East Cobb’s Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church must pay $13.1 million to the Methodist denomination in order to leave and become an independent church, lawyers involved in the case confirmed.
The price tag for Mt. Bethel to disaffiliate from the UMC with its property and other assets intact is part of a settlement agreement that will resolve a high-profile legal battle between Mt. Bethel and the North Georgia Conference, a regional body which governs nearly 800 UMC churches.
Robert Ingram, a lawyer representing Mt. Bethel, and Tom Cauthorn, a lawyer representing the conference, told the Marietta Daily Journal on Thursday that the parties have agreed on a final settlement agreement. The agreement is being executed in the coming days, and will soon be submitted to Cobb County Superior Court for approval by a judge.
Mt. Bethel and the conference announced in early May that they had agreed on the general terms of a settlement, but declined to publicize details at the time.
Mt. Bethel will have 120 days to raise the money, Ingram said, and will embark on a fundraising drive to do so.
“The church leadership is hopeful that they’re going to be able to raise the money among their members,” Ingram said. “But that’s (how the payments will be financed) yet to be determined.”
Mt. Bethel’s congregants will not vote on disaffiliation. UMC protocols stipulate that under normal circumstances, a two-thirds majority of a congregation must vote in favor of disaffiliation for a church to leave the denomination.
Under the settlement, Mt. Bethel will drop the UMC language from its name, becoming known simply as Mt. Bethel Church.
The settlement also includes provisions that limit the usage of some of Mt. Bethel’s real estate, Cauthorn said
Mt. Bethel, which dates back more than 175 years, is the largest church in the North Georgia Conference. According to conference data, in 2020 it had about 10,200 members, and the market value of its land, buildings, cash and other assets was about $36.7 million. It also operates Mt. Bethel Christian Academy, a K-12 school with nearly 700 students.
Mt. Bethel’s main campus is in the heart of east Cobb, near the corner of Lower Roswell and Johnson Ferry roads.
Lawyers for the two sides entered into settlement discussions in mid-March amid an ongoing lawsuit over control of the church and its assets. The conference sued Mt. Bethel last September — Mt. Bethel responded with a countersuit in October.
Prior to settlement talks, the suit had reached the discovery phase, where church members were being deposed and document requests were flying. Several dueling motions were due to be heard by Judge Mary Staley Clark at a mid-March hearing. the judge to mediate settlement talks. Cauthorn said the two sides spent days in mediation, reaching general terms of an agreement on the fifth day.
The feud between Mt. Bethel and the conference broke out into public view last year when Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, who oversees the conference, reassigned Jody Ray, Mt. Bethel’s senior pastor at the time.
Methodist pastors are periodically reassigned by their bishops, a tradition of “itinerancy” that dates back centuries. Mt. Bethel lay leaders and congregants created a petition and mounted a campaign against Ray’s reassignment.
Mt. Bethel leaders accused Haupert-Johnson of reassigning Ray as punishment for his conservative beliefs, charges the bishop denied. At the time, Ray made headlines by addressing his children during a sermon, telling them to “remember this day, that your daddy didn’t ‘t bow the knee nor kiss the ring of progressive theology.”
Haupert-Johnson tapped Steven Usry, another conservative pastor, to replace Ray. Usry has formally been Mt. Bethel’s pastor-in-charge for months, but was sidelined. Neither Ingram nor Cauthorn could say what will become of Usry after the settlement goes into effect.
Mt. Bethel announced last summer it would seek to leave the UMC. Ray ended up relinquishing his credentials and was hired by Mt. Bethel as a lay preacher in order to remain at the church.
While Methodist churches’ assets are held in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination, provisions in the Book of Discipline allow local churches to retain their assets after disaffiliation, if they do so for reasons of conscience relating to LGBTQ issues, such as gay marriage and ordination of LGBTQ priests. Conservative and liberal factions of the UMC have argued over those issues for decades. Mt. Bethel falls on the conservative side and is closely affiliated with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group of conservative UMC churches which last month officially launched a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church.
Ingram said it was too early to say if Mt. Bethel will join the Global Methodist Church.
“That has not been determined, and will not be determined until a later date, after everything is finalized,” Ingram said. And at some point, there will be a church conference, I’m sure, where that issue will be raised. I suspect it will be more than a year off from now. If you asked me for my gut feeling, I think they’re gonna let things settle down and then they’ll be discussing, what, if any, other affiliations they establish with other organizations.”
Cracks in the conference
While Mt. Bethel and the conference complete the paperwork to make the settlement official, the conference is holding its annual meeting in Athens this week. Late Thursday afternoon, the member churches voted to ratify the decisions of 70 churches in North Georgia that will be leaving the UMC. (Mt. Bethel is not one of the 70, since its split from the UMC is being negotiated in court.)
Conference spokesperson Sybil Davidson said the 70 churches alone make up approximately 9% of churches in the conference, and about 3% of members.
“It’s with a certain amount of heartbreak that we face this,” Haupert-Johnson said after the vote. “… I think the future of the United Methodist Church is bright, but I do understand that there are differences of opinion, and I honor that. … It’s a charitable thing, to agree to disagree.”
Cauthorn invoked the late Georgia Supreme Court Justice Conley Ingram, who used to say, “all’s well that ends.”
“I think the virtue of this agreement is that it brings an end,” Cauthorn said. “And everyone now has a new beginning that starts today or tomorrow or Monday or Tuesday, when the settlement agreement is fully executed. It’s a positive for everyone .