By Walter Fenton
May 28, 2021
Clergy appointment controversies in the California-Pacific, Greater New Jersey, and North Georgia Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church continue to fester and roil the congregations involved.
Sam Hodges, from the United Methodist News Service, reported last week that United Methodist Korean laity and their allies engaged in public protests against Bishop Grant Hagiya, the episcopal leader in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. Protests were reported at Christ Church in Honolulu, Hawaii, and at the conference’s office in Pasadena, California. Several protesters held a banner with the message, “Korean Pastors Matter! Stop Persecution!”
“Lay people so openly protesting episcopal appointments in this way is without precedent, but I’m afraid it’s what happens when bishops fail to do their due diligence in consulting with congregations and just arbitrarily decide to have a district superintendent notify a congregation their pastor is being moved.” said the Rev. Jeff Greenway, Senior Pastor at Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Reynoldsburg, Ohio and a former district superintendent. “The UM Church has a decent process for making clergy moves, but it doesn’t appear to me it was followed in these situations, and so we have these passionate public protests.”
The controversy erupted when Hagiya informed the Rev. Jae Duk Lew of Valley Korean United Methodist Church in Granada Hills, California; the Rev. Sunghyun Jonathan Lee of Korean United Methodist Church in San Diego; and the Rev. Nak In Kim of Bell Memorial United Methodist Church in Rowland Heights, California, that they were being moved from their congregations. Neither the pastors nor lay leadership at the three churches requested pastoral changes.
Leaders from the Korean United Methodist Church Laity Network, the Cal-Pac Korean Church Caucus and the Cal-Pac Wesleyan Covenant Association claim Hagiya targeted the Korean congregations and their pastors. The pastors and congregations are theologically conservative and are unlikely to remain in the progressive Cal-Pac Annual Conference should the 2022 General Conference adopt the implementing legislation for the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.
“It appears to many United Methodists in the Cal-Pac Annual Conference that Bishop Hagiya purposely went after these pastors and congregations because he has deep theological and ethical differences with them,” said Ted Smith III, an attorney and lay leader at The Fount Church in Fountain Valley, California. “If he has a complaint against the pastors then use our process. As I read our Book of Discipline, bishops are not to use the appointment process to punish pastors and their congregations. These are some of the healthiest churches in our conference and the disruption Hagiya has created threatens to undermine their vitality.”
Smith joined the protest at the conference offices in Pasadena.
Last week Good News Magazine gave the Rev. James Lee, the former pastor at Bethany Korean United Methodist Church in Wayne, New Jersey, the opportunity to tell his side of the story in another appointment controversy.
Bishop John Schol, the episcopal leader in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, notified Lee this April that he was to be moved to another church. Like the situations in California, neither Lee nor Bethany Korean’s lay leadership team had requested a pastoral change.
After articles by Good News and the WCA, Schol posted a lengthy message on the annual conference’s website explaining his reasons for moving Lee, how he attempted to defuse the situation, and claiming Good News and the WCA made false accusations regarding his actions. According to Schol, neither he nor his cabinet made any mistakes in their handling of the appointment, and he rejected any suggestion it was punitive in nature.
But of course there are at least two sides to every story. In the Good News piece, Lee both refutes and contests Schol’s recollection of events. We will focus only on Schol’s denial that the projected move was in any way punitive, but we encourage readers to see Lee’s detailed responses and our friend Tom Lambrecht’s analysis.
According to Schol, he sought to work with Lee “for more than four years to address issues and his refusal to accept an appointment,” but he always ran into intransigence each time (Lee served Bethany Korean Church, the largest congregation in the annual conference, from 2015 to April 2021). In his message to the conference, the bishop wrote, “[Lee] said he would not leave [Bethany] church . . . and that he would only serve [it] and no other church. This is a clear violation of The Book of Discipline and the practices of itineracy.”
And indeed it is, which makes readers wonder why Schol was continually trying to get Lee to say he would itinerate in the first place after he had only served the church for just two years or less. Indeed, it is still not clear to Lee and Bethany Korean Church why the bishop wanted to move Lee, and why he and his cabinet waited until this year to finally notify him he was to be moved. According to Lee, neither Bethany Korean Church nor he had ever requested a pastoral change.
Furthermore, it is widely known that Lee and the congregation were theologically aligned and had joined the WCA. And since it has appeared for some time now that the UM Church is headed for an amicable separation under the terms of the Protocol, why not simply leave an aligned church and its pastor alone, and let them amicably go their own way in approximately 18 months, especially since neither the pastor nor the church had ever requested a pastoral change? It does not seem unreasonable, lacking any other explanation, for Lee, Bethany Korean Church, and others to interpret the effort to move him this year as punitive.
And the interpretation is compounded by the fact that the theologically conservative congregation had joined the WCA in the contentious year of 2019. Lee said it did so for a couple of reasons. First, shortly after the special 2019 General Conference, Schol began to champion a proposal that would have organized the annual conference along the lines of the “One Church Plan,” a centrist to progressive plan that had been defeated at the General Conference, and one Bethany Korean Church did not support. Second, the church, like many WCA member congregations, was strongly inclined to join the Global Methodist Church should the Protocol be adopted next year. Whether Schol intended it or not, the notification of Lee’s removal struck the congregation as an attempt to separate their theologically aligned pastor from them just one year before the postponed 2020 General Conference takes up the matter of separation.
Lee also has a considerably different recollection regarding the number of conversations around itineracy and appointments.
“To my knowledge, Bishop Schol and my district superintendent were the only ones to ever raise the issue of an appointment change for me,” said Lee. “And the first time they did so was in the context of Bethany Korean Church’s 2019 decision to join the WCA, which we took in response to the bishop’s attempt to make the conference a ‘One Church Plan’ conference. When the bishop and my district superintendent first brought up the possibility of a move in 2019 – not me or Bethany Korean Church – I did say such a move would feel punitive. However, I never categorically told the bishop or my district superintendent that I would not itinerate. I simply stated a move would feel punitive under the circumstances since neither Bethany Korean nor I were seeking such a move.”
In response to Lee’s projected appointment this April, almost 900 people signed a petition opposing it. Lee ultimately decided to surrender his credentials rather than accept it. Approximately 450 people from the Bethany Korean congregation have started a new church called New Jersey Gospel Mission Church. They have appointed Lee to lead the fledging congregation born amidst controversy.
A stand-off between Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Annual Conference and Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, has yet to be resolved.
In early April the bishop informed the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray, that he was being appointed to a new position on the conference staff and he was to assume the appointment in just four to five weeks. Ray and the congregation were stunned by the news since neither he nor the church had requested a pastoral change.
It has been widely known across the UM connection that Mt. Bethel, the largest congregation in the conference and one closely aligned with the WCA, was likely to join the Global Methodist Church should the Protocol be passed at the 2022 General Conference. And Haupert-Johnson has made clear she would remain with the post-separation UM Church. Whether she intended it or not, Mt. Bethel members, Ray, and the WCA regarded her move as a deliberate attempt to separate a pastor from a large, theologically aligned congregation just one year before the denomination votes for an amicable and orderly plan of separation.
Like Lee in New Jersey, Ray decided to surrender his clergy credentials rather than accept what he and his congregation regarded as a disruptive appointment. The church then immediately hired Ray as their Lay Preacher and Senior Administrator. He has been leading the congregation ever since.
For her part, Haupert-Johnson announced she has appointed the Rev. Dr. Steven Usry to begin serving as the pastor-in-charge at Mt. Bethel beginning July 1, 2021. Without the endorsement or cooperation of Mt. Bethel’s lay leadership, Dr. Usry has since commenced meeting with small groups of Mt. Bethel members in an attempt to introduce himself and share his vision for the church.
Earlier this week, Usry started holding what he calls “broad-casting” meetings at a local UM Church near Mt. Bethel. He reportedly told a small gathering of Mt. Bethel members that he believes Bishop Haupert-Johnson will move to close the church and evict its lay leadership and staff if they do not relent and receive him as their senior pastor by July 1.
During one of the sessions on Monday, a long serving member at Mt. Bethel suffered a massive heart attack and was later pronounced dead at a local hospital. At the request of Mt. Bethel’s Staff Parish Relations Committee, Usry cancelled other meetings he had scheduled for the week.
“Despite all the challenges and the recent passing of a beloved member, we are continuing to do everything we can to be the church God has called us to be,” said Mrs. Casey Alarcon, Chairwoman of the Staff Parish Relations Committee. “I’m confident this historic church and her people will emerge from this season of turmoil a more united and committed congregation.”
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.