The Crisis at Mt. Bethel UMCJuly 27th, 2021
By now most United Methodists have heard about the tragic disruption of the thriving ministry at Mt. Bethel UMC. Mt. Bethel, by their own public declaration, has decided to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church due to long standing episcopal hostility towards evangelical churches who stand in opposition to the so-called “progressive” future many of them envision for the United Methodist Church. A pattern is emerging where bishops are making appointments or issuing directives which appear to be a form of punishment against conservative clergy in the denomination. Bishop Hagiya’s actions against Rev. Jae Duk Lew, Rev. Sunghyun Jonathan Lee and the Rev. Nak In Kim were among the first to make national news in the wake of this cycle of clergy appointments. These Korean pastors were moved without consultation. In New Jersey, the Bethany Korean UMC with a membership of over 1,800 had their pastor Rev. James Lee removed without due consultation by Bishop John Schol. More recently, the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Florida Conference took action against Jay Therrell for his refusal to release the names of churches who, appropriately, simply wanted to discuss the provisions of the Protocol and whether their church may choose to exercise that legal option in 2022. Jay Therrell was put in the position of having to surrender his credentials. Similar situations have occurred in other states, including 1st UMC of Union City, Tennessee where the laity have voted to disaffiliate with the UMC and not accept a new pastoral appointment, given the impending Protocol. However, the largest national story has centered around the Bishop of N. Georgia, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, who exercised her episcopal authority to remove Dr. Jody Ray from his position and place him in a new administrative role in the N. Georgia Conference. By any measurement this was an unnecessary and disruptive move which violated due process as established by the Discipline of the UMC. First, it makes no sense for a bishop to appoint a new pastor to a church which is thriving and loves their current pastor when the church is just a little over one year from leaving the denomination as per the Protocol in 2022. Second, the Discipline sets forth a process known as “consultation” when a pastor is to be moved. This is found in paragraphs 426 and 427 of the Discipline. This requires, especially for a large church, an extensive process which involves reflecting on the needs of the church, establishing a pastor profile, open dialogue with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, and so forth. None of this happened at Mt. Bethel. The Discipline actually states explicitly that “consultation is not merely notification.” Third, every pastor in the United Methodist Church as a part of the ordination service, affirms that they have been called to “word and sacrament.” This is declared three times in the ordination service. Indeed, the climax of the ordination service is that sacred moment when the bishop lays hands on the candidate and declares, “take authority as an elder to preach the Word of God, to administer the sacraments and to order the life of the church in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Previously, in the service the candidate has affirmed their calling to “word and sacrament.” Therefore, a normal appointment process involves moving a pastor from one charge where he or she administers the “word and sacrament” to another charge where they fulfill that same calling. However, when an Elder is to be appointed to an administrative position (as in the case of Dr. Jody Ray), it involves a special calling to serve in a categorically new kind of position which is no longer directly administering the “word and sacrament.” This, of course, happens (and needs to happen) in the church, but it clearly implies an even more extensive discernment and consultation process since the core calling of any ordained minister is to the “word and sacrament.” Dr. Jody Ray, and the thousands in his congregation, clearly felt that he was not being called to an administrative position.
The issue at stake is not whether the Bishop has the authority to make appointments in the North Georgia Conference. The issue is squarely on whether or not the Bishop followed due process in making such an appointment. The calamity which followed, including Dr. Ray being compelled to renounce his ordination credentials, flowed from the original disruption which clearly threatened the life and mission of Mt. Bethel. The bishop and her cabinet have declared that “exigent circumstances” exist at Mt. Bethel, and they have chosen to exercise the Trust clause and seize all assets of the church, including all financial accounts, investments, a Christian school and a Day Care which is operated by Mt. Bethel, as well as all of their building and property. This represents assets in excess of $34 million dollars, all given joyfully and sacrificially by the members of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church over their over 175 year history. This is, once again, a violation of the purpose of the Trust Clause as set forth in the Discipline and historically within the United Methodist Church. The Trust Clause is found in paragraph 2501 of the Discipline and is as follows:
All properties of United Methodist local churches and other United Methodist agencies and institutions are held, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination, and ownership and usage of church property is subject to the Discipline. 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. It reflects the connectional structure of the Church by ensuring that the property will be used solely for purposes consonant with the mission of the entire denomination as set forth in the Discipline.
The Trust clause, as the Discipline explicitly states, should be invoked only if a church can be legally found to have strayed from the “mission of the entire denomination as set forth in the Discipline.” By any objective standards, Mt. Bethel is a thriving church which has not strayed from its mission, and indeed is extending the mission of the church in many positive ways.
- Bethel is the largest United Methodist Church in the N. Georgia Conference and has enjoyed a growing membership over the last five years.
- Their giving to the mission of the church has exceeded one million dollars per year.
- Bethel Christian Academy is thriving and provides a Christian education to many families in the area.
- Bethel operates a Christian day care pre-school which provides care for dozens of families who want their children in a safe, Christian environment while they are at work.
- Bethel employs 300 staff in fulfillment of their global mission.
- Bethel has operated a balanced budget and is not under any financial exigency.
Furthermore, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson has violated the historic purpose of the Trust Clause.
John Wesley made it clear that the whole reason for this very strict Trust Clause was to protect and preserve orthodoxy in the church. If a pastor failed “in the exercise of their ministry” or in the “proclamation of the gospel” then Wesley did not want his hands tied in removing that pastor from the pulpit of a Methodist church. The Trust Clause was very explicit that only authentic Methodist doctrine should be preached in Methodist pulpits. By 1763 it was required that all Trust Clauses follow the pattern of the Birchin Lane Preaching House in Manchester. In this pattern for all Trust Clauses, it is explicitly required that in order for a local congregation to retain control of the land and buildings, … “those so appointed should preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament and four volumes of sermons” (Works of John Wesley, vol. 9).
Thus, the purpose of the Trust Clause was to protect the church from heterodox teaching which was inconsistent with the Scriptures and the received interpretation of the Wesleyan message as found in Wesley’s canonical sermons. Today, this is being turned on its head. Those who long for their churches to abide by the express will of the General Conference and the historic doctrines of the Christian faith are faced with losing their land and buildings. The Trust Clause was designed to protect churches from false doctrine. Today, the Trust Clause is being used to pressure churches into embracing false doctrines.
There is no precedent within the UMC for “exigent circumstances” to be invoked as a punishment to a church whose only disagreement with the bishop prior to this crisis is their commitment to uphold the current Discipline of the UMC. Mt. Bethel has, appropriately, filed charges against the bishop. However, there seems to be an unfounded solace among many observers that this crisis will be appropriately adjudicated by the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church. But even if this were to go all the way to the Judicial Council and even if they were to unanimously support Mt. Bethel, it rests with the bishops to exercise their executive authority on behalf of Mt. Bethel and restore Dr. Ray to his charge. We have repeatedly seen that the council of bishops will not enforce the decisions of the Judicial Council if they conflict with their progressive agenda. The most obvious example of this is that of Bishop Karen Oliveto. In 2017 The Judicial Council ruled – and I quote – “It is not lawful for the college of bishops of any jurisdiction or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual as a bishop.” Yet, as we all know, Karen Oliveto continues to serve as the bishop of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area. The council of bishops has refused to enforce the ruling of the Judicial council. The cold reality is that Mt. Bethel has only two viable options. To separate from the UMC, completely surrender all of their buildings and assets to the United Methodist Church, and begin their ministry from scratch in a new location, or stand against the United Methodist church in a secular court in Georgia. Both of these options would be painful, would hurt the ministry of Mt. Bethel and further soil the public witness of the United Methodist Church before eyes of the wider culture.
A better solution would be for Bishop Sue-Haupert Johnson to allow the disaffiliation process, as adopted by the 2019 General Conference, to proceed. The bishop of Georgia claims that she is acting “out of love for the church and its mission.” Her actions are, indeed, an odd way for her to show her love. Is this action consistent with her own ordination vows? Why has she refused to even meet with the largest church under her care? Bishop Haupert-Johnson holds the power to either escalate this crisis or to bring it to a peaceful resolution. Her own conference has voted to endorse the Protocol when it does come up for a vote in 2022. Let us not forget that, according to the New Testament, episcopal authority has been given to bishops for “building you (the church) up and not for destroying you” (II Corinthians 10:8). Now is the time for Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson to exercise her ecclesial authority to “build up” Mt. Bethel, not to tear this ministry down and close its doors.
Please fill out the form below if you would like to provide feedback to Dr. Tennent concerning this blog entry.