By Walter Fenton
April 20, 2021
“We were taken completely by surprise,” said Lindsay Hill, chairwoman of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church’s Staff Parish Relations Committee (SPRC), as she still tries to absorb Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s decision to move the congregation’s senior pastor to a still evolving assignment on the North Georgia Annual Conference staff related to racial reconciliation.
Neither Mt. Bethel UM Church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray, nor its SPRC requested a change in senior leadership. But on April 6, 2021, Ray was informed that he was to begin his new position on May 2, 2021, and Hill was told a new senior pastor would arrive at Mt. Bethel soon thereafter. Haupert-Johnson did relent on the start date for Ray’s new assignment, allowing him to begin his new appointment on July 1, 2021, as is the case for most clergy making a transition.
Mt. Bethel, located in Marietta, Georgia, is the largest congregation in the North Georgia Annual Conference, and it is also a member congregation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It hosted the WCA’s 2018 Global Gathering, and it has made clear it is a theologically conservative church. It is likely, along with many other local UM churches, to join the Global Methodist Church (in formation) should the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation be adopted at the next General Conference.
“As an elder in the church I certainly understand the appointive process,” said Ray. “However, I was disappointed by the lack of intentional and substantive consultation regarding this proposed change. Many people know my heart regarding racial reconciliation. So had the bishop come to me last December or earlier this year to engage in a conversation about the emerging position, invited me to help shape it, and then given me some time to pray and think about it, then we might be in a different place now. Unfortunately, my options were to accept the move, take a leave of absence, or surrender my credentials. That’s not exactly the way colleagues in the Order of Elders expect to be treated.”
“Local churches expect the bishop and her cabinet to work collaboratively with them when it comes to making changes in senior leadership,” said Hill. “In my professional experience, collaboration involves much more than simply one party telling another party what they’re going to do and then leaving the other party to deal with all the repercussions. I would expect the church to far exceed all the expectations we have in the secular world. Now, more than ever, we need to work together for the effectiveness of local churches in our communities.”
Moves at many of the denomination’s largest churches are often initiated by senior pastors who inform a bishop they are planning to retire, by SPRCs who believe a top leadership change is in the congregation’s best interest, and sometimes by a bishop who needs to fill a vacancy at another large church. Whatever the case, conversations about these transitions typically begin six to 12 months before they happen. As most clergy know, it is unusual for such a major change at a large church to be announced just weeks before an annual conference convenes. Moves at large churches are typically shared in January or February.
“Making a change at a mid to large size local church often requires significant and careful planning,” said the Rev. Rick Just, a former district superintendent and currently the senior pastor at Asbury Church in Wichita, Kansas. “The attention given is not simply out of bias for large churches; it’s done because there can be anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of employees who will be impacted by a change in senior leadership. It’s not something you want to do without carefully considering the serious ramifications for everyone involved. In fact, it is not uncommon for bishops and SPRCs at some of the denomination’s very largest churches to work with a search firm to help the bishop and congregation find a suitable pastor who has proven administrative skills.”
In addition to a large ministerial and administrative staff at the church, Mt. Bethel also operates Mt. Bethel Christian Academy, a K – 12 school that employs dozens of teachers, administrators, and support staff. The church has been a fixture in the Marietta community for over 175 years.
Both the SPRC and Ray have repeatedly asked the bishop to reconsider her decision.
Hill wrote to the Rev. Dr. Jessica Terrell, a member of Haupert-Johnson’s cabinet and the district superintendent serving Mt. Bethel, “This decision to abruptly move any leadership without the buy-in of the congregation will have detrimental effects to the many faithful that are employed by the church, the academy, the recreation fields, and our mission partners.”
And Ray wrote to Bishop Haupert-Johnson, “While I understand the importance of the new role you would like me to assume and understand the reasons why my background and experience would potentially be a good fit, I respectfully ask you to reconsider this appointment. I think it would be best for me to remain at Mt. Bethel as we complete our pandemic recovery and continue to build a strong and vital congregation dedicated to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Haupert-Johnson has rebuffed their overtures and has remained adamant that the appointments she has made should go forward.
Citing fiduciary responsibilities it has to the church, the academy, and its staff members, Mt. Bethel’s SPRC and Administrative Council have determined the church is not in a position to receive a new senior pastor. It fears such an unforeseen and abrupt change in its senior leadership, initiated by a bishop the congregation believes champions theological and ethical positions it does not share, will immediately have an adverse impact on its witness in its community, the engagement and morale of its member, and on financial giving. Consequently, it believes accepting a change at this juncture would erode support for its missions and ministries, and the staff who lead them.
“This hasty decision, at a time when we’re coming out of the pandemic, and like so many other local UM churches praying to discern our future, would be very disruptive to all we do in the community and around the world,” said laywoman and SPRC member Casey Alarcon. “My parents brought me to Mt. Bethel many years ago, and my husband and I have raised our children in the church and sent them to its academy as well. It has been a privilege to grow in our faith here and serve together with so many others as we work to make disciples of Jesus Christ. I would hate to see that undermined by a decision that doesn’t seem well thought out to me and so many others at Mt. Bethel.”
At the close of morning worship services this past Sunday, Hill read a statement to the congregation regarding Bishop Haupert-Johnson’s decision. She also reported that the SPRC and Mt. Bethel’s Administrative Council both unanimously voted to tell the bishop the church is simply “not in a position to receive a new senior minister.” Before Hill could finish reading her statement the congregation gave her a standing ovation.
Shortly after Mt. Bethel’s morning worship services, the lay leadership of the church sent a petition statement to the church’s members so they too could register their opposition to Bishop Haupert-Johnson’s decision. By Tuesday morning over 4,000 Mt. Bethel members had signed the petition.
And in light of the situation at Mt. Bethel, another petition is now being circulated by a group called “Concerned Laity of the North Georgia Annual Conference,” giving conference laity an opportunity to express their concerns regarding the situation at Mt. Bethel.
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.