Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Mt. Bethel.

By Thomas Lambrecht —

In a dramatic and unprecedented move, the North Georgia Annual Conference has initiated action to seize control of the assets of the largest congregation in the conference, Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. The conference cited “exigent circumstances [that] have threatened the continued vitality and mission of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church.”

This action comes as an escalation of a months-long conflict over Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s attempt to replace the lead pastor of Mt. Bethel, the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray. The bishop’s attempt to appoint the Rev. Dr. Steven Usry as the new lead pastor and move Ray to a conference staff position did not follow the Book of Discipline’s requirement for consultation with Ray or Mt. Bethel prior to making the move. The congregation’s leaders and Ray believed the move would be highly disruptive to the largest congregation in the annual conference that employs 300 staff, including a Christian day care, pre-school, and K-12 Christian Academy day school. This was especially true in light of Mt. Bethel’s stated intention, as a congregational member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and host of the 2018 WCA Global Gathering, to separate from the UM Church and align with the new Global Methodist Church following the enactment of the Protocol in 2022. Therefore, they asked the bishop to reconsider her decision. Instead, the bishop filed charges against Ray, causing him to surrender his clergy credentials. Mt. Bethel then hired him as its “Lay Preacher and Senior Administrator.”

At the same time, Mt. Bethel filed a formal request for disaffiliation from the UM Church under the new process established by the 2019 General Conference. The bishop has refused to initiate the process of disaffiliation and imposed a unilateral condition on such disaffiliation that Mt. Bethel must be “in compliance with the Book of Discipline” before she would consider moving ahead with the process. There is no such requirement for “compliance” as a precondition for disaffiliation, either in the Book of Discipline or in the North Georgia Conference policies and procedures for disaffiliation.

Closing the Church

Under ¶ 2549 of the Book of Discipline, an annual conference can “recommend the closure of a local church, upon a finding that: a) The local church no longer serves the purpose for which it was organized or incorporated (¶¶ 201-204); or b) The local church property is no longer used, kept, or maintained by its membership as a place of divine worship of The United Methodist Church.” Clearly, Mt. Bethel continues to worship and serve as a United Methodist congregation, even during this dispute over the pastoral appointment. They do not fit the criteria that should trigger the closure of the church.

Further in ¶ 2549, “At any time between sessions of annual conference, if the presiding bishop, the majority of the district superintendents, and the appropriate district board of church location and building all consent, they may, in their sole discretion, declare that exigent circumstances exist that require immediate protection of the local church’s property, for the benefit of the denomination. In such case, title to all the real and personal, tangible and intangible property of the local church shall immediately vest in the annual conference board of trustees who may hold or dispose of such property in its sole discretion, subject to any standing rule of the annual conference.”

This latter provision gives the bishop, cabinet, and district board of church location and building authority to unilaterally close a local church that is no longer meeting, if “exigent circumstances” exist that would threaten the viability of the local church’s assets. For example, if the church’s congregation stopped meeting and ceased maintaining the building in good working order, the conference could step in to protect the integrity of the building. This provision was never intended to be used as “punishment” against a local church for disagreeing with the bishop. In addition, this provision is rarely used, mostly with small, dying churches. It has never to my knowledge been used to close a congregation of the size and vitality of Mt. Bethel. Even some progressive leaders are publicly aghast at what they see as an abuse of episcopal power.

“Exigent circumstances” means “requiring immediate action or aid; urgent; pressing.” There is nothing about the Mt. Bethel situation that requires immediate action. There is no evidence that any of the church’s assets are in jeopardy of being lost, damaged, or misappropriated. All the church wanted was to be left alone to continue its excellent and effective ministry in Cobb County until the passage of the Protocol enabled the church to realign with the Global Methodist Church.

The bishop does not really want to “close” Mt. Bethel. She wants the church’s ministry to continue, but under the direction of the annual conference trustees, rather than Mt. Bethel’s duly elected lay leaders. She is therefore perpetrating a legal fiction (the “closing” of Mt. Bethel) to justify her seizure of the church’s assets and usurping control of the congregation’s ministry.

As for the “exigent circumstances” the conference is relying upon to “close” the church and seize its assets, the bishop made a number of allegations about how the church is disobeying the Discipline. Mt. Bethel has refuted all of those allegations, including providing documentary evidence. The church even acknowledged its willingness to accept Usry as an appointed pastor to the church, while continuing to operate under the direction of the church’s duly elected lay leadership. The bishop and conference leaders failed to respond to the church’s reply, moving instead to seize the church assets. Those assets are worth in excess of $34 million, according to annual conference reports.

When it comes to “exigent circumstances,” Mt. Bethel has led the annual conference in many measures of healthy vital ministry in the last five years, including total membership, attendance, giving, missions, and others. If Mt. Bethel is in such bad shape that the conference needs to intervene, the bishop should just stipulate that the whole North Georgia Conference is in “exigent circumstances.”

Acting Out of Love?

Ironically, the bishop and conference say they are “acting out of love for the church and its mission.” Mt. Bethel’s statement in response points out, “While she claims she is ‘acting out of love for the church and its mission,’ enlisting attorneys and the courts to seize assets is a strange way for a bishop to show her love for one of the healthiest churches in her conference.”

The statement continues, “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.”

Haupert-Johnson caused this crisis through her “hastily initiat[ing] an ill-timed and an ill-considered move that not only jeopardizes great ministry and missions at Mt. Bethel but also the health and reputation of her entire annual conference,” the statement alleges. In response to her failure to follow the required consultation process, Mt. Bethel leaders filed two complaints against Haupert-Johnson that are currently in the process of adjudication through the church’s complaint process. Rather than wait for those complaints to be resolved, Haupert-Johnson has chosen to press forward with an escalation of the conflict, moving it into the secular legal realm.

In response to the bishop’s abuse of the ¶ 2549 process, the church has filed a third complaint against Haupert-Johnson. However, it is likely that this conflict will wind up in secular court before any complaints can be resolved, due to the bishop’s precipitous action to try to seize the church’s assets.

Not only did Haupert-Johnson cause this crisis, she did so contrary to the “truce” agreed to by most United Methodists in the aftermath of the Protocol’s release – a truce intended to last four months but now stretched out to 32 months by the time General Conference meets. As requested by the Protocol, there has been a moratorium on the filing of complaints for pastors performing same-sex weddings and ordained clergy who are partnered lesbians and gays. There was to be an equal moratorium on the closure of churches. Traditionalists have kept our part of the truce. We are waiting for Haupert-Johnson to do the same.

Haupert-Johnson’s actions over the past four months were taken within less than 18 months of the anticipated General Conference meeting to enact the Protocol and allow for “reconciliation and grace through separation.” It was entirely unforced and unnecessary. Is she now planning on also contesting the right of churches to vote to leave under the Protocol once it is passed?

A Way Out

There are ways out of this crisis. One would be for Haupert-Johnson and the annual conference to stand down and discontinue their actions to try to seize control of Mt. Bethel. She could allow Mt. Bethel to continue its vital ministry as it has been, awaiting the action of General Conference on the Protocol in 2022.

Another way out would be for the bishop and conference to respond to Mt. Bethel’s twice made offer to settle the conflict through a process of mediation. The church is willing to work toward a mutually agreeable resolution through mediation, rather than resort to the confrontational process of civil court proceedings. Thus far, the bishop and conference have failed to respond to the church’s offers of mediation.

The real question in all of this is whether Bishop Haupert-Johnson will proceed with a heart of peace or a heart of war. This language comes from the book The Anatomy of Peace, a book promoted by Haupert-Johnson. That book, and its advocacy for resolving conflict through a heart of peace, guided the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and has been touted by bishops as the way we should treat one another during this liminal time of waiting for the Protocol to be enacted.

A heart of war is evidenced by people who are unwilling to compromise, unwilling to meet and hear the other side’s views, those who demonize their opponents, those who use their power to intimidate and force their will on others, and those who seem incapable of thinking, “maybe I’m wrong and could learn something by listening to the other side.” The spirit of “reconciliation and grace” demonstrated in the Protocol was arrived at by people on all sides of the conflict with a heart of peace and a willingness to find an amicable way forward. The Protocol calls upon all United Methodists, and particularly those in leadership, to exercise that same spirit of reconciliation and grace.

Washington Post article following the 2019 General Conference includes the following quote, “‘I think this is a spiritual exercise,’ said Haupert-Johnson, who favors a split into two denominations, saying she believes population demographics mean Americans will increasingly be under the thumb of African voters unless they split. ‘How do we go about this in a way that you know is of God, led by God? … How do we sense that the Holy Spirit is leading the church now? … If the Methodist church has to get leaner and nicer, I’m all for it. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the pettiness. I’m tired of the fighting to win at all costs.’” We wish the bishop would live up to her own words.

So far, throughout this conflict with Mt. Bethel, Haupert-Johnson has not displayed a heart of peace, but a heart of war. She has been bound to get her way at any cost, even at the cost of damaging the largest congregation for which she has been given a shepherd’s care. She has demonized the Mt. Bethel lay leadership and is using her power to try to force her will upon the church. She has been so determined to get her way that she has been willing to change her story several times in various public statements and videos as to the rationale for her actions. And she and the conference leadership are so determined to have their way they have disregarded all attempts by Mt. Bethel’s leaders to pursue a negotiated resolution to this conflict.

To the amazement and consternation of seasoned members of the annual conference, Haupert-Johnson’s unnecessary conflict with the lay leadership of Mt. Bethel is ensuring that this conflict winds up in civil court. While no court process can have a guaranteed outcome, Mt. Bethel has a strong case. The bishop has violated church process with regard to the initial appointment decision, as well as with her abuse of the Discipline in trying to seize the church’s assets. The church has a process for resolving such disagreements through complaints, which are in process now. Courts are historically reluctant to get in the middle of intra-church conflicts and may dictate that the status quo be preserved while the complaints are pending. In addition, Mt. Bethel has applied for disaffiliation through the church’s own process. The court could mandate that the church’s process be followed, allowing Mt. Bethel to disaffiliate and preserving the assets of the church until such process is completed. Even if the court decides to hear the case, given the backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, it could be years before the case even comes to trial.

This whole situation was caused by Haupert-Johnson herself. She precipitated this crisis through her initial, ill-considered appointment decision and through her stubborn refusal to compromise or engage in dialog. Now, she appears to be using the crisis she created as a pretext to try to take control of the largest congregation in her annual conference.

Time will tell whether the bishop and North Georgia Conference want to continue with a heart of war to coerce faithful congregations and damage vital ministry. For the sake of the church and the cause of Christ, a better way must be pursued.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.