to place as directed by the conference bishop and cabinet at the annual conference of which they are members.
I was part of the Board of Ordained Ministry, a group of Methodist ministers and laity that evaluated candidates – men and women, black and white – for ordination. One of the key questions to the candidates was if they understood and were willing to accept itinerancy as a part of being a Methodist minister. In my four years as a member of the panel, I don’t recall hearing a negative response. The candidates knew the rules coming in.
Many times Methodist ministers are moved much as a corporate manager would be, to get valuable on-the-job training and hopefully move up the ladder while honing their skills. Sometimes the move is made because the fit wasn’t right between the minister and the congregation. And sometimes it can be punitive. No question that was the case here.
Mt. Bethel is a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, composed of conservative churches and will likely be a part of a new group known as the Global Methodist Church, a more conservative denomination than the current United Methodist Church. Bishop Haupert-Johnson has made it clear that she does not approve of the WCA or those that do.
The big issue is homosexuality. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church states unequivocally: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” There are those who wish to change that and those who don’t.
In 2019, the worldwide General Conference of the Methodist Church passed what it called the Traditional Plan which reaffirmed the church’s position on not ordaining LGBTQ clergy and not officiating at or hosting same-sex marriages.
Opposition delegates at the conference proposed the One Church Plan which would have allowed individual churches and regional annual conferences to decide whether to ordain LGBTQ clergy and allow same-sex marriage.. Ultimately, 53 percent of delegates voted for the Traditional Plan.
The General Conference is scheduled to meet again in August 2022 to take up a proposal to split the denomination according to their views on the LGBTQ issue, hopefully with a minimum of acrimony and lawsuits.
Some sources estimate that as many of 30% of the church's 7 million US members and as many as 90% of Methodists in Africa and Asia could leave the United Methodist Church for the new conservative denomination.
In my opinion, Haupert-Johnson, a former lawyer-turned-theologian, has handled the Mt. Bethel situation poorly. She sent an assistant to do the negotiating. That approach has clearly backfired and is a reflection on her leadership skills. Sometimes it is the leaders who should do the leading.
“I will not engage in trying to read the bishop’s mind for why she has taken this hasty and ill-conceived action,” Dr. Ray said at a press conference, “but I do know she has undermined her credibility with the people of Mt Bethel Church.”
Haupert-Johnson issued a statement saying in part that “the sermon and town hall meeting that followed on Monday cast this as a hostile takeover by an evil ungodly woman bishop and denigrating the United Methodist Church.” Hostile takeover? Oh, please. Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.
If she would like to hear some advice from a waiting-to-be-saved-sinner who has dealt in more complex, high-stakes political situations than a yard dog has fleas, you are the CEO, bishop. The buck stops with you. You are the one who put yourself in a win-lose situation. As a result, you have lost a dynamic church with a passionate membership. And let’s not play the “evil ungodly woman” card. It sounds petulant and petty and very – well – un-bishopical.
I am a life-long Methodist and have no plans to change. But this brouhaha between Mt. Bethel and the bishop of the North Georgia Conference has not been my denomination’s finest hour. And I suspect this is just the beginning. May God have mercy on all our souls.