One Has to Wonder

Mt. Bethel

By Rob Renfroe —

A number of our larger, most healthy churches have recently been told that their senior pastor is being moved to another appointment, without consultation with the pastor or the congregation. One is Mt. Bethel in the North Georgia Annual Conference. It’s one of the ten largest churches in the denomination. The others are in the Greater New Jersey and the California-Pacific Annual Conferences.

Thus, they are in different regions of the country. One, Mt. Bethel, is predominantly white. The other four, one in New Jersey and three in California, are Korean. What do they have in common? They are all strongly traditional in their beliefs. They are all under the authority of a centrist to progressive bishop.

Something else they have in common is that none of these churches appreciate how they have been treated in the removal of their senior pastor. All United Methodist pastors serve at the pleasure of their bishop. All United Methodists churches know their bishop has the right to appoint whoever he or she believes is best for their church. But every church and every pastor, unless there is some moral failure, expects to be treated with common courtesy and respect in the process.

Some have condemned Mt. Bethel’s unwillingness to receive a new pastor. The expected liberal critics have blasted the church for wanting to be treated differently than other churches because of its size. But these critics are missing the point. Neither the pastor nor the church’s SPRC were consulted before the appointment was announced as required in The Book of Discipline. And though larger churches are not special or above the rules because of their size, replacing their senior pastor in a way that screams, “I am the bishop and I know what’s best for you,” is not smart, respectful, or helpful to the person who is taking over the removed pastor’s position.

The senior pastor at the church I serve announced his retirement this January. The Woodlands United Methodist Church, just north of Houston, is also one of the denomination’s largest. The process of appointing his successor began three years ago. The bishop and our SPRC worked closely and amicably together with the same goals – finding the right person for the position and conducting the process in a way that guaranteed the new pastor would be well-received by the congregation and begin his or her ministry with the greatest chance of success. Replacing the pastor of a large church does not require three years. But to be effective and healthy for the church, the process – well, first it must be a process, not a pronouncement from on high – needs to be open and collaborative.

A church does not need to be the size of The Woodlands or Mt. Bethel to know when its lay leadership and its congregation are being disrespected. And it is wise to be aware that if you appoint someone to be the senior pastor of a church without proper consultation, you are likely doing harm to that congregation.

Why three different bishops would show such little regard for thriving churches and their ministries is indeed puzzling. The five churches involved have either stated or have given reason to believe they will leave the Post-Separation United Methodist Church when the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is passed. It is easy to believe, possibly wrongly, that these disruptive appointments are punitive in nature – a way of insuring that these churches will not leave as whole and as healthy as they might have.

It’s also natural to wonder if removing beloved senior pastors is a strategic play for financial gain. If a bishop can make things so difficult for a traditional church that it decides to leave before the Protocol is passed, it will need to pay a high financial price for disaffiliation. In the case of Mt. Bethel it could be several millions of dollars. It makes sense. If a church leaves after the Protocol, it takes its property and its assets without any payment to the Post-Separation UM Church.

So, what does a bishop have to lose if she or he so offends a traditional congregation that it decides to leave early? It was departing anyway. Why not fill dwindling annual conference coffers with a costly disaffiliation exit fee? In fact, it might be considered a shrewd play. Turn up the heat until the church feels it must depart – either leaving its buildings and property behind or paying dearly for the privilege of taking what it has sacrificed to build over the decades.

Another possibility is that a bishop, by disrespecting a congregation, could hope to run off all of its strongly traditional members. Make them so upset that they decide to leave and form a new church. Those remaining would have decided they could live with such a bishop and the UM denomination he or she represents. They would also retain the rights to the property. Perhaps those who stay would vote to remain in the post-separation UM Church, the denomination that bishop represents, and bring their buildings and their assets with them.

It’s hard to believe that any representative of Christ, particularly bishops of The United Methodist Church, would be cynical and Machiavellian enough to play these games. Especially one who told the Washington Post after the 2019 General Conference, “If the Methodist church has to get leaner and nicer, I’m all for it. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the pettiness. I’m tired of the fighting to win at all costs.”

And one would think that, in this time when we have all become aware of how Asian Americans are often the victims of prejudice and mistreatment, bishops would be sensitive to the optics of how they treat predominantly Asian congregations and clergy.

But three different Annual Conferences. Three different centrist to progressive bishops. Five different traditional churches. One has to wonder what’s behind it. And where it will go next.

Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president and publisher of Good News. 

 

Comments

  1. Traditionalists just keep being pounded and pounded. As the decision on the Protocol seems so far away, will there be many traditionalists left to move over to the Global Methodist Church? How much more can people take? Along with other conferences, traditionalists in the North GA Conference are taking a beating now. As for me, I’ve had to take a leave of absence from my local UMC due to the senior pastor’s public and rather emphatic support of Bishop Haupert-Johnson. It is ugly here. HOW MUCH LONGER WE CONTINUE IN THIS SCHISM?

    As you know, Rev. Jody Ray, senior pastor at Mt Bethel has surrendered his UMC credentials, the church has begun the disaffiliation process, Rev Ray has been hired as Mt Bethel’s CEO and lead pastor, and the church has filed complaints against the bishop and district superintendent.

  2. Lloyd R Thompson says

    I believe there is a lot more traditional Churches and lay people that over the years have kept their heads down so not to rock the boat and put up with a lot so that they could do their ministry but are just waiting for the Protocol to pass so they can leave UMC and the Burdon put on them. Thank You WCA for giving those Churches HOPE to minister Jesus and Holy Scripture to all that will listen. A Pacific Annual Conference Church Lay Leader

  3. John Ralph says

    While I don’t know timing and protocol, the Bishop’s representative did try to have a conversation with the minister at Mt. Bethel. This minister hung up on them. That’s not the way to have a conversation.

    • Thank you for your comment, John. Pastor Jody Ray gives a different account of that conversation. It is our hope that Mt. Bethel will soon release further information in response to the bishop’s accusations in her pastoral letter.

      Tom Lambrecht

  4. Gary Bebop says

    Although speculative opinion pieces like this one are appreciated, we’re still asking, “What’s the plan?”

  5. Linda Branch says

    This is wickedness in high places. Those who oppose the TRUTH of scripture are capable of being decieved to the point of harming those who are righteous. It happened to Stephen when he rebuked the authorities that hated Jesus. And they were religious leaders of that day.

  6. Traditionalists should stop playing nice with these liberal bishops, district superintendents, and conferences. Every traditional charge should immediately put their apportionments in escrow until the vote on the Protocol. This is literally the only way they will have a voice between now and then (the passing of the protocol). Traditionalists in congregations with liberal pastors or lay leadership should do the same with their tithes and offerings. This would not be withholding money from God, because it’s still God’s money, it’s just being protected until this ship is righted.

    Liberals know one thing other than wickedness, and that’s money.

    • Brother Thom, AMEN! I’ve been saying this for years.. Stop playing nice. Be respectful, but realize you are dealing with agents of darkness.

  7. Lloyd Lunceford says

    Several UMC churches around the country have contacted me for legal property advice as they contemplate the possibility of leaving the UMC. Some have chosen to wait and see what happens with the Protocol legislation and some have chosen to initiate the process currently provided for in the Discipline. For the latter, there have been varying , discretionary responses by their annual conferences. Some annual conferences have required only a couple of years of apportionments plus a pro rata share of unfunded pension liability. Other conferences are additionally requiring a third category of payment— a property assessment set at a percentage of net asset value. In Presbyterian and Episcopalian circles that third component was typically about 4 to 8% of net asset value— but at least one UMC annual conference has required an unprecedented 40%.

  8. Jason Sansbury says

    It is disappointing that the author thinks so little of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the bishops and conference leaders. Perhaps, as is the case every year, they were moved by God to make these changes. Is that beyond the realm of possibility?

    • Jason,
      With relation to the North GA Conference, that will have to go down as one of the most preposterous assertions of all times. What is happening here is as removed from the Holy Spirit as is Heaven is from Hell.

    • Are you serious? Of course it is beyond the realm of possibility that the Holy Spirit is party to these dastardly actions by these bishops. Even atheists in positions of authority don’t treat their subordinates like this.

  9. “It’s also natural to wonder if removing beloved senior pastors is a strategic play for financial gain.” In 2011, Rev Doug Thrasher of Woodstock’s Hillside UMC signed the Open Letter to Bishops. It questioned “why the church is not holding those who break the Discipline accountable.” Rev Thrasher was replaced at Hillside.
    Was this situation similar to the removal of Rev. Jody Ray?

  10. Melissa Blatherwick says

    At some point you have to ask what’s more important- keeping your church building or preserving the spiritual well being of the church itself, since they are the only true asset. When we get so insistent about holding on to tradition or “assets” that we refuse to honor God we have to ask ourselves who am I really serving? The Lord or my own interests? Jesus gave up all the riches of heaven to come down and die for us, I don’t think giving up “assets” be it earthly riches or property is too much to ask, since He told us He expects not just that you would give up these but your very life as well. I’m not shocked by what these so called “bishops” are doing, they are wolves in sheeps clothes seeking to devour the church. Im more disheartened by those who say to Jesus, I’ll follow you but you have to wait till more its convenient for us so we can keep our “assets”.

  11. So sad that the UMC has become “all about the money” and willing to bully and disrespect those serving the UMC for this ill gotten gain. We don’t change His Word, His Word changes us!

  12. Alisa Lee says

    The abuse of power by the Bishop through unjust Appointment is detrimental to the Church resulting in brokenness for the congregation members and families. Sr. Pastor of Bethany Church (Korean) of N. New Jersey conference surrendered his UMC Credentials on 5/3/21. The Church is broken and divided, caused by the sudden punitive appointment initiated by the NJ Conference Bishop. Asking for prayers for both Bethany Church and new Church plant.

  13. Itinerancy has long been a distinct feature of Methodism with pastors being relocated periodically. Of late, I have heard complaints that large churches get to keep their popular pastors for longer periods than small ones. If you are going to have a system, it ought to be applied uniformly.

    • If so David, then the ENTIRE Book of Discipline should be applied uniformly. You might want to note that this North Ga Conference bishop is out front in advocating the resistance to the BOD in one area while citing her loyal support of in another. In the Mt Bethel situation, there are no facts to support “uniformly” in that reassignment. All the facts thus far point to gross abuse of power by the bishop and blatant discrimination against this one pastor and this one church. This distinct feature of Methodism in the North Ga Conference is certainly more distinct now due to the reprehensible misuse of it.

  14. Careful analysis of the two recent documents put out by bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Conference, followed closely with the reprehensible Mt Bethel Church action by this bishop — it really doesn’t take a great deal of effort to see where traditional pastors, including Rev. Jody Ray of Mt Bethel, stand in this conference. They are a target group at this juncture and have every reason to be most concerned.

    THIS IS MY CLOSE UP ANALYSIS OF THE BISHOP’S DOCUMENTS AND PROGRESSIVE POSITION:

    Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s vision documents for the United Methodist Church, “Love Is Making Room- Reclaiming The Welcoming Table” and “The Welcoming Table Q&A” — posted on the North Georgia Conference website — basically repackages the 2019 progressive “One Church Plan” in an apostate love narrative.

    LOVE IS MAKING ROOM:

    A. For unrepentant sexual immorality and be United Methodist.

    B. For clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies in the church sanctuaries and be United Methodist.

    C. For licensing and ordination candidates involved in unrepentant sexual immorality and be United Methodist.

    D. For licensed and ordained clergy involved in unrepentant sexual immorality and be United Methodist.

    E. For Scriptural Authority to be that of people, not of God, and be United Methodist.

    F. For a new evangelism, minus repentance, that speaks contextually to what people desire to hear in order for them to feel loved and valued and be United Methodist.

    “SPLINTER GROUPS” = BASHED TRADITIONALISTS

    A. At “The Welcoming Table Q&A” document introduction —- the bishop says, “we have received dozens of comments and questions on the “Welcoming Table” vision from North Georgia United Methodists. The vision guide is intended as the start of a conversation”. However, the opening question of this document immediately shifts to a different theme — “there are splinter groups reaching out to United Methodist churches encouraging them to split away from the church”. These splinter groups are sharing misinformation and it is time for the bishop and cabinet to speak into this.”

    {“Splinter groups” is code for Traditional Methodists. “Split away” is code for talking about the purpose of the Protocol which is separation. “Misinformation” is code regarding the Protocol and the subsequent formation of the Global Methodist Church.}

    B. In 2020 the bishop introduced this smear and marginalizing tactic of traditional Methodists with relation to the Protocol by stating, “the Protocol offers a path to separate for THOSE whose convictions do not allow them to continue to be United Methodists.

    C. In other words, traditional Methodists do not have sufficient convictions to be real Methodists — but, instead, are some sort of fringe, trouble making, splinter group who do not deserve a seat at the “Welcoming Table” for “conversation.”

  15. My family and I finally got tired of it and left. My youth were not being taught the whole Bible. We discussed with the Senior Pastor and Youth Minister and they basically said this is what we are gonna do and there are lots of opinions in the church.
    While the WCA is good in theory, what have they accomplished? I didn’t like the fact they thought they could negotiate secretly with others.
    Both sides should take their assets and buildings. Let the congregation vote and majority wins. There are way too many stipulations to everything.

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