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Conference, megachurch reach legal settlement

The front of Mt. Bethel Church in Marietta, Georgia.

Mt. Bethel Church in Marietta, GA, has reached a settlement with the North Georgia Conference to enable it to leave The United Methodist Church with property.

UM News

Key Points:

  • Mt. Bethel Church has agreed to pay $13.1 million to the North Georgia Conference to leave The United Methodist Church with property.
  • The legal settlement resolves a high-profile lawsuit and counterclaim that followed after the church refused the reappointment of its senior pastor to a conference position. 
  • Some in the congregation are disappointed that the church’s departure will now not come up for a congregational vote. 
  • Meanwhile, the conference earlier this month ratified the disaffiliation of 70 congregations that used the exit process outlined in church law.  

The North Georgia Conference and its largest-membership church have reached a multimillion-dollar settlement to end a high-profile legal battle. 

Under the mediated settlement, Mt. Bethel Church in Marietta, Georgia, has agreed to pay $13.1 million to the conference trustees to leave The United Methodist Church with property and become independent. Mt. Bethel must pay that amount within 120 days and has embarked on a fundraising campaign to do so. 

The settlement not only promises to resolve months-long litigation but also includes a pledge from both sides to cease a war of words that placed Mt. Bethel at the center of a widening denominational divide. 

Both the conference and church, in the preamble of their agreement, covenanted to “honor the mission and ministry of each other as Christians.” The parties in the case also agreed to refrain from comments that “could reasonably be expected to adversely affect the reputation of the other.”

Cobb County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert D. Leonard II signed the consent decree finalizing the settlement on June 7. 

“The North Georgia Conference is appreciative of the Cobb County Superior Court, which has given approval of the mediated settlement agreement between the trustees of the North Georgia Conference and Mt. Bethel,” the conference said in a statement to UM News.

“As stated in the agreement, we are all part of one universal church and look forward to moving ahead in service to Jesus Christ.”

Once the church completes the payment, the conference trustees will release the title to property. Mt. Bethel, in turn, will no longer be able to use “United” or “United Methodist” in its name or the denomination’s Cross and Flame logo.

“In effect, Mt. Bethel Church will continue operating — with all rights and access to its property and assets, but it will no longer be associated with the United Methodist Church,” the church said on its website in explaining the settlement. The church did not immediately respond to a request from UM News for further comment.

However, at least some Mt. Bethel members have expressed disappointment that because of the agreement, departure from The United Methodist Church will not be up for a congregational vote.

The North Georgia Conference is the largest such regional body in the U.S. in terms of membership — encompassing more than 700 churches and nearly 340,000 United Methodists. 

The conference is home to multiple large congregations. Mt. Bethel — founded over 175 years ago — is the conference’s largest with nearly 10,270 members as of last year. The church operates two campuses and a kindergarten-12th grade Christian academy. According to records the church submitted to the conference, the market value of the church land, buildings and equipment is about $34.6 million.

The feud between the conference and congregation first became public last year, when Mt. Bethel’s leaders refused the reappointment of their senior pastor to a new conference position.

The United Methodist Church operates on a system of itinerancy — meaning clergy go where their bishop appoints them. The tradition goes back to Methodism’s founder, John Wesley.

In their ordination services, United Methodist elders pledge “to go wherever you are sent, to serve however you are called, to exercise your ministry within and on behalf of the whole Church, to love all among whom you are placed, and to love God above all.” 

However, Jody Ray — the church’s senior pastor since 2016 — accused the conference’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of moving him because of his conservative beliefs.

“I want you also to remember this day,” he said to his family during an April 18 sermon. “Your daddy did not bow the knee or kiss the ring of progressive theology.”

At a subsequent press conference, he announced that instead of changing appointments, he was surrendering his clergy credentials. Church lay leaders said Ray would stay on as lead preacher and chief executive officer

At the same press conference, church leaders announced that the congregation’s 50-member administrative council had voted for disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church.

However, exiting the denomination takes more than a vote by a leadership council and an announcement. The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained a policy since 1797 that all congregations hold property “in trust” for the benefit of the entire denomination.

In practice, this means churches can acquire and sell property but only if in line with the denomination’s mission and Disciplinary procedures and safeguards. Often, conferences end up as enforcers of the denomination’s trust clause.

The special General Conference in 2019 added a new process to the Book of Discipline, the church’s law book, for conferences to release churches from the trust clause — if those congregations meet certain conditions and financial obligations including at least two-thirds of the congregation voting for disaffiliation.

The Discipline’s disaffiliation process was not used in the case of Mt. Bethel. Instead, the dispute landed in civil court. 

After a failed initial attempt at mediation, the North Georgia Conference trustees sued Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in September — arguing that the church was violating the Book of Discipline and breaching its fiduciary duties.  

Specifically, the suit took issue with the church leadership’s refusal of office space and a full salary to the new pastor, the Rev. Steve Usry, appointed by the bishop. The conference trustees’ lawsuit also argued the church was not following Disciplinary procedures in its handling of the property for Mt. Bethel Christian Academy.

In October, Mt. Bethel countersued the conference. The church’s counterclaim said that the conference was blocking the church’s efforts to disaffiliate using the Discipline’s procedures and had orchestrated the pastoral conflict.

By mid-March, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark had set a hearing to consider dueling motions in the lawsuit and countersuit. Instead, the parties asked the judge to mediate their settlement talks.

The settlement is the result of those discussions. 

The dispute has become emblematic of an expected denominational separation.   

Mt. Bethel long has been part of the theologically conservative advocacy group the Wesleyan Covenant Association and hosted its global gathering in 2018. The Wesleyan Covenant Association has overseen the formation of the Global Methodist Church, a new breakaway denomination that launched May 1 and seeks to recruit United Methodist churches

Keith Boyette, a lawyer and the WCA’s president at the time, signed on as one of Mt. Bethel’s attorneys in the court case. Boyette, who has since surrendered his United Methodist clergy credentials, is now the top staff executive of the Global Methodist Church. 

Robert Ingram, another attorney for Mt. Bethel, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it was too early to say if Mt. Bethel would join the Global Methodist Church.

Members of Mt. Bethel are not all on the same page. Since the appointment dispute with the conference became public, a group of Mt. Bethel members calling themselves “Friends of Mt. Bethel UMC” has also gone public. Nearly 650 Mt. Bethel members are now part of the group, said Donna LaChance, one of the group’s members.

The group felt the appointment of Usry, a fellow theological conservative, was both lawful and should be allowed to take effect. 

The group has been meeting with Usry for worship and fellowship events. Friends of Mt. Bethel held a special Easter service this year at a nearby United Methodist church with Usry as preacher. 

LaChance said the group is “deeply disappointed in the outcome, as it effectively separated our church from the UMC without any membership vote.” She also said the agreement is more expensive than it needed to be under the denomination’s disaffiliation procedures. 

For now, she said the group is meeting with Usry, whom the bishop has appointed for the coming year to provide pastoral care to United Methodist members of Mt. Bethel and help them discern God’s next faithful step. 

“It is possible that this work will lead to the development of a new church, but it seems more likely that people will join other local churches, some UMC and some not,” LaChance said. 

“Each family has to decide for themselves, and most are actively evaluating other church options or are already settled.”

Last Updated on September 20, 2022

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