Betel Countersues Conference Leaders

October 11, 2921. | ONE News

Key points:

• The United Methodist Church of Bethel filed a counterclaim in response to a lawsuit filed by the North Georgia Conference Commissioner.

• Advocates of the megachurch claim that the conference blocked the assembly’s efforts to disable and organize quarrels over the appointment of pastoral care.

• The North Georgia Conference says assembly leaders have chosen a “legally unsustainable” path.

The United Methodist Church of Mount Bethel filed a counterclaim in response to a lawsuit by the North Georgia Conference Commissioner.

In a legal submission, lawyers argue that the conference leadership is blocking efforts by the Marietta Congregation, Georgia, to discriminate against religion and instead seek to retain church property.

Conference leaders “organized a pastoral conflict with Mount Bethel and then declared a false‘ closure ’and takeover of the local church,” the counterclaim said.

“Mt. Bethel is a successful Cobb County assembly with 10,000 members with significant assets. ”

The church is asking the court to direct the conference so the church can vote on incapacity and is seeking additional damages determined by the jury.

Mount Bethel’s counterclaim alleges that the assembly suffered irreparable damage.

“Mt. Bethel is therefore entitled to compensation for damages, including special and general damages, in the amount proved at trial, ”the counterclaim states.

The North Georgia Conference Communications Office said the answers offered by Mount Bethel’s management team “reveal their basic misunderstanding” of Georgia’s unified methodology policy and law.

“The path chosen by the leaders of Mount Bethel is both legally unsustainable, but also very detrimental to the mission and service of the church,” the communications service told United Methodist News. “We look forward to a speedy resolution of these issues in Cobb County Supreme Court.”

The conference’s board of directors filed a lawsuit on Sept. 8 seeking the transfer of assets and assets. The conference claimed that Mount Bethel’s actions violated the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, and violated fiduciary duties.

The North Georgia Conference is the largest such regional body in the United States in terms of membership, comprising nearly 800 churches and 350,000 united Methodists. According to some data, Bethel is the largest church in the conference.

Mount Bethel, which has more than 10,260 members, includes two campuses and a 12th grade Christian kindergarten academy. According to the records submitted by the church to the conference, the market value of the church land, buildings and equipment is around 34.6 million dollars.

The quarrel between the conference and the congregation first became public in April, when leaders of Mount Bethel refused to reappoint their senior pastor to a new conference venue.

Instead, Jody Ray – the church’s senior pastor since 2016 – announced he was handing over his credentials, and church leaders said Ray would remain the chief preacher and chief executive.

At the same press conference, church leaders announced the community’s intention to exclude itself from the United Methodist Church.

But the assembly’s lawsuit claims that the church’s plans were clear before April.

The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have pursued a policy since 1797 that all congregations keep property “in trust” for the benefit of the entire religion.

In practice, this means that churches can acquire and sell property, but only if they comply with the mission of religion and disciplinary procedures and safeguards. Often conferences end up as executors of a trust clause, and some cases like this end up in court.

However, a special General Conference in 2019 added a new process to the Book of Disciplines in order for churches to leave the denomination and keep church property. The North Georgia Conference presented how it will carry out that process in June at the conference’s annual session. Churches can use this process only until December 31, 2023, and the counter-lawsuit of the Bethel Prosecutor’s Office claims that it adds urgency to the court dispute.

One step required by the Disciplinary Process is approval to deny access to at least two-thirds of the majority of community members who are invited to vote. Such voting must be held in consultation with the district chief of the assembly – a member of the conference leadership.

Mount Bethel’s counterclaim says its 50-member administrative council voted unanimously to exclude it, but that its district supervisor and bishop have since stopped voting for the entire assembly.

The incapacitation process involves more than an assembly vote, which the lawsuit acknowledged.

The annual church conference must also confirm the exit by a majority vote. Exit from the church also comes with a considerable price.

Outgoing communities must pay for two-year distributions – church shares that provide this support service outside the local church. But for the outgoing church, the biggest expense is likely to come from what its conference finds to be a fair share of the priest’s unfunded pension obligations – that is, what the conferences owe to retirees.

A lawsuit from Mount Bethel states that the lay assembly leader began to inquire about the amount of the church pension on March 31 – before the bishop informed Ray of plans to appoint him to a new position with the conference.

The lawsuit calls the reappointment “deliberately provocative.”

The United Methodist Church is working on a path system – meaning the clergy go where the bishops appoint them.

Mount Bethel leaders have filed complaints under church law against Bishop Haupert-Johnson, arguing that she did not follow the proper consultation process when reappointing Ray. Leaders supervising bishops in the southeastern jurisdiction, which includes northern Georgia, have since dismissed these complaints, concluding that Haupert-Johnson complied with church law.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Mount Bethel initially refused business premises to their new pastor, the Reverend Steve Usry, and set his salary at the conference’s minimum wage.

However, the members of Mount Bethel are not all on the same page. Since the dispute over the appointment from the conference became public, a group of members of the Bethel mountain called “friends of the Bethel UMC mountain” has also gone public. The group has more than 500 members of Bethel.

“We believe that the appointment of the Rev. Dr. Steven Usry was made legally and should be allowed to take effect, no matter how much some of us would like Jody Ray and who would rather keep him,” said Donna LaChance, one of the members of the group told United Methodist News.

“We believe we are not in a hurry with dysphilia, as the newly appointed pastor shares our traditional theology. We can and should involve the whole Assembly in a strong debate on the advantages and disadvantages of the choice of association before us. ”

She said that friends of UMC, Friends of Mount Bethel, also dispute many statements in the counter-lawsuit against Bethel. But at this point, the group expects the mistakes they see to be corrected in the lawsuit.

The dispute comes at a time when the United Methodist Church itself seems to be moving towards division.

The upcoming General Conference, the highest legislative assembly of that denomination, faces several proposals for the division of the church after decades of debate over the status of LGBTQ people in the church.

The generally accepted Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, if adopted, would allow traditionalist churches and conferences (those that support restrictions on homosexual marriage and ordination) to leave church property at no cost, as well as $ 25 million to start a new denomination.

Mount Bethel is part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association – a theologically conservative advocacy group working to launch this new denomination, the Global Methodist Church.

The lay leader of the assembly is on the leading council of the WCA, and the Reverend Keith Boyette, the president of the WCA and a lawyer, is one of Mount Bethel’s lawyers in the present court case.

The annual conference of North Georgia in June approved the protocol legislation.

Since the introduction of the protocol, the COVID-19 pandemic has twice suppressed the General Conference. The Legislative Assembly, which brings together delegates from four continents and multiple time zones, is now scheduled for August 29-September. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis.

Heather Hahn serves as assistant news editor for UM News.

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