A Georgia megachurch seeking to leave the United Methodist Church and the regional church body that recently seized its assets have begun a mediation process to resolve the tenuous situation.
Mt. Bethel UMC of Marietta, which has about 10,000 members, and the UMC North Georgia Conference jointly announced Wednesday that they are looking to resolve their differences.
“Mt. Bethel UMC and the UMC's North Georgia Conference have jointly agreed to use their best efforts to resolve an ongoing dispute through a mediation process and will refrain from public comment on this matter until the mediation process has concluded,” reads the statement.
The joint statement also explained that Mt. Bethel Christian Academy, a private school overseen by the megachurch that serves kindergarten through 12th grade, “will also be included in the mediation process.”
In April, Mt. Bethel leadership unanimously voted to begin a process of discernment for leaving the UMC, citing as reasons the reassignment of lead pastor Jody Ray and what they considered the overall direction of the mainline Protestant denomination.
UMC pastors are usually assigned to a congregation for one year at a time, with the possibility of being sent to another congregation or a different role occurring annually.
“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.”
The church went on to state that its members “simply want to continue serving in this great community and making our church a beacon of hope for all God’s people.”
Mt. Bethel also filed a complaint before the UMC Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops. The church accused North Georgia Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and a local district superintendent of “Disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church” and Haupert-Johnson of “Relationships and/or Behaviors that Undermines the Ministry of Another Pastor.”
Haupert-Johnson wrote a pastoral letter defending the decision to reassign Ray to another position, saying it was “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 Haupert-Johnson in April.
“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.”
Ray maintained that he wasn't consulted about the reassignment to a position in the conference on racial reconciliation.
On July 12, the conference announced that it had seized control of the church's assets, explaining in a statement that it did so “out of love for the church and its mission." The conference cited “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,” stated the conference at the time.
“These conference agencies have taken action to preserve the legacy of the Mt. Bethel church and its longstanding history of mission and ministry.”
Mt. Bethel leadership disputed the claims of “exigent circumstances,” pointing to examples of the contrary, such as the church having a vibrant congregation, financial stability and adhering to Book of Discipline rules on 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 on an FAQ page entry.
“Mt. Bethel has not violated the Discipline by hiring its ‘preaching pastor,’ nor has it allowed uncredentialed use of the Pulpit."