Every story, every issue has two sides. That includes the brouhaha at Mt. Bethel Methodist Church in East Cobb. The 8,000-member church, the largest in the North Georgia Conference, has announced its intent to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church after refusing to accept the reassignment of its senior pastor, Jody Ray, by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the appointment of the Rev. Steven Usry to replace him.
After a failed attempt at mediation, the trustees of the North Georgia Conference have filed suit in Cobb Superior Court to gain control of the assets of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church.
Most of my mail has been in support of Ray and the church’s effort to disaffiliate. Some say neither he nor Mt. Bethel were properly consulted about the move as they claim the Methodist Book of Discipline requires. Others cite a cataclysmic theological rift coming over the possible inclusion of lesbian and gay clergy and same-sex marriages in the Methodist Church, both of which the church discipline currently prohibits.
In the upcoming worldwide General Conference scheduled for 2022, which might be delayed due to COVID concerns, a new global orthodox and evangelical Methodist church to be known as the Wesleyan Covenant Association will officially come to the fore. Mt. Bethel has already joined the WCA and an executive committee of lay members is holding firm to retaining Ray, who is a strong advocate for the group’s conservative theology.
In a statement, Mt. Bethel’s executive committee said in part, “Our beloved church is now simply asking for its voice to be heard; let us vote on disaffiliation. Give our members a chance to speak to the heart of our faith and stake a claim for the future of Mt. Bethel Church.”
On the other side, a group called Friends of Mt. Bethel UMC has sent out a letter saying they disagree with the “path of civil disobedience our leadership has chosen for our church.”
I reached out to the group for comment and heard back from co-founders of Friends of Mt. Bethel UMC and long-time church members, Donna Lachance and Bob Graff.
Lachance and Graff say the dispute is not about disaffiliation. The issue is that current leadership will not allow a lawfully appointed senior pastor to take the current pastor’s place, “allowing the guy who was fired to remain.”
The group says this dispute is simply about lay leadership being unwilling to trade a senior pastor who is “a lock” to support the Wesleyan Covenant Association and its planned new denomination for one whose view is unknown to them. They claim that the new appointee, Usry, “is solidly conservative in his views,” and that they have heard confirmation of this from a number of clergy throughout the conference.
This is about property and power, they say, with Mt. Bethel UMC as a pawn in the struggle. Graff and Lachance charge the current leadership as willing to take the church through turmoil for six months with no end in sight in pursuit of the goal of securing Mt. Bethel UMC property for the WCA’s new church.
In the Friends of Mt. Bethel UMC letter that I received, the group mentioned “the attacks, derision, and downright bullying of church members by those who simply oppose the path we are on.”
I asked the two about that. Is there such conduct taking place in a Christian church? Yes, they say. Many members are afraid to speak out publicly. Lachance and Graff say when members interested in discussing both sides of the issue have stood in church meetings to ask questions, they have been met with boos, catcalls, insults and have been compared to Nazis.
They gave an example of a note a member sent them: “We attended one of the ‘meet and greet’ meetings held by Steven Usry at Mt. Zion church. We witnessed such vitriol toward Dr. Usry from mostly young Mt. Bethel members, it frankly frightened us. It would not be a stretch to imagine these rabid supporters of Jody and the status quo driving by our house at night to deface our property, or worse. For this reason, we will not put our names on a public list of Friends of Mt Bethel supporters even though we support your goals.”
Lachance and Graff say the message of Friends of Mt. Bethel UMC is simple: “We would like for the Executive Committee who is making the decisions for our church to accept Dr. Usry as Senior Pastor so that the lawsuit will be dropped. The congregation can then make our own choices about the future of our church.”
Whichever side members might find themselves on in the Mt. Bethel dispute, I consider it Christian misbehavior at its worst. Egos. Money. Real estate. Power. As I recall, Christ said, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement,” and “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.” That is from the Sermon on the Mount. Both sides might want to read it sometime.