Unbelievable Heartbreak: Confronting the Mess My Bishop Created at Mt. Bethel Church
By Casey Alarcon
September 10, 2021
When Christians feel mistreated, how should we respond? As devoted church members, what recourse do we have when we believe church leadership has behaved badly? The Bible addresses the first question. The United Methodist Church has established ways to address the latter. But when put to the test, does our denomination’s Book of Discipline afford any real measure of comfort or resolution of grievances? I’m afraid this Methodist has been left wanting.
In April 2021, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Annual Conference made an abrupt and unrequested decision to move Mt. Bethel Church’s senior minister, the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray. I know it was abrupt and unrequested because I serve on the church’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC); the committee was among the last to hear about it.
Typically, a change of this magnitude in a church our size – with a K-12 Christian school attached – would involve several conversations and consultations. Meetings would begin nine to 12 months prior to such a major change as the church and conference carefully considered the gifts and graces required of a pastor overseeing numerous programs and a large staff. These conversations are part of a deliberative process to ensure a smooth transition and the continued health and vitality of the church. Unfortunately, our bishop refused to engage in any meaningful and deliberative consultation with us. We became very concerned that the best interests of Mt. Bethel, its mission and ministries, were being ignored.
As a result, on April 18, Mt. Bethel’s duly elected 50-member Administrative Council unanimously voted to request disaffiliation from the North Georgia Annual Conference. The conference has essentially ignored the church’s request despite the UM Church’s 2019 approved policy that outlines a process for disaffiliation. Indeed, other annual conferences have received and managed similar requests with a good measure of grace, mutual respect and even affection.
However, our bishop, the shepherd of our conference, has now decided to take a disagreement among Christians into the secular courts. She has falsely accused our church of violating the Discipline. She has tarnished our reputation by spreading rumors that our church is in “exigent circumstances,” and hinted that our lay leadership is compromised. Even so, we have sought and still seek mediation as a means to reach a mutual agreement for the life of our wonderful church.
In the months of waiting for a response to our request, I joined several other members of Mt. Bethel’s Administrative Council to file three complaints against Bishop Haupert-Johnson with the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops. This body provides the only recourse for church members like us, who maintain our bishop’s actions are improper. Our three complaints centered around the following actions or lack thereof by our bishop:
Failure to engage in the consultative process prior to the abrupt change announced about our senior minister.
Failure to move forward on Mt. Bethel’s request for disaffiliation.
Falsely claiming Mt. Bethel is in exigent circumstances.
On August 27, 2021, we were informed that the first complaint had been dismissed, and the second and third complaints were recommended for mediation. The dismissal continues a pattern we, and many other UM laity, have come to expect from UM Church leaders: a failure to hold bishops accountable to our denomination’s standards. Surely, the entire committee did not believe our valid arguments were without merit and at least deserved further airing?
As a faithful United Methodist, it pains me to reflect on the lack of leadership within our denomination. But the way Mt. Bethel has been treated further illustrates the brokenness, inability, unwillingness, and lack of courage within the UM Church to seek a just resolution and hold our bishops accountable when necessary. Even the world’s standards of justice are higher.
Mt. Bethel is a healthy, vibrant church despite all the turmoil and disruption Bishop Haupert-Johnson has caused. Worship continues, ministry continues, the school buildings and the playing fields are full, and attendance at our weekly services remain among the highest in the conference. But now our bishop thinks it is necessary to drag one of her healthiest congregations into the secular courts. It is truly a sad day.
Any outside observer could lament the situation we find ourselves in – a bishop suing one of her own churches. For me, it’s personal. I was raised at Mt. Bethel. I was brought to the altar for baptism, confirmed into membership, and my father walked me down the long center aisle to be married. I have attended the weddings and funerals of dear friends in our sanctuary and stood up during hundreds of baptisms to pledge that “with God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that these children, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.”
I pledged those very same things for my own children when they were baptized and confirmed at Mt. Bethel. By the power of the Holy Spirit, I endeavor to live them out and trust my fellow members will hold me accountable. In all these years, I grew in the faith through prayer, discipleship, and service alongside my brothers and sisters in our beautiful church. To say I am heartbroken and grieve the disruption and conflict caused by Bishop Haupert-Johnson is an understatement. And I am far from alone.
Mt. Bethel is an unashamedly theologically conservative congregation. This is not news to anyone who knows or visits our church. We have been watching and praying for the final passage of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation when a General Conference can finally take place (in fact, had the Protocol been passed in 2020 as originally envisioned prior to the pandemic, Mt. Bethel would have already parted ways with an increasingly progressive post-separation UM Church). Bishop Haupert-Johnson sees a different future and she is entitled to her beliefs. Our beloved church is now simply asking for its voice to be heard; let us vote on disaffiliation. Give our members a chance to speak to the heart of our faith and stake a claim for the future of Mt. Bethel Church.
Mrs. Casey Alarcon is a long-time member of Mt. Bethel Church and the chairwoman of its Staff-Parish Relations Committee.
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