By Walter Fenton
October 15, 2021
Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church has filed a counterclaim against the North Georgia Annual Conference’s Board of Trustees in a matter stemming from Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s decision to reappoint the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray, the congregation’s senior pastor.
Both Ray and Mt. Bethel’s Staff Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) and Administrative Board were surprised and dismayed by Haupert-Johnson’s early April 2021 decision to move him from one of the largest local churches in the conference without ever speaking directly to him or the chairwoman of the committee.
Unlike most reappointments of large church pastors, the bishop made her decision just two months before annual conference. She initially wanted Ray to assume his new duties in just four weeks. Mt. Bethel’s SPRC and 50-member Administrative Council believed the move left little or no time available for the kind of consultation and search process that typically attends the reappointment of a senior pastor at a large church.
The congregation of over 10,000 members, with two campuses, and a K-12 school, petitioned Haupert-Johnson to reconsider her abrupt decision. The church maintained the sudden move would adversely impact its ministries and missions and the lives of hundreds of staff members, teachers, and volunteers who support them. The bishop declined to reverse her decision.
“I have served as a pastor in The United Methodist Church for more than 40 years,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, a pastor at The Woodlands Methodist Church (The Woodlands, Texas), a congregation routinely listed as the second or third largest church in the denomination. Renfroe is also the President of Good News. “I have never seen a bishop go about an appointment change the way Bishop Haupert-Johnson has at Mt. Bethel. There was no crisis or emergency at the church or in the North Georgia Annual Conference requiring a pastoral change. Mt. Bethel’s staff parish relations committee did not request a pastoral change. Nor did Pastor Jody. It was a very perplexing move to say the least.”
Once Haupert-Johnson refused to reverse her decision, it precipitated a chain of ensuing actions. Haupert-Johnson filed a complaint against Ray and suspended him. Ray surrendered his clergy credentials. The church then directly hired him as its Lay Preacher and Senior Administrator, and it also filed to disaffiliate from the North Georgia Annual Conference under a provision adopted at the UM Church’s special 2019 General Conference.
Haupert-Johnson and conference leaders responded by declaring “exigent circumstances” existed at the church necessitating its closure and reorganization by annual conference officials. The congregation disputed the claim, noting that it continues to hold well attended in-person and online worship services at both of its campuses, its school remains open, and its many ministry and mission programs regularly draw hundreds of participants and volunteers.
Attorneys and leaders representing both the conference and the church engaged in mediation, but it did not lead to a resolution. The conference declared an impasse even though Mt. Bethel expressed its commitment to finding a solution outside the secular legal system.
The conference then filed a civil suit against the congregation seeking control of all of the 180-year-old church’s expansive properties and assets. According to the UM Church’s Book of Discipline, Haupert-Johnson and conference trustees maintained that since they declared “exigent circumstances” exist at the church, they are entitled to invoke the denomination’s trust clause, which states that local churches hold all local property and assets in trust for the conference and denomination.
In its counterclaim Mt. Bethel contends exigent circumstances do not exist at the church so there is no genuine or compelling reason for the conference to invoke the trust clause. Citing the same Book of Discipline Haupert-Johnson and conference trustees referenced, the church seeks to exercise its right to vote to disaffiliate from the conference and it asks for an injunction compelling the annual conference to allow for a vote. In the past two years other local churches have successfully used the disaffiliation provision to parts ways with the general denomination.
Additionally, Mt. Bethel asserts the conference and third-party defendants, including Haupert-Johnson, have breached fiduciary duties owed to Mt. Bethel, and engaged in a fraudulent conspiracy, among other claims for relief.
All that has transpired since Haupert-Johnson’s decision to move Ray comes amid the likely separation of the UM Church. Just prior to the denomination’s pandemic induced postponement of its 2020 General Conference, 862 delegates from around the world were set to vote on a proposal calling for an amicable and orderly separation of the 12-million-member global denomination.
Leading bishops and representatives from deeply divided factions in the church had hammered out what they called the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Its implementing legislation, which was widely endorsed by centrists, progressives, traditionalists, and leading bishops, appeared headed for approval. It would have allowed traditionalist congregations, like Mt. Bethel, the right to vote to join a theologically conservative church while maintaining control of their properties and assets.
“When the General Conference does convene [scheduled for August 29-September 6, 2022], we’re confident the majority of the delegates will vote for the Protocol,” said the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore, Lead Pastor at Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia and the Chairwoman of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Council. “I think the vast majority of United Methodists recognize the wisdom of the Protocol; they believe it’s time – past time – to end the quarrelling and allow people and local churches to go their own ways as peacefully and orderly as possible.”
Prior to Haupert-Johnson’s abrupt decision to move Ray, the Mt. Bethel congregation, like many others, was discussing the details of the Protocol, trying to understand the ramifications of a twice postponed General Conference, and exploring the disaffiliation provision the denomination approved in 2019. Although Haupert-Johnson said she decided to move Ray because she had another pastor in mind that she believed was better suited to lead the church to be healthy and vibrant, many Mt. Bethel congregants and people across the UM connection still think the move was ill-timed and ill-advised given local and general church circumstances.
In its preliminary statement to its counterclaim, Mt. Bethel states:
“This lawsuit represents an unfortunate rejection of years of good-faith effort within [the UM Church] to avoid the same painful and costly litigation that has beset other Christian denominations undergoing similar theological splits. Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, District Superintendent Jessica Terrell, and the Trustees of the UMC North Georgia [Annual] Conference . . . orchestrated a pastoral conflict with Mt. Bethel and then proclaimed a sham ‘closure’ and take-over of the local church.”
Mt. Bethel filed its counterclaim on Friday, October 8; it now awaits a court date for adjudication of the dispute.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.
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