Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church of East Cobb—the largest congregation in the North Georgia Conference—will be leaving the denomination.
Rustin Parsons, a lay leader of the 8,000-member church, said during a news conference Monday morning that Mt. Bethel was doing so over the North Georgia Conference’s decision to reassign senior pastor Dr. Jody Ray.
“We have begun the process to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church,” Parsons said in reading a statement in the church sanctuary.
“It’s time for us to part ways with the denomination.”
Ray also said at the news conference (you can watch it and read statements here) that he is surrendering his credentials as an ordained minister in the UMC. He will continue serving Mt. Bethel as CEO and lead minister.
The announcements come a week after Mt. Bethel leadership said the church “is not in a position to receive a new senior minister at this time.”
Ray had been reassigned out of the ministry to a role with the North Georgia Conference staff in Atlanta involving racial reconciliation. The North Georgia Conference has 800 churches and more than 340,000 members, and every spring routinely reassigns clergy.
Steven Usry, the senior pastor at Sugarloaf UMC in Duluth, was appointed to succeed Ray at Mt. Bethel, starting in July. Usry was not mentioned at the Mt. Bethel news conference on Monday.
Parsons said that he was “dismayed” by the “abrupt” decision of Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Conference to remove Ray from Mt. Bethel.
“Despite our repeated requests to reverse course, she has refused,” he said, “or provide a reason or rationale for her capricious action.
“We have no intention of accepting another pastor.”
Ray, who came to Mt. Bethel in 2016, said he was told by Haupert-Johnson on April 5 of the reassignment, and said that her “hasty and ill-conceived action” has “undermined her credibility with the people of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church and jeopardized the health and vitality of this great congregation that is a beacon of hope and light in this community and beyond.”
More than 4,000 people signed a petition started last week by church leaders to oppose Ray’s reassignment.
He said he was not given a reason for his reassignment. In the United Methodist Church, ordained ministers are subject to what’s called the “itinerant ministry,” in which they are reassigned at the behest of the denomination.
“Unfortunately, my options were to accept the move, take a leave of absence, or surrender my credentials,” Ray said. “That’s not consultation, it is merely notification, and it violates both the spirit and letter of the covenants that bind us together.”
In a statement issued by the North Georgia Conference, Haupert-Johnson said that “while it is painful for any church or pastor to leave the denomination, there are protocols in place to allow clergy and congregations to depart. These protocols include having at least two-thirds of the congregation vote for disaffiliation and the regional governing body approving the measure.”
In a pastoral letter she issued on Monday, Haupert-Johnson said Ray hung up on the North Georgia Conference superintendent who called him about the reassignment, saying he was interested only in staying at Mt. Bethel.
With more than 12 million members, the UMC is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, behind the Southern Baptist Convention.
Before the COVID pandemic, the United Methodist Church nationwide was in turmoil over a number of theological issues, including the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.
The denomination was to have met in 2020 to begin a “Protocol for Reconciliation through Grace and Separation.” That process has been pushed back to 2022.
During his sermon last week, Ray addressed his children by saying that “your Daddy didn’t bow the knee, or kiss the ring, of progressive theology. . . . which is no theology.”
In her pastoral letter, Haupert-Johnson said Ray’s sermon “cast this as a ‘hostile takeover’ by an evil, ungodly woman bishop and denigrating The United Methodist Church.
“This reckless behavior has caused a great deal of pain to the congregation and threatens its covenant with The United Methodist Church.”
She further said that Mt. Bethel leaders:
“Refused to have any meaningful conversation, and instead threatened that $3-4 million would walk out of the church if they were not allowed to deviate from the appointive process and keep their pastor. When asked to further the consultation by submitting written concerns to the Cabinet, they gave no missional reasons against the appointment. The leaders wrote that they would withhold compensation, benefits and any reimbursement for a new pastor. They warned that upon his arrival the church, its ministries, and its school will ‘most certainly be unstable and likely hostile.’ “
Some UMC churches have made similar disaffiliation decisions as Mt. Bethel, including seven congregations in South Georgia last August.
In recent weeks Mt. Bethel, which is more than 175 years old, has changed some of its branding, calling itself “Mt. Bethel Church” on its website and social media channels.
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