The United Methodist Church has seized the assets of a large congregation in Georgia whose pastor maintained a conservative stance on homosexuality and objected to being reassigned within the denomination.
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 seizing Mt. Bethel’s assets “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 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 announced that Mt. Bethel is taking steps to leave the denomination.
At issue was the denomination’s planned reassignment of Ray to the conference staff related to racial reconciliation. Ray contends he was never consulted about the move.
Ray also said in a previous interview that he believes the congregation’s support of the Book of Discipline’s conservative stance on the issue of homosexuality may have led to the reassignment.
The United Methodist Church is sharply divided over LGBTQ issues and is set to vote next year on a proposal to split the denomination over LGBTQ inclusion. Currently, the denomination maintains that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” At the same time, laypersons may become members and serve within their local church “without respect to sexual orientation or practice.”
Ray said he believes another factor in his reassignment may be that Mt. Bethel has not paying its full share to the annual conference for several years.
Shortly after Ray was reassigned, an anonymous grassroots group of North Georgia laity purchased a full-page advertisement in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seeking answers from Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson. The ad included 18 pointed questions for Haupert-Johnson about Ray’s reassignment, LGBTQ inclusion, and the future of the church.
According to the recent conference statement, the employment, instruction, activities and worship at Mt. Bethel church and school will continue “but under the direction and control of the Conference Board of Trustees.”
On July 1, the Rev. Steven Usry began serving as “pastor-in-charge” at Mt. Bethel.
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 statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.