Georgia Bishop's Decision Stirs Controversy at Conservative Methodist Church

Bebe Nicholson

“The enslaver’s mindset of domination and dehumanization is all too alive and well in the psyche of this nation." (from a letter posted in Methodist Church News)
The Rev. Jody RayVideo screengrab

In a move that has drawn attention to the controversy between a liberal North Georgia bishop and some of the conservative Methodist churches in her district, one of the largest congregations in the district plans to leave the Methodist Church.

Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, a church with around 8,000 members, announced that the congregation was leaving following Bishop Sue Haupert Johnson’s reassignment of the church’s pastor to a newly created position related to racial reconciliation.

The pastor, Jody Ray, who has served the church since 2016, announced at a virtual press conference on April 26 that he was surrendering his credentials as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. The Mt. Bethel’s Staff Parish Relations Committee has now hired him to be the church’s chief executive officer and lead preacher.

According to the church, Rustin Parsons, co-lay leader of the congregation, said the congregation has decided it will not accept a new pastor and that its administrative council had unanimously approved a resolution directing church leadership of the church to proceed with the disaffiliation process.

“Given the recent actions of our bishop and the direction of the United Methodist denomination, both the leadership and members of Mt. Bethel strongly believe it is time for us to part ways with the denomination,” Parsons said.

A Bishop Versus a Congregation's Wishes

Most clergy appointments are made without controversy, so it is unusual for a clergy appointment to generate a firestorm that would lead a large church to disaffiliate from the congregation.

But critics of the bishop’s decision say the conference did not follow the normal consultative process for new appointments.

The UM Church’s Book of Discipline calls for a process that includes consultations with the bishop, district superintendents, the local church and clergy.

The bishop did not in this instance take into consideration the wishes of the congregation, according to the church.

“In the case of the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray at Mt. Bethel Church in Marietta, Georgia, some United Methodists are, with justification, mystified by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s decision to move him at this juncture,” wrote Rev Walter Fenton in a Wesleyan Covenant Association article titled Three Bishops Stir Controversy.

“Ray did not request a move. Mt. Bethel’s staff parish relations committee did not request a change. And Ray’s move was not necessitated by another clergy person’s extenuating circumstances. Instead, Ray was informed on April 5 that he was to assume an evolving position on the conference staff by May 6," Rev. Fenton continued.

United Methodist Bishops across the denomination have been creating positions as part of an initiative to dismantle racism, which is a current priority of the North Georgia Conference.
Bishop Sue Haupert-JohnsonGeneral Conference photo

Bishop Haupert-Johnson signed a letter posted in United Methodist News, stating that “This country, for much of its history, identified those who are White as enslaver and therefore superior, and those who are Black as enslaved persons, and therefore inferior. This construct has permeated our culture, our politics, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our education systems, our financial systems, our churchs, and sadly, our very souls.”

The bishop’s letter continued, “The enslaver’s mindset of domination and dehumanization is all too alive and well in the psyche of this nation. Denial of due process, imposition of cruel and unusual punishment, lynching’s, mass incarceration: inhumane treatment is all too often the experience of Black people in the American judicial, penal, and law enforcement systems. Injustice is alive and well in the life of the Church.”

The letter concludes by stating that conference funds will be allocated to support anti-racism efforts and address inequalities inherent in the system.

Referring to the racism issue, Ray said during a press conference that “Many people know my heart for this very important issue and timely matter.” But he said there was no conversation or consultation with the bishop at all about engaging him in a productive conversation.

Laity Seeks Answers

The situation escalated even more when Georgia residents opened the May 9 Sunday edition of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution to see a full-page advertisement from North Georgia laity seeking answers from the bishop.
Excerpt from AJC adGraphic by Laurens Glass, UM News.

“The laity of the NGUMC are frustrated that, for the most part, our clergy have not been communicating with us on vital issues…People of the Light should not be left in darkness,” the advertisement said.

The group sponsoring the ad calls itself “a grassroots movement of lay folks in the North Georgia Conference.” It launched a Facebook page May 5, but did not identify any members by name.

The group, which supports the traditionalist view of Scripture, expressed concern that “theologically conservative pastors” face recrimination because of their conservative views.

In an April 18 sermon at Mt. Bethel declining the bishop’s appointment, Ray said, “I want you also to remember this day. Your daddy did not bow the knee or kiss the ring of progressive theology.”

In his article, Fenton wrote, “Whether Haupert-Johnson intended it or not, her failure to consult personally with Ray and Mt. Bethel’s lay leaders well ahead of time has created a very public controversy.”

Before the Mt. Bethel controversy, members in other North Georgia Methodist churches expressed dismay over a video on racism in which Bishop Haupert-Johnson said racism was something all whites were taught at their mother’s knee, and if they denied it, they were lying.

One long-time Methodist echoed the sentiments of others when she said, “My mother did not teach me to be racist and I resent the bishop’s sweeping, judgmental generalization.”

Conservative Georgia Methodists have become increasingly concerned over views expressed in the bishop’s letter that church members need to be educated about their white privilege and the history of America’s systemic racism.

Before the anti-racism movement became more prominent, the church was already seeing a division between progressives who want to ordain LBGTQ clergy and traditionalists who oppose their ordination. Tensons were high at the last General Methodist Conference, which was held before the pandemic.

The pandemic has pushed back the next General Conference, which is the Methodist denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, to 2022. At that time, a proposed formal split of the denomination is likely to generate more tension and debate.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, meanwhile, has been working to form the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination that plans to break away if separation wins approval at the General Conference.

The association describes itself as “a global connection of local churches, laity, clergy, and regional chapters that seeks to partner with like-minded orthodox Christians to build a new global Methodist church.”

For many Methodists like myself, the pandemic has pushed General Conference and the idea of a major church split to the back burner. We have been more concerned about pandemic church closures, mask wearing, and social distancing.

But now that Covid-19 restrictions are easing and churches are moving cautiously toward fully reopening, controversies such as the one at Mt. Bethel remind us that the Methodist Church faces a potential upheaval.

What the denomination decides at its 2022 General Conference is a matter of speculation. But some Georgia churches are already taking matters into their own hands, and Mt. Bethel might just be the tip of the iceberg.

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I've worked as editor, newspaper reporter, freelance writer, and book publisher. My writing includes lifestyle, humor, travel, relationship, family, politics, faith and health articles, along with three published books. In my various careers, I've been a journalist, retail manager, nonprofit director, flight attendant, freelancer and mom. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.

Alpharetta, GA

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