Cobb hearing scheduled for lawsuit pitting 185 Methodist churches against denomination

·5 min read

May 15—The first hearing in a lawsuit between 185 Methodist churches and their local governing body is scheduled for Tuesday morning in Cobb Superior Court.

The churches, which include nine Cobb-based congregations, are suing the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. The dispute stems from the conference issuing a pause in the process through which local churches can leave the UMC denomination.

United Methodists are in the midst of a schism over social issues, namely same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ people. UMC churches can disaffiliate from their denomination and retain assets, if they do so for reasons of conscience related to LGBTQ issues.

Nine Cobb churches are involved in the suit. According to 2022 North Georgia Conference data, the largest is Due West UMC, with 4,815 members, followed by McEachern Memorial UMC (3,592 members) and Kennesaw UMC (1,673 members).

The other six churches all have memberships ranging from 50 to 500 members. They are Mountain View UMC, County Line UMC, New Beginnings UMC, Covenant UMC, St. Stephen UMC and Shiloh UMC of Kennesaw.

A spokesperson for the North Georgia Conference referred the MDJ to Bishop Robin Dease's statement in March.

"While we review the lawsuit with the appropriate counsel, we will refrain from sharing details, however, we are familiar with the issues," Dease wrote at the time.

In response to a request for comment, Due West Senior Pastor David Campbell referred the MDJ to the conference.

The process for disaffiliation is laid out in paragraph 2553 of the UMC's church law, the Book of Discipline. That section, however, sunsets at the end of this year.

Last December, the North Georgia Conference of the UMC, which governs more than 600 churches, paused the disaffiliation process, citing a need to correct misinformation.

Then-Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson wrote in December that the pause would "allow churches to gain more information about the real, rather than the false or hypothetical, future of our church."

"In recent months, District Superintendents holding informational meetings have encountered an astounding proliferation of misinformation in local churches," the conference said on its website. "This misinformation is being intentionally deployed, is present in every district, and has the potential to cause irreparable harm."

In their suit against the conference, the 185 churches argue that the pause, combined with the sunsetting of the 2553 provision, is a conspiracy by the defendants to "run out the clock."

Congregations must vote on leaving the UMC before they can do so.

"This effectively deprives local churches of the right to vote," the plaintiffs wrote of the pause.

Another looming deadline is the North Georgia Conference's annual meeting, scheduled for June 1-3. In order for churches to disaffiliate, their decision must be ratified at the annual meeting. Last summer's meeting saw North Georgia Conference member churches ratify the decision of 70 churches to disaffiliate. The exodus saw the conference lose 9% of its churches and 3% of its members.

The 185 churches suing argue they are being deprived of the rights that those 70 churches were afforded.

Arguing that this summer's meeting is their last chance to disaffiliate before the sunset, the plaintiffs have asked the court to order that the pause be lifted, and that local churches be allowed to vote on disaffiliation.

David Gibbs III, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the MDJ the North Georgia Conference is the only conference in the country which has instituted a pause.

"The churches have a legal right to vote and disaffiliate," Gibbs said. "The problem is, that right expires completely at the end of the year. ... And in north Georgia, they're holding their annual conference on June 1, and after that there's really no way to do it. So more or less, by pausing last December, the conference is running out the clock on the churches having their right to vote. They're being disenfranchised."

The lawsuit was filed in March and names the North Georgia Conference, its board of trustees, several UMC staffers, Haupert-Johnson, and her successor, Bishop Dease.

When and how churches leave the UMC has major financial implications.

The assets of UMC churches are held in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination. However, the disaffiliation process laid out in paragraph 2553 allows churches to retain their assets when leaving the UMC.

"The financial terms of (paragraph) 2553 are highly beneficial to Plaintiffs and put them in the position to obtain a release from the UMC trust clause for a relatively small payment of money," the plaintiffs argue in the suit. "This fact may be the single largest motivating factor guiding Defendants' bad conduct. Once 2553 expires the only remaining option for churches to leave the denomination involves closing a church and attempting to negotiate a buy-back from the conference at market value."

The plaintiffs also argued that the pause has led to exasperated members leaving their congregations, which further leads to a reduction in giving.

The split among Methodists made headlines in Cobb last year when east Cobb's Mt. Bethel Church left the denomination.

Mt. Bethel was the largest church in the North Georgia Conference before it split off. After attempting to leave the UMC in 2021, the Conference sued Mt. Bethel, alleging several violations of the Book of Discipline. Mt. Bethel countersued, arguing the Conference was denying its right to vote on disaffiliation.

The parties later reached a settlement in which Mt. Bethel paid $13.1 million to leave the UMC.