A regional body of the United Methodist Church has seized control of the assets of a Georgia megachurch trying to leave the mainline Protestant denomination.
The leadership of the UMC North Georgia Conference unanimously voted to approve the seizure of assets belonging to Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church, a Marietta-based congregation with approximately 10,000 members.
In April, Mt. Bethel voted to begin a process of discernment for leaving the UMC due to the conference’s decision to remove its senior pastor from his position and what they viewed as the overall direction of the denomination.
An announcement Monday explains that the conference undertook the measure “out of love for the church and its mission,” citing “exigent circumstances” for the decision.
“Given this determination, all assets of the local church have transferred immediately to the Conference Board of Trustees of the North Georgia Conference,” the statement reads.
“These conference agencies have taken action to preserve the legacy of the Mt. Bethel church and its longstanding history of mission and ministry.”
The regional body quoted from the UMC Book of Discipline. The book lists that among the responsibilities of the Conference Broad of Trustees is to “intervene and take all necessary legal steps to safeguard and protect the interests and rights of the annual conference anywhere and in all matters relating to property and rights to property whether arising by gift, devise, or otherwise, or where held in trust or established for the benefit of the annual conference or its membership.”
“The Trustees will assume management of the church,” the announcement continues. “Employment, instruction, activities, and worship at the church and Academy will continue, but under the direction and control of the Conference Board of Trustees.”
In response, Mt. Bethel UMC posted a denunciation of the decision on their FAQ page, taking issue with the claim by North Georgia Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the conference of there being “exigent circumstances."
The church pointed to examples of the contrary, including them having a vibrant and growing congregation, financial stability and adhering to Book of Discipline rules regarding clergy.
“Despite an unresolved formal complaint, Mt. Bethel has agreed to accept ‘appointed’ clergy under protest given that said proposal has been approved by the North Georgia Conference and is now official,” stated the church.
“Mt. Bethel has not violated the Discipline by hiring its ‘preaching pastor,’ nor has it allowed uncredentialed use of the Pulpit. Moreover, any prior unauthorized or uncredentialed use of the Pulpit could not constitute future exigent circumstances now that Mt. Bethel has accepted the appointment of Senior Pastor Dr. Steven Usry.”
The church's website reports that the bishop's claim of "exigent circumstances" has been "refuted in complaints that are presently under review by a higher authority within the Southeast Jurisdiction College of Bishops of the United Methodist Church."
"As such, her actions are in disobedience to the order and discipline of the UMC," the FAQ page argues.
On April 18, the Mt. Bethel Administrative Council voted unanimously to enter into the disaffiliation process after the conference reassigned lead pastor, Jody Ray, to another position.
In the UMC, pastors are typically assigned to churches for one year at a time, with the likelihood of being assigned to a different congregation or another role happening on an annual basis. Ray served with Mt. Bethel for over five years but was reassigned to an "evolving conference position having to do with racial reconciliation."
“Given the recent actions of our bishop and the direction of the United Methodist denomination, both the leadership and members of Mt. Bethel Church strongly believe it is time for us to part ways with the denomination,” a church spokesperson told The Christian Post in April.
“We believe this process could be accomplished in a matter of months if the Bishop and the North Georgia Annual Conference are willing to enter into an amicable and orderly disaffiliation.”
Mt. Bethel also filed a complaint against the North Georgia Conference before the UMC Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops, accusing the conference of interfering with the church's ministerial efforts.
The conference has defended the decision to reassign Ray, providing CP with a copy of a pastoral letter by the bishop justifying the action.
“The reassignment of a pastor is not done out of spite. The placement of a pastor is not done as a form of punishment. The reassignment of a pastor is not designed to persecute,” wrote Bishop Haupert-Johnson.
“Instead, the process is begun with the goal of matching the gifts and graces of a particular pastor with the ministry needs of a particular congregation and community in a particular season.”