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United Methodist Conference Seizes Church Assets in Dispute

A regional governing body for a Protestant denomination has seized the assets of a large congregation in Georgia in a dispute over who should be the senior pastor.

Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church, in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, has about 8,000 members and is one of the largest congregations in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. The conference said in a statement Monday that it was “acting out of love for the church and its mission,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

The Mt. Bethel church also has the Mt. Bethel Christian Academy. According to the statement from the conference, the title to the congregation’s real, personal, tangible, and intangible property was immediately transferred to the conference’s Board of Trustees, “who may hold or dispose of such property in its sole discretion.”

The statement also said the employment, instruction, activities, and worship at the church and the school will continue “but under the direction and control of the Conference Board of Trustees.”

The North Georgia Conference and the leadership at the conservative Mt. Bethel church have been in a dispute for months.

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In April, the Rev. Jody Ray, who has served as the congregation’s senior pastor for about five years, surrendered his credentials and said the congregation was taking steps to leave the denomination. At issue was the planned reassignment of Ray, who was to be appointed to the conference staff related to racial reconciliation. Ray contends he was never consulted about the move.

In a previous interview, Ray said the reassignment could be due to the church not paying its full share to the annual conference for several years. He also thinks the congregation’s support of the Book of Discipline’s conservative stance on the issue of homosexuality may have been a factor.

The Rev. Steven Usry was appointed “pastor-in-charge,” beginning July 1.

Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the eight district superintendents “have unanimously determined that ‘exigent circumstances’ have threatened the continued vitality and mission of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church,” according to the conference statement. “Given this determination, all assets of the local church have transferred immediately to the conference’s Board of Trustees of the North Georgia Conference.”

The conference said a decision could be made next summer about whether to close the local church.

In an April 26 pastoral letter, Haupert-Johnson wrote that the “reassignment of a pastor is 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.”

After the seizure of assets was announced, Mt. Bethel issued a statement saying Haupert-Johnson had failed to engage in the denomination’s consultative process.

“While she claims she is acting out of ‘love for the church and its mission,’ enlisting attorneys and the courts to seize assets is a strange way for a bishop to show her love for one of the healthiest churches in her conference,” according to the congregation’s statement.

Mark Tooley agrees.  He writes about the United Methodist Church at the Institute for Religion and Democracy.  He told MinistryWatch, “It’s tragic the liberal Bishop could not negotiate with the congregation as the denomination prepares to divide. Instead she’s chosen a course that’ll likely cost North Georgia United Methodism hundreds of thousands of dollars if not more in needless litigation.  There will be no winners under her scenario.”