Georgia megachurch asks court to allow vote on leaving UMC after pastor was reassigned

Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church of Marietta, Georgia. In April 2021, the church voted to begin a profess of disaffiliation from the UMC. | Mt. Bethel UMC

A Georgia megachurch has requested an injunction against a regional body of the United Methodist Church, claiming that the denomination is unlawfully interfering with its plans to hold a vote on whether to disaffiliate with America's second-largest Protestant denomination.

The Marietta-based Mt. Bethel Church, which boasts approximately 10,000 members, filed a motion for an interlocutory injunction in the Superior Court of Cobb County Monday against various UMC North Georgia Conference officials. The legal filing was a counterclaim in response to a lawsuit filed by the conference on Sept. 8. 

According to Mt. Bethel, the issue is the congregation's desire to move forward with a congregational vote to determine if the church will disaffiliate from the UMC and how, according to the motion, the regional church leadership is stopping them from doing so.

"Mt. Bethel expects to prevail on the merits of Petitioner Trustees' claims," states the motion,  a copy of which was emailed to The Christian Post on Tuesday.

"However, interlocutory relief is necessary during the pendency of this litigation to prevent delay and irreparable harm caused by the Regional UMC Administrators' actions from depriving Mt. Bethel of the right to disaffiliate from the UMC and keep its property."

Jeffrey A. Daxe, an attorney representing Mt. Bethel, told CP that the defendants are waiting for a hearing to be scheduled.

Although both parties had previously agreed to engage in mediation in late July over the disputed process and property and asset ownership questions, Daxe said the effort failed to produce an agreement.

"Despite Mt. Bethel's best efforts, we were not able to come to a mediated solution with Bishop Sue Haupert-Jonhson and the Trustees of the North Georgia Conference," he said.

In a statement emailed to CP on Tuesday, the North Georgia Conference Communications Office stated that the conference believes Mt. Bethel's claims in the legal filings lack merit.

"The responses offered by Mt Bethel's leadership team reveal their basic misunderstanding of the policies and procedures that govern United Methodist churches and of Georgia law," the conference's statement reads.

"The path that Mt Bethel's leaders have chosen is both legally untenable and also very damaging to the mission and ministry of the church. We look forward to a swift resolution of these issues in the Cobb County Superior Court."

The conference further stated that it has "adopted a disaffiliation process and other local churches are proceeding with that policy."

"Mt. Bethel leaders believe that they are exempt from following the appropriate process. Mt. Bethel's request for disaffiliation does not exempt them from compliance with other provisions of the Book of Discipline," the statement continued.

In April, Mt. Bethel's 50-member administrative council unanimously voted to begin a discernment process for leaving the UMC, citing the reassignment of lead pastor Jody Ray and the general direction of the denomination as reasons. Now, the church is asking the court to allow a vote before the full congregation. 

The UMC has experienced much internal debate over the church's official opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Many within the denomination expect a schism over the issue to come soon.

Ray had served with Mt. Bethel for over five years. He was reassigned to another position within the conference dealing with racial reconciliation. The congregation argues that the conference didn't follow the expected process for new appointments. Over 4,800 supporters have signed an online petition against Ray's reassignment. 

On July 12, before an attempted mediation between the two parties, the conference announced that they had seized control of Mt. Bethel's assets, explaining that it was done "out of love for the church and its mission." The conference cited "exigent circumstances" for the decision.

Mt. Bethel UMC denounced the decision and took issue with the claim by North Georgia Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the conference of "exigent circumstances."

The church pointed to contrary examples, such as having a growing and vibrant congregation, financial stability and adhering to Book of Discipline rules regarding the appointment of clergy.

"Mt. Bethel has not violated the Discipline by hiring its' preaching pastor,' nor has it allowed uncredentialed use of the Pulpit," stated Mt. Bethel at the time.

"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."

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