By Walter Fenton
July 16, 2021
CORRECTION: After the posting of this article it was brought to our attention that on July 7, 2021, the North Georgia Annual Conference announced that the Rev. Brian Tillman had been appointed to be the conference’s first Director of Inclusion and Advocacy.”
We have removed from the article the paragraph having to do with the claim that Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson has not filled a position having to do with racial reconciliation that she had originally intended to have the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray assume. We regret the error and have communicated our apologies to the bishop.
She needed the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray to assume a very important position at the annual conference regarding racial reconciliation – one that did not exist. That was Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s first reason, on April 5, for why she wanted to move him in just four weeks from Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, to the North Georgia Annual Conference’s offices. Apparently, the position was so important the transition could not wait until July 1, the moving date for other clergy appointment changes. Ray was never consulted about the appointment or inaugurating the position.
Caught completely by surprise by the late breaking appointment, Ray shared the news with the Mt. Bethel congregation at its April 18 worship services. He also announced he would decline the appointment. Attendees at both services then responded with standing ovations in support of their pastor. Shortly thereafter, nearly 5,000 members signed a petition respectfully informing Haupert-Johnson that the church was “not in a position to receive a new senior minister.” Both Ray and the church’s leadership team requested she reconsider the hasty move, but she would not.
Realizing his choices were to accept the appointment or surrender his credentials, Ray ultimately chose the latter. And frustrated by the bishop’s failure to seriously consult with them prior to just notifying them of the pastoral change, Mt. Bethel’s lay leadership team announced they would directly hire Ray as their Lay Preacher and Senior Pastor.
Haupert-Johnson moved on to another reason why Ray needed to be moved: over the past few years he and the church’s leadership had turned into a close-minded cabal unwilling to hear the concerns of any members who disagreed with them. According to the bishop, “I was getting a lot of correspondence from Mt. Bethel people, loyal people, who were being forced out, who didn’t have a voice anymore, and were saying that Ray and the leadership would not brook any challenge to their authority.”
Hmm. Is this really the kind of pastor you want to appoint to an important position having to do with racial reconciliation?
Sensing she needed another reason for the necessity of shaking things up at Mt. Bethel, Haupert-Johnson moved on to the claim that under Ray the large church wasn’t as large as it ought to be – it was only in the top five in terms of worship attendance. She now claimed she’d already had a great candidate in mind that could do better than Ray. She just needed to figure out where to shuffle Ray off to.
It is hard to reconcile either of these reasons with the overwhelming support Ray and the lay leadership team have received from the Mt. Bethel congregation. Furthermore, according to Ray and the church’s staff-parish relations committee, Haupert-Johnson never informed them she was “getting a lot of correspondence from Mt. Bethel people, loyal people, who were being forced out.” Shouldn’t the bishop have brought these reports to their attention, giving them the opportunity to respond to such serious charges and to address them accordingly? Is it wise or right for a bishop to remove a pastor based on hearsay, without first giving the pastor and the SPRC an opportunity to address the concerns? And how much correspondence was the bishop receiving? She just uses the nebulous “a lot.”
In every church, even those with 25 members, there are always some people, for good and bad reasons, with complaints about how their church is being led. The first response should not be to escalate the situation by peremptorily removing the pastor. Following Jesus’ instructions to bring parties together in order defuse conflict privately, quietly and amicably should be the first course of action. Instead, the bishop opted for divisiveness; on the basis of hearsay, she went from announcing a disruptive pastoral change to plans for closing the church, seizing it assets, and preparing for a costly legal battle.
None of the reasons Haupert-Johnson has given really pass the smell test, and perhaps that’s why she’s filmed two exculpatory videos (here and here) explaining how the appointment process works, how she and her cabinet have done everything right, and venting her frustration with Mt. Bethel’s duly elected lay leaders, characterizing them as obstinate neophytes who don’t understand the appointive process.
By the end of the videos, the viewer is hoping, for the bishop’s own sake, that she’ll find enough humility to at least say, “You know, maybe I could’ve done something a little different,” or “I might have been wrong when I did x or y.” But it never happens. The only flaw she can acknowledge is she might be “criticized for being too gracious.”
Haupert-Johnson now says that “out of love for the church and its mission” she’s declaring that “exigent circumstances” exist at Mt. Bethel that “threaten [its] continued vitality and mission.” According to the bishop, things are so bad at the church – a church that last fall confirmed more young people than some UM districts do in a year – that she must close it and seize its assets. This is some way for a bishop to show her love for one of the largest and healthiest local churches in her annual conference. Mt. Bethel has responded to her claims and threatened actions with a strongly worded statement.
To recap, neither Ray nor Mt. Bethel’s SPRC contacted Haupert-Johnson to request a pastoral change. The staunchly traditionalist congregation, closely aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, openly shared it was likely to join the Global Methodist Church after the passage of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. It was reopening its doors after the pandemic and setting its sights on a new and better future in a less hostile and divisive environment. Indeed, had General Conference convened in 2020 and passed the Protocol, Mt. Bethel would have already parted ways with the bishop and her cabinet.
So why disrupt a church clearly headed for the exits? Why the purported passion to send Mt. Bethel another traditionalist pastor when they’re happy with the one they have, and together are planning to amicably part ways with the post-separation UM Church?
Haupert-Johnson still hasn’t offered a compelling reason, but she has created an expensive, legal and public relations fiasco that threatens to tar the entire North Georgia Annual Conference.
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.