Future uncertain for Mt. Bethel amid split from United Methodist Church

Jul. 1—In April, the bishop of the United Methodist Church's North Georgia Annual Conference appointed Steven Usry as the new senior pastor for Mt. Bethel UMC in east Cobb.

Usry was scheduled to take over Thursday.

In the time since, the leadership of Mt. Bethel, including the head pastor, mounted a public campaign in opposition to the appointment, filed a formal complaint about the appointment process and — most dramatically — said they would be disaffiliating from the denomination.

A Mt. Bethel spokesperson said Tuesday its Staff-Parish Relations Committee and Usry have not yet determined when Usry will arrive at Mt. Bethel, but his role at the church will be "limited."

It remains unclear when, or even if, Mt. Bethel will disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, as the process requires a two-thirds majority vote from members. Such a vote will likely not occur until at least next spring, a church spokesperson said.

Upon announcing their planned exit from the UMC, Mt. Bethel lay leaders had said the church was hiring its senior pastor, Jody Ray, as lead preacher and CEO.

Ray, who had been reassigned by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson to make way for Usry, would be surrendering his UMC credentials in order to stay at Mt. Bethel.

In the UMC, the second largest protestant denomination in the U.S., regional bishops have the authority to reassign pastors as they see fit, but Mt. Bethel leaders contend Haupert-Johnson did not follow the proper process in doing so, an allegation the bishop disputes. Ray joined Mt. Bethel in 2016.

Even after Usry arrives, "Dr. Ray, in his position as Head Administrator and Lead Preacher, will have supervisory authority over all church staff, under the authority of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee" said Johnna Bain, a spokesperson for Ray and Mt. Bethel's leaders, on Tuesday.

Usry provided a statement through conference spokesman Dan Curran.

"Naturally, my ministry at Mt Bethel is just beginning, but I am excited for this appointment to this church and this community," Usry said. "While I am a bit dismayed by what has been said by some Mt Bethel leaders about the bishop and conference, I know Mt. Bethel to be a great church. I am confident if we all work together we can do powerful ministry for Christ."

Tensions boiling overThe announcement of Ray's reassignment sparked opposition immediately. Lay leaders called the decision "hasty" and "ill-conceived," filing a complaint with the UMC and saying that the bishop failed to consult with Ray prior to informing him of his reassignment. Ray had been asked to work in a newly created position with the conference, working on racial reconciliation.

"Many people know my heart for this very important issue and timely matter," Ray said in a statement at the time. But, Ray contended, Haupert-Johnson did not consult with him prior to reassigning him, she merely notified him of his new role.

A petition opposing the reassignment garnered over 4,800 signatures, telling the bishop the church needed continuity coming out of the pandemic.

Haupert-Johnson countered those claims in a public letter, saying Ray hung up on the district superintendent when she called to discuss his appointment and that Mt. Bethel leaders refused to engage in meaningful conversation on the matter.

In an April sermon Ray characterized Haupert-Johnson as a liberal bishop punishing him for his conservative views, telling his family in the audience to "remember this day, that your daddy didn't bow the knee nor kiss the ring of progressive theology."

Like other denominations, the United Methodist Church is fracturing over issues of gay marriage and LGBTQ pastors. Mt. Bethel is affiliated with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group of conservative Methodist churches. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is planning to split from the UMC to form a new "Global Methodist Church." A vote to split the church was supposed to take place at the UMC's 2020 general conference, but the conference was postponed to 2022 because of the pandemic.

The North Georgia conference did not grant the MDJ's request for an interview with the bishop, but Haupert-Johnson discussed the issue in two video-taped conversations posted to the conference's website (Bain said Mt. Bethel tried to accommodate the MDJ's request for an interview with Ray, but that Ray is out of town on vacation).

In a video-taped May conversation with a UMC layperson and historian, Haupert-Johnson said Usry himself, the former pastor at Sugarloaf UMC in Duluth, is "very traditional."

Mt. Bethel member Mike Boyce, the former chairman of the Cobb Cobb Board of Commissioners, told the MDJ he had met Usry and considered him a traditionalist.

"Many of us (members), you know, we feel sad for him, that he's been thrown into this situation," Boyce told the MDJ. "He's just responding to the call of the bishop ... but he's definitely between a rock and a hard place."

In the same conversation, Haupert-Johnson said she and others received calls from Mt. Bethel members saying they had been asked to leave the church or resign from leadership because of their views, saying "we don't have a place in this church, we're being forced out, we don't have a voice," and expressing desire for "a new day" at Mt. Bethel. The bishop also said she was concerned about Mt. Bethel being ranked fifth in attendance in the conference, despite it being the conference's largest church by membership (total weekly attendance is about 2,300, on average).

In another conversation that was filmed and posted to the conference website, Haupert-Johnson told her executive assistant that "what drove the move at Mt. Bethel was the availability of Steven Usry — in a nutshell." She also said the end of the pandemic was a good time for new blood as it represents a new beginning. The bishop has continued to maintain Mt. Bethel was treated no differently than any other church.

"The leadership of Mt. Bethel, I am very concerned about their ability to lead the church in a healthy way ... at the end of the day they are a United Methodist Church ... they have cast dispersion on our whole system and dragged it through the press, and I think that is pretty despicable," the bishop said.

A force in east Cobb

Mt. Bethel is the largest church in the North Georgia Conference, itself the largest UMC conference in the country. The church dates back more than 175 years. In addition to a church of about 9,000 members, it operates Mt. Bethel Christian Academy, a K-12 school which last year had 680 students.

Mt. Bethel's 44-acre main campus on Lower Roswell Road includes the church and the academy's lower and middle schools. The upper school is located on a single parcel, a 34-acre campus on Post Oak Tritt Road, which also serves as the church's "north campus."

Disaffiliation could have implications for the church and its millions of dollars in assets.

Mt. Bethel owns 16 properties in the vicinity of its main campus. The properties are located on Lower Roswell Road, Fairfield Drive, Woodlawn Drive and Johnson Ferry Road, according to Cobb County property records, and include church and school buildings, parking lots, several houses and a historic cemetery.

The total market value of Mt. Bethel's church-owned buildings, vehicles and equipment is $34.6 million, according to 2019 North Georgia Conference data, plus another $1.1 million in financial assets and other liquid assets. The conference's reports and statistical tables are not available past 2019.

However, United Methodist churches do not own property and assets in the traditional sense. The UMC's Book of Discipline, which governs the denomination, mandates that the assets of local churches are held in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination.

"Ownership and usage of church property is subject to the Discipline," the church law says. "This trust requirement is an essential element of the historic polity of The United Methodist Church or its predecessor denominations or communions and has been a part of the Discipline since 1797."

Mt. Bethel Christian Academy's property, however, is not subject to the trust clause, according to Bain.

Death and taxesIn recent years, Mt. Bethel has not paid in full the apportionment — essentially church taxes that fund ministries for the entire UMC — that the conference has requested. The conference has asked for amounts ranging from $694,000 to $730,000 over the past four years. In 2017 and 2018, Mt. Bethel paid about 75% of the requested amount. In 2019 and 2020, it paid about $268,000 and $278,000, respectively, a little less than 40% of the requested amount.

Sybil Davidson, a spokesperson for the bishop, said that prior to disaffiliation, a local church must pay to the conference any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months immediately prior and an additional 12 months of apportionments, plus unfunded pension obligations, direct-bill obligations and other liabilities.

However, Mt. Bethel's Bain pointed out that "many churches in the North Georgia conference and around the country do not pay 100% of the requested apportionment funds assigned to them by their Annual Conference." For example, from 2017-2019, Sugarloaf UMC didn't pay a penny of its apportionment and in 2020 paid just 18% of its approximately $71,000 apportionment, according to conference records.

The UMC collected about 79.3% of its apportionments in 2020, according to UM News, the official news agency of the UMC.

"Mt. Bethel has not paid 100% of the requested apportionment funds due to restrictions placed on monies given by contributors stipulating that their donations are designated to remain at Mt. Bethel, and not be sent to the Conference," Bain said.

Should Mt. Bethel follow through on its promise to disaffiliate, it would have to pay at least a year's worth of apportionment, somewhere in the range of $700,000, plus any unpaid apportionment for the year prior to the disaffiliation date. The congregation must be informed of Mt. Bethel's financial obligations to the UMC before voting on disaffiliation, church law says.

Disaffiliation processWhen it comes to property, though, there seems to be an out for Mt. Bethel. Church law adopted in 2019 allows local churches to disaffiliate for "reasons of conscience" regarding LGBTQ issues and be released from the "trust clause," per Davidson.

Bain said Mt. Bethel would disaffiliate under this law, since it is "the only prescribed method for disaffiliation currently available to United Methodist congregations."

According to Davidson, under church law, a church conference must be called by the district superintendent, where a two-thirds majority must approve the resolution to disaffiliate. The resolution must then be ratified by members of the North Georgia conference.

Bain said Mt. Bethel notified the district superintendent of its request to begin disaffiliation on April 18 and requested a church conference be called as soon as possible.

The superintendent, Bain said, indicated she would not consider calling a conference earlier than spring 2022.

"We have had several communications since then pointing out there is no reason to delay and asking for more immediate action," Bain said. "We have not received a response."

Bain said the church has made "numerous attempts" to meet with the bishop and has suggested hiring a mediator to resolve the issues but received no response.

Usry has left Sugarloaf UMC, Sugarloaf confirmed to the MDJ. Whenever he arrives, Bain said Mt. Bethel will, "under protest," pay him the minimum conference salary and minimum housing allowance.

"It would not be appropriate, or respectful to Dr. Usry, to comment publicly on matters of compensation," Bain said.

According to the conference's website, a full-time local pastor must receive a minimum salary of $34,815 and a $17,600 housing stipend.