By Thomas Lambrecht –
A recent video by North Georgia Annual Conference Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson attempts to clear the air and present greater transparency regarding the ongoing controversies surrounding Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church. Haupert-Johnson sought to move the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray, and the resulting controversy ended with Ray surrendering his credentials but being retained by Mt. Bethel as the church’s “CEO and lead preacher.”
In the aftermath, a group called “United Methodist Laity for Openness and Transparency” issued a full-page paid ad in the Atlanta Journal Constitution asking 18 pointed questions of the bishop.
Unfortunately, Haupert-Johnson’s attempt to clear the air generated more fog, with inconsistencies and unanswered questions. She did not engage at all with the questions raised by the laity.
Which Account Explains Ray’s Appointment Change?
In her initial statements about Ray’s appointment change, the bishop maintained that the cause was her desire to have Dr. Ray serve on the conference staff in a position addressing racism for which he was eminently qualified. (Ray received his MDiv at Gammon Theological Seminary, a highly-respected, historically African American theological school.) But in the video, Haupert-Johnson did not even mention the staff position, stating instead that her motivation for removing Ray from the church was “a lot of correspondence and … calls” from people at Mt. Bethel who said they were being forced out of leadership or asked to leave the church. Which is the real reason?
Dave Perry, Mt. Bethel’s administrative council chair, and other congregational leaders state that these concerns about people being forced out were never raised with Ray and the church’s staff-parish relations committee (SPRC) before any action was taken regarding Ray’s appointment. He was never given an opportunity to respond to these allegations. Only recently did church leaders learn that there were supposedly seven “performance deficits” identified by the bishop for Mt. Bethel and Ray. These were never discussed with Ray or the SPRC, and the leaders still do not know what these seven concerns were.
One leader reports that the alleged forced leadership changes may refer to turnover on the board of the church’s day school, which experienced significant financial challenges and poor board governance. At that time, it was necessary for the church’s administrative council to replace the board in order to restore the school to a sound footing, which has been successfully accomplished. Contrary to Haupert-Johnson’s allegations, there have been no forced leadership changes at the church, nor has anyone been asked to leave the church.
If there were issues of divisive or controlling leadership or “performance deficits” at Mt. Bethel, how should they be addressed? Haupert-Johnson’s answer was her “authority to change leadership in churches.” But that is the wrong answer, and it demonstrates the larger dysfunction in the UM Church. Instead of addressing the problem, “just move the pastor” is not a recipe for growing a healthier church, which is what Haupert-Johnson says she wants.
Such a strategy misuses pastoral appointments as a punitive or disciplinary process. Moving a pastor who provides divisive or controlling leadership or has other leadership deficits to another church without addressing the problem just imposes dysfunctional leadership on another congregation.
If the bishop truly believed Ray’s leadership was divisive or controlling, or that there were deficits in his leadership, she had an obligation to address it directly with him and the staff-parish relations committee. And if the problem could not be satisfactorily resolved by doing that, the bishop could have initiated a complaint process for ineffective ministry against Ray. The complaint process allows both the complainants and the respondent/defendant to be treated fairly, with both afforded an opportunity to explain and defend their actions. It allows for a restorative and remedial response to problems like this that can help improve a pastor’s ministry effectiveness.
Unfortunately, the bishop or district superintendent never addressed these alleged problems proactively before a punitive decision was made. Ray was never given an opportunity to explain or defend himself against these allegations. And to top it off, it appears that a misleading rationale was initially given for this appointment change, only intensifying the already existing mistrust that both Ray and the congregation had toward Haupert-Johnson’s leadership.
Now that the conflict has exploded, the bishop utilized the conference’s communications infrastructure to publicly air these allegations in a way that Ray cannot respond, damaging his reputation and calling into question his ability to lead a congregation effectively. This is not what effective episcopal leadership looks like.
In a second, even more recent video Haupert-Johnson says, “What drove the move at Mt. Bethel was the availability of Steven Usry” to be the new pastor. This is now the third different story we have heard about the change in appointment. Such inconsistent messaging produces confusion and heightens mistrust.
The Church’s Hostile Atmosphere?
Haupert-Johnson stated in the video that it was her intention to visit the church after the appointment was announced in order to explain the rationale behind the decision. However, in light of the anger, vitriol, and questioning of the church’s process, she stated that she did not feel safe to go.
Apparently, the bishop was warned by “several insiders” at Mt. Bethel that “You would not be safe to go to Mt. Bethel.” It is uncertain what game these “insiders” were playing, but one cannot imagine that the parishioners of Mt. Bethel were a threat of bodily injury to Haupert-Johnson. It appears that the bishop refused to face the consequences of the decision she had made and the way that decision was communicated. Instead, from the isolation of her office, she could issue statements and do video interviews that never really engaged with the people of Mt. Bethel or the laity of the North Georgia Conference.
A couple of further points need to be made. First, consultation after the fact is not consultation – it is notification. The bishop made her decision to change Ray’s appointment without consulting either him or the church, even though such consultation is mandated in our Book of Discipline. She believes it is important for clergy to abide by the Discipline, but she herself is unwilling to do so.
Second, pastors learn in Counseling 101 that when parishioners have a problem with something you have done, the first thing to do is go to the person and listen to their perspective. Haupert-Johnson had an opportunity to defuse the conflict with Mt. Bethel by going to listen to the anger and questioning. As the leader, it was her responsibility to take the heat personally for the decision she had made. She might not have changed anyone’s mind, but at least the parishioners would have felt like their voices and opinions were heard. It could have been the beginning of an ongoing dialog and eventual healing.
Do As I Say, and Not As I Do?
Haupert-Johnson affirmed in the video that “there are two things that can really challenge where you’re appointed.” By doing so, she agreed that the appointment process in the UM Church can be used in a punitive way (although she later denies it).
The first of the two things Haupert-Johnson believes ought to justify removing someone from their pastoral appointment are “failure to pay connectional giving because that’s a sign you are not supportive.”
The second thing Haupert-Johnson says “can really challenge where you’re appointed” is “to have a heart at war and to not represent the UMC. That’s what you were appointed to a church to do.” If that is true of pastors, it is even truer of bishops. They are appointed to an annual conference to represent The United Methodist Church, as defined by the decisions of General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for the whole church.
Yet, in the wake of the 2019 General Conference enacting the Traditional Plan, Bishop Haupert-Johnson has worked against that decision, rather than defending it. The Washington Post named her as a co-leader of one of the groups of powerful pastors and bishops that “have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision.” “We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate,” Haupert-Johnson is quoted as saying in March 2019, long before the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was even dreamed of.
The Sunday after the 2019 General Conference adjourned, Haupert-Johnson was in St. Mark’s UM Church, a gay-affirming congregation, for worship. A CBS News affiliate reported she was there to apologize for the harm done to people by the action of the General Conference. The Atlanta Journal Constitution quoted Haupert-Johnson as saying, “exclusion in the name of the Bible must stop” and when the word is used in “ways that do not reflect Christ, we must speak out. When biblical literalism excludes, it must be retaught.”
A couple months ago, under Haupert-Johnson’s leadership, the North Georgia Annual Conference introduced a new vision for the conference: “Love Is Making Room.” The vision statement notes, “Unfortunately, we have now reached a point where our disagreement is compromising our witness, our oneness is threatened, and our LBGTQ siblings are being harmed. This cannot continue.”
The document continues, “We believe that harmful language about LGBTQ people and restrictions on marriage and ordination should be removed from the Book of Discipline.” Of course, that is something only General Conference can do. Haupert-Johnson’s progressive vision would allow (but not require) pastors to do same-sex weddings. It would allow (but not require) annual conferences to ordain non-celibate gay and lesbian candidates for ministry.
This vision is essentially the One Church Plan that General Conference voted down in 2016 and 2019 (and repeatedly since the 1980’s). Yet Haupert-Johnson still continues to advocate for it, rather than effectively “representing the UMC.” This blatant inconsistency did not go unnoticed by the people in the pews at Mt. Bethel or in the North Georgia Conference.
How can Haupert-Johnson threaten to use the appointment power of the bishop in a punitive way against pastors who “have a heart at war and do not represent the UMC,” when she is doing the same thing, organizing to overturn the decisions of General Conference and advocating ministry visions that contradict what General Conference has decided? Any corporate CEO or executive vice-president who publicly disagreed with company policy would be summarily dismissed. Yet many bishops in the UM Church, including Haupert-Johnson, feel free to use their privileged position and life tenure to do the same, immensely damaging the church in the process.
Who Speaks for God?
In the video, Haupert-Johnson complains, “When I get accused of heresy and apostasy and all of those things, it’s to undermine my authority or credibility or ability to speak for Jesus Christ. And what gives me the authority to speak for Jesus Christ is that I have been ordained by the church; I have been consecrated to be a bishop in the church. So, all of these things have been examined by a large number of people.”
The claim that a bishop speaks for Jesus is unbelievably arrogant. Jesus is well able to speak for himself, and has done so through his word – the Scriptures. Our speaking “for” Jesus (anyone, clergy or lay or bishop) is only true insofar as it agrees with God’s word.
The Apostle Paul made much of his authority and his calling directly by Jesus Christ as an apostle. Yet he submitted his preaching to the judgment of the other apostles. “I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain” (Galatians 2:2). Luke makes clear that God’s word was the final authority even in Paul’s preaching. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
No person can claim the authority to speak for Jesus Christ in opposition to the clear teaching of Scripture.
Slandering or Demonizing Others?
Haupert-Johnson rightly criticizes “broad brush demonization” of others. “Our church should not be a place where we continue this ridiculous kind of arguing and nastiness and hostility.” “His goal was not to bash the bishop or the annual conference, but to help people be aware of what their options would be under separation legislation being presented to the 2020 General Conference, and to promote a future theologically conservative Methodist Church as one option for traditionalists.”
These meetings occurred in December 2019 before the announcement of the Protocol and 14 months before the announcement of the Global Methodist Church.
We wonder, then, why the bishop resorts to just this kind of “broad brush demonization” of traditionalists in her video interview. She publicly accuses the Mt. Bethel leadership of embracing a divisive, controlling style of leadership. She accuses traditionalists, “You set up the bishops to knock them down and the UMC is this awful institution.” She calls out the Rev. Keith Boyette, the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, for town hall meetings he held in North Georgia. “Quite frankly, the president of the WCA came to North Georgia and had three meetings, and where the superintendents were present, it was open, transparent – a valid discussion. But where he didn’t know if a DS was present, it became this, ‘You know North Georgia is hostile territory if you’re traditionalist.’ North Georgia has a bishop who is out to mow down every traditional inkling in the annual conference. And it became very vindictive, hostile, personal.”
Contrary to Haupert-Johnson’s claims, Boyette believes a district superintendent was present in every one of the meetings he held in North Georgia. His presentation was the same at all the meetings. His goal was not to bash the bishop or the annual conference, but to help people be aware of what their options would be under the Protocol, and to promote the Global Methodist Church as one option for traditionalists. He denies the bishop’s allegations that he became vindictive, hostile, or attacked her personhood.
Why is Haupert-Johnson spending all this time attacking Mt. Bethel and the WCA, rather than engaging with the real hurts and questions of traditionalists in North Georgia? Many of the questions posed in the full-page ad in the Journal Constitution remain unaddressed. Questions such as:
- Why are so many clergy unwilling to hold open discussions with laity about the future of the UMC?
- Why have pastors been verbally reprimanded for hosting Wesleyan Covenant Association events in their churches?
- Have you considered the possibility that the 2019 result, affirming the UMC traditional stance on marriage, was an answer to the widespread calls to prayer by all parties for many weeks and months in advance of that event? And if not, why not?
- Why are you advocating for a policy [the One Church Plan] that our denomination has consistently voted down?
- If all viewpoints are welcome at the table, why was there not a single voice expressed in your webinar opposing the new direction you see for the UMC?
- Why did you refer to the pastors and laity who support the long-established UMC doctrine and polity as a “splinter group?” Have you commissioned surveys of the 300,000 North Georgia members to find out their views?
- How can you fulfill your vow before God to “support and maintain” the doctrine and discipline of the church established by General Conference while at the same time working hard to change it.
The laity and clergy of North Georgia and the entire United Methodist Church are still waiting for openness and transparency from Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson.