by Bob Phillips

As I write a great deal of passion and pain has erupted on the web regarding the seizure of all assets of Mt. Bethel UMC in Marietta, Georgia by their bishop. There is much “he saidshe said.” This is more than a kerfuffle. This unfolding event is sending shards of emotional glass flying across the national church. Secular media loves it; Jesus, not so much.

In Wicked Problem theory, this conflict reflects several simultaneous collisions. There is the collision of trust, as the bishop in her statements has no trust in nor respect for the current disobedient leadership of that church. Clearly Mt. Bethel leadership shares the trust deficit toward the bishop and cabinet. The bishop is power-hungry and seeks to disable any healthy church or pastor who affirms a future vision of alignment with the Global Methodist Church.

Are we having fun yet? If not, other factors of the wicked problem intervene to further muss the hair of the spectators. Mis-communication is endemic and consistent, remembering that “communication is the creation of meaning in the receiver.” It is not enough for a speaker to say, “I know what I said.” The key to the message is when the listener says, “I know what I heard.” Dysfunctional structures and organizational dynamics are at play. Was there or was there not consultation prior to the announced move of the Mt. Bethel pastor to an unformed new assignment? If not, why not? If yes, was it understood as such?

Must a bishop always consult? The collision of cultural and core values squirms behind every major pronouncement. What is the meaning of ‘obedience’ for a pastor or a church in such a situation? Happy labor awaits attorneys at $300 per hour, paid by the tithes and offerings of conference laity, to establish winners and losers. Wicked problem theory is clear that if the outcome is framed in terms of “winner’ and ‘loser,’ unless one is talking about the defeat of Hitler, the real outcome will be ‘lose-lose.’

Consider the very recent situation at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church for an alternative approach. Two disclaimers are in order. First, there always are some factoids unknown to outside observers. That is no reason to dismiss it without further thought, unless one prefers to snuggle with unchallenged confirmation bias, whether from the left or the right. The second disclaimer is that reading what all sides have produced on facts and meaning matters greatly, but I personally have no ‘boots on the ground.’ I have been at Mt. Bethel for a conference and have acquaintance friendships with some worshippers. I have been to Glide and have acquaintance friendships with some worshippers and a former pastor.

Rather than recount all that has happened at Mt. Bethel, which is throbbing on numerous websites for instant review, consider the November 2020 resolution of a notably similar situation between the Cal-Nevada Conference led by Bishop Minerva Carcano, and the former conference flagship church, Glide Memorial UMC, located in the tenderloin district of San Francisco.

The Glide situation was a slow-motion train wreck. In the early 1940’s Glide was a strong evangelical church of the conference, pastored by JC McPheeters until he left to become President of…wait for it…Asbury Theological Seminary. A combination of cultural changes, theological shifts and sincere but ineffective leadership left the church in a superb location with holiness matron Lizzie Glide’s hefty endowment and an attendance of 35. Enter young African American pastor Cecil Williams, appointed in 1963, brash and saucy and ready to push massive change. By the way, this section draws heavily from Beyond the Possible, Cecil’s recounting of his ministry, co-authored with wife Janice Mirikatani and published in 2013.

When Cecil officially retired in 2000, his name had become a legend in the Bay area. Celebrities flocked to be seen at Glide for their Sunday celebrations, especially politicians and Hollywood types. The church was and remains well-known for its massive social service programs of feeding, housing, addiction/recovery, gay rights, medical services, shelter and educational programs. Warren Buffet auctions off an annual lunch, with winning bids in the millions of dollars, all flowing to the secular, non-profit Glide Foundation that funds all religious ministries on site (1-2% of the budget) and the rest for social services.

As various news reports make clear, Cecil did not leave the church when he retired. His official status on the Glide Foundation and continuing relationship with the church made him the undisputed final authority for all things Glide. Subsequent pastors, include Karen Oliveto, accepted the arrangement, even though the consolidation of power led to the elimination of a Church Council, SPRC, Trustees, Finance, Charge Conference and virtually all other sources of accountability or institutional identity as a United Methodist Church.

When Oliveto left in 2016, having been elected to the office of bishop, few outside Glide were aware of how tenuous the UM connection was and how powerful the secular non-profit agency was in church matters. Few knew of the drop in reported worship attendance at what once was the largest church in the jurisdiction, from 3600 the year before Oliveto arrived to 970 the year after she departed. After a brief interim, Rev Jay Williams arrived from Boston. A queer, cisgender African American Harvard PhD and former assistant VP at Merrill Lynch, he lasted one year, tactfully stepping down after Easter on the graciously vague grounds that he “was not permitted” to be the senior pastor of Glide. The ageing Cecil, his wife Janice and the secular non-profit foundation in fact held all meaningful authority. The former Merrill Lynch VP who was refused full access to the church budget or spending decisions or any other major decisions found this approach incompatible with Christian teaching on the role and authority of a pastor.

Bishop Carcano identified a new senior pastor but the Foundation rejected him (for reasons never publicly stated). When the bishop realized that none of the infrastructure for a functioning UM church existed at Glide and that a group of people, many of whom were not members and some of whom were not professing Christians, had vetoed her choice of pastor for a church in her conference, she reacted by withdrawing other appointed clergy and instigating a legal process to officially reclaim Glide as a United Methodist Church.

The legal kabuki dance lasted over a year and reached public resolution in November 2020. Glide church kept the property and the tens of millions in total assets (the Foundation has never published a full public disclosure of resources). The conference was permitted to start another church that also could be named Glide and was given roughly 5.5M in settlement, which could buy a single-family house on nearby Hyde Street.

Bishop Carcano could have exercised the ‘nuclear’ option and demanded that all resources be turned over to the Conference as part of the trust clause. It is clear that her respect for the social services provided by Glide led her away from throwing a legal grenade into the middle of Glide’s activity, deep division notwithstanding. It appears that all players were agreed not to take steps that could dramatically disrupt or confuse the work of Glide while other issues were addressed in legal settings. Yes, Glide no longer is technically a United Methodist church and likely departed with at least 50M in total assets (again, the Foundation refuses to open its books), but the bishop discerned such a fight was not worth the larger damage to the existing work, nor to the reputation of the conference and the denomination in secular press.

One can hope the North Georgia bishop can learn from that example. Mt. Bethel accepted the new senior pastor (by all accounts a fine evangelical pastor), reluctantly and with limits, whereas Glide, through a non-Christian foundation with no disciplinary relevance, summarily rejected Carcano’s appointee. Glide pastoral leadership had shifted all major church assets to a secular foundation; Mt. Bethel leadership did not. Glide had long since eliminated Holy Communion and explicit Christian baptisms from worship services, concerned for the exclusionary effect of such rituals on non-Christians present; Mt. Bethel has kept a theologically consistent Christian witness in worship and sacraments.

Bishop Carcano initially and properly resorted to legal assistance but decided that risking an outcome that burns the village in order to save it was unwise. The loss of a congregation with 17% of the total membership of the conference was not a pleasant thought, but the sustained and deepening alienation of Glide would have been a blow at future United Methodist witness in the Bay area. This also meant that Bishop Carcano needed to get past Cecil’s public accusation that the bishop simply wanted Glide to become traditional and conservative, two qualities not obviously part of Carcano’s theological and political progressive track record.

Much of this novel remains to be written. One can hope Christian cool heads will prevail that ease the public spectacle created in the Atlanta area, and nationally, by the conflict. One can hope all key players will commit to be as passionate about preserving the fine ministries of Mt. Bethel as Cal-Nevada and Glide leadership were in their hard decision to sheath verbal swords and reach a constructive settlement. One can hope no village is burned to “save” it. I choose to hope.

Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)