In a move that rarely occurs among most denominations, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has decided to seize the assets of a church in Marietta, Georgia, amid struggles to determine their senior pastor.
The North Georgia division of the UMC conference announced on Monday that they were acquiring the assets because they were "acting out of love for the church and its mission." The leadership hoped that this move would "preserve the legacy of the Mt. Bethel church and its longstanding history of mission and ministry."
According to the UMC's statement, Mt. Bethel UMC's properties have been transferred to the conference's Board of Trustees until a point that they feel comfortable returning the property deeds to whoever takes over.
Mt. Bethel is a church founded in the late 1870s. It is a historically significant congregation with a long history in the UMC. Despite several economic troubles, the Mt. Bethel family has kept the original building operational. It is currently one of the largest congregations in the North Georgia UMC. Also, it operates its Christian school, Mt Bethel Christian Academy. That would put many local assets at risk if the church were to split or attempt to mismanage the resources.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mt Bethel's leadership conflicts have been going on for months. In April, the Rev Jody Ray, senior pastor of an off-site campus at Mt. Bethel, announced that he would surrender his credentials as a minister in the UMC before leading his church toward leaving the denomination. This decision was inspired by the conference pushing for Ray to be moved to a position inside the conference related to racial reconciliation.
Ray told the Journal-Constitution that he believes the reassignment was related to St. Bethel's inability to pay total apportionments of funds to the conference over consecutive years. There was also tension between himself and the UMC over the conference's conservative views regarding homosexuality. This leads to local leadership appointing Ray as CEO and lead preacher.
Meanwhile, the Rev Steven Usry has been appointed pastor-in-charge beginning 1st July. If Ray and his fellow church members were to leave the denomination, they would end up doing so without any assets or property to their name, including their facility.
If the tension between the conference and Ray are not resolved by June 2022, the conference will have to decide whether to close the church. These tensions are occurring simultaneously that the UMC is dealing with internal debates about how to handle same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy. Many inside the denomination anticipate a future split, with plans for a Global Methodist Church to become official in 2022.