by Chris Ritter

The largest conference in U.S. Methodism is suing its largest congregation for control of its assets. This follows a questionably timed and executed attempt on the part of the bishop to reappoint the lead pastor. United Methodist bishops reappoint pastors all the time. That is what they do. But this church, Mt. Bethel, is known to align with the Global Methodist Church to be formed following approval of the pending Separation Protocol. This bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, has declared for the post-separation UMC. There is always more to the story than what the newspapers report and I claim no first-hand knowledge of events. I am unable to plumb the thoughts and intents of anyone else’s heart. But the look before our eyes is a bishop disrupting an otherwise peaceful and fruitful congregation — turning them upside down and shaking out their pockets for spare change ($35 million) before they can walk out the door for free.

The pastor, Jody Ray, surrendered his credentials rather than accept the new conference staff position to which he was assigned. The 10,000-member church, in turn, hired him as their lead preacher and accepted the appointment of the new pastor, Steve Usry, in a very limited capacity. A day-long negotiation failed to achieve a resolution. United Methodists are naturally taking sides, but this is not a good look for any of us. The Mt. Bethel situation has become a monument to coercive connectionalism. The features of such are…

  • Authoritarian leadership rather than servant leadership.
  • Machiavellian power dynamics rather than mission-focused power dynamics.
  • Tactical covenant-keeping rather than relational covenant-keeping.

Mt. Bethel is far from the only example. Traditionalist Korean congregations in the Greater New Jersey and California-Pacific Conferences have protested actions by their bishops they viewed as punitive. Episcopal use of power in Africa has led to the arrest of clergy on both sides of the coming denominational divide. And coercive connectionalism in nothing new. Some may recall how Bishop Melvin Talbert reacted to some California-Nevada clergy who advocated placing apportionment monies in escrow when the bishop affirmed “holy union” ceremonies in defiance to the UMC Discipline. In the weeks that followed, thirteen pastors were exited through forced retirement or surrender of credentials. Some 4,000 laity were negatively affected. Bob Phillips commented: “Any suggestion of withholding apportionments turned the bishop into a lion of strict obedience to the written word of the BOD.”

This is Not What We Preach

The dark side of United Methodism… disunity, greed, hubris, and structural rigidity… has brought us to a Nietzschian exercise of power that is in direct refutation of our ideals. Consider our Social Principles:

“We affirm the right of all people, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, race, religion, disability, age, physical appearance, sexual orientation and gender identity, to be free of unwanted aggressive behavior and harmful control tactics.

The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, Social Principles, Par. 161.R (emphasis added)

Tom Lambrecht has helpfully noted that good government is based upon the consent of the governed. Absent this consent, the control tactics needed to maintain order are unthinkable to civilized people. U.S conferences and bishops are defying General Conference. The Western Jurisdiction is defying Judicial Council. Local churches and clergy are defying their bishops. When there is open rebellion against all three branches of our church government, it is clear that United Methodism no longer enjoys the consent of the governed. Lambrecht concludes:

There is no way to force people to accept a church government that they cannot in good conscience support. Nor would it be at all desirable to do so. Therefore, we must accept the fact that a separation must occur in our church. That separation can be done amicably or it can be done contentiously. One way or another, however, it must happen. We can no longer think that unity under a single church government is possible.

Opening Our Hand

Coercive connectionalism was not always our way. John Wesley often found himself in deep disagreement with other Methodists. The largest and most famous fracture in the movement was between the Wesleyan/Arminian arm of the revival and the Whitfieldian/Calvinistic arm. What is to be done when one group will not keep covenant with the other? Wesley and Whitfield “agreed to disagree” by separation. They decided they were a better reflection of Christian unity at a hand-shake distance than locked around each other’s necks in a mud-wrestling match.

This Methodist way of conditional connectionalism is baked into the very General Rules that help comprise our United Methodist doctrinal standards, which conclude:

“These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.”

The General Rules

If someone will not walk with us, we part ways. The force needed to do otherwise is unchristian. This open-handed approach is one that the Global Methodist Church plans to take with any congregation that defies their Discipline. They will not confiscate local church properties. In fact, there will be no trust clause at all. The GMC will remove rogue congregations from the denomination if all attempts at reconciliation fail. North Georgia models the ugly alternative that says, “You can’t leave and we are going to use our power against you for even thinking about it.” Or, as King George sang in Hamilton,

You’ll remember you belong to me…
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!
Da da da dat da, dat da da da da ya da
Da da dat dat da ya da!

You’ll Be Back,” Hamilton.

The bishop and trustees of the North Georgia conference have intimated that the lay leadership of Mt. Bethel may not be representative of the opinions of the people in the pews. It seems to me that there is a sure way to establish the veracity of this claim. Let the Disaffiliation Process move forward by holding an all-member vote at a church conference. If most of the people at Mt. Bethel want to remain in the UMC, let them do so under the leadership of Rev. Steve Usry and the North Georgia Annual Conference. If the church conference wants to exit, let there be a good-faith negotiation for a fair price in step with other disaffiliations happening around the UMC… and let Mt. Bethel go.

When you take another believer to court, you have lost the battle already. Why not be treated wrongly? Why not be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong. And you do it to your brothers and sisters. Don’t you know that people who do wrong will not receive God’s kingdom?

1 Corinthians 6:7,8

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash