The United Methodist Church will be splitting into three smaller denominations – one conservative, one liberal, and a third ultra-liberal – after its General Conference next August. But Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, the largest UMC in Georgia, has decided to leave the denomination early rather than surrender its conservative pastor. The church says its pastor was being moved to prevent the church from joining other conservative Methodist churches when they officially split one year from now.
Mark Tooley is president of The Institute on Religion & Democracy and a lifelong United Methodist. He explains that Mt. Bethel UMC was indeed planning on going with the conservatives upon the split.
"[But then] North Georgia's very liberal bishop [Sue Haupert-Johnson] decided to appoint a new pastor to Mt. Bethel without consulting the congregation," says Tooley, "and the congregation – not unreasonably – perceived that to be a power play by her."
In contrast, the North Georgia Conference described the decisions "by a small group of leaders at Mt. Bethel" as a violation of the UMC's Book of Discipline – and subsequently ordered all of the church's assets transferred to the Conference Board of Trustees.
The UMC owns its churches' buildings and assets – but not the congregations. The North Georgia Conference says the proposed transfer is not punitive or spiteful. But in order to remain in the pulpit, Dr. Jody Ray resigned from the denomination and the church decided to split early, knowing it was going to cost them.
"The congregation is now in negotiations with the bishop," Tooley adds. "And presumably they will, as they are allowed to do under United Methodist Church law, negotiate a departure for the church from the denomination which would involve some financial payments to the bishop."
The UMC is splitting over biblical marriage, and conservative churches will be allowed to leave for free after the 2022 General Conference. But Tooley cites the actions of some liberal bishops who he argues are trying to head off the split at the pass.
"The Methodist bishops in New Jersey and in California [for example] have moved pastors from large Korean congregations that were conservative," he offers. "And that was very much resented by the congregations – and they also were justifiably suspicious of the motive."
In a joint statement, both Mt. Bethel and the North Georgia Conference say they "have jointly agreed to use their best efforts to resolve an ongoing dispute through a mediation process and will refrain from public comment on this matter until the mediation process has concluded. Mt. Bethel Christian Academy will also be included in the mediation process."