Outgoing North Georgia Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, with her cabinet and conference board of trustees, in an unwanted poisonous Christmas gift for traditionalists, has declared that congregations may not exit United Methodism under Paragraph 2553. They fault traditionalists for spreading “factually incorrect and defamatory” information.
Their action resembles a Third World dictatorship that, having called an election, realizes the results will not be favorable, and cancels the voting, faulting factually incorrect and defamatory information spread by the opposition.
All free debates in society, including the church, by necessity include widely divergent opinions. Opponents of some arguments might deem them “factually incorrect and defamatory.” But rather than forcibly shutting down the conversation, purportedly bad information is countered with better information.
Frustrated traditionalists will note that, from their perspective, United Methodist officials, exploiting denominational resources and the advantages of their office, have disseminated their own factually incorrect and defamatory information. The statement from the bishop, in the style of a despotic Third World regime, made vague and sweeping allegations, without naming names or citing sources. It was simply a declaration to be received from on high.
Bishop Haupert-Johnson’s attitude was foreshadowed last year when she tried to remove the traditionalist pastor of one of North Georgia’s largest churches, 5000-member Mount Bethel United Methodist, which refused to allow it. After a brief legal battle, the church agreed to pay the North Georgia Conference over $13 million for its independence.
In contrast to Bishop Haupert-Johnson’s claims on behalf of the North Georgia Conference, Paragraph 2553 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline allows congregations to exit United Methodism by a two thirds congregational vote, approved by their local annual conference, by the end of 2023, when the window closes. At least 2200 United Methodist churches have voted to exit so far, over 2000 of which have been ratified by their annual conference, including 71 in North Georgia. From 150 to 200 more North Georgia congregations (out of 700), including many large churches, were preparing to exit in 2023.
No doubt these numbers alarmed Haupert-Johnson and conference officials. In November, the conference trustees voted to postpone building a new 5400 square foot $3.4 million headquarters that the June 2022 annual conference had approved, due to “uncertainties in our immediate next few months and the landscape ahead of us as a conference.”
Haupert-Johnson’s and the trustees’ refusal to abide by Paragraph 2553 of course greatly adds to these “uncertainties.” Their statement reasserts her earlier claim that, “We are not trying to hold any church captive.” But in fact, they obviously are. To what purpose? Are they hoping for more multimillion-dollar payments from churches desperate to exit, as they extorted from Mt Bethel last year? Are they hoping that traditionalists will walk away from their churches, leaving them untenable, allowing the conference to sell the properties? Or is the policy simply an ill-considered emotional and vindictive reaction against departing traditionalists? Whatever the motivation, it does not convey confidence or hope about the future of liberalized United Methodism, which cannot make converts or sustain congregations so must rely on seized properties and accumulated assets.
The North Georgia Conference’s budget has declined greatly over the last three years, 7.8%, 19% and 5%, and will decline 4% in 2023. Apportionment payments by congregations to the conference have fallen from $28 million in 2010 to $17 million in 2022. But net assets have climbed over a decade from under $20 million to nearly $100 million thanks largely to the sale of closed churches. For Haupert-Johnson and conference officials, plunging income and membership have amplified the importance of income from selling closed churches. In this sense, church death benefits the conference.
Disingenuously, the bishop et al call their declaration a “pause” in disaffiliations through Paragraph 2553. But there’s no pause. It’s a complete halt. The exit process concludes with 2023, while their statement says North Georgia will simply await the results of the General Conference of 2024, after the deadline is past, when the denomination likely will officially liberalize, and traditionalist churches will be prisoners, having to buy their freedom or abandon their properties.
Most laughably, their evidence of “deceptive behavior and manipulative misinformation deployed in local churches” is the assertion by traditionalists that: “The UMC’s theological impasse is rooted in our differing beliefs regarding the authority of the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible, its impact on how we live out our faith, and the Lordship of Jesus.”
There can be no truer description of what has divided Methodist traditionalists and progressives dating back many generations, all the way to the heresy trial of Boston Seminary Professor Borden Parker Bowne, who was vindicated in 1904 by a jury of bishops even though Bowne rejected the Bible’s supernatural claims. Haupert-Johnson and other progressive United Methodist institutionalists are reluctant to admit that United Methodism’s division is about sincere and ultimately unbridgeable theological differences.
Instead, like all despotic regimes, they pretend there is no honest disagreement, just “factually incorrect and defamatory” propaganda from malevolent subversives who must be punished or driven out. Like all despotisms, their power is sustained by coercion, not by affection or consensus. And like all despotisms, their coercion ultimately will fuel only greater resentment and precipitate their own fall from power.
Of course, God remains sovereign, and His power can always change minds and hearts. North Georgia gets a new bishop in a few days, whom Haupert-Johnson said she consulted. And perhaps the trustees will realize how destructive the bishop’s policy is and implement a new policy while there is still time to facilitate an orderly division without further acrimony and litigation.
The email for the bishop’s office is: [email protected]. And emails for the trustees, whose chair is Julie Childs, are below. Perhaps your prayers for and gracious appeals to new Bishop Robin Dease and the trustees can help restore the situation:
Board Of Trustees of the North Georgia Annual Conference
Clergy Eric Lee (C-21) [email protected]
Stacey Rushing (C-20) [email protected]
Bert Neal (C-17) [email protected]
Carolyn Stephens (C-17) [email protected]
Laity – Women Cathy Huffines (L-21) [email protected]
Sonja N. Brown (L-16) [email protected]
Julie Childs (L-17)-Chair [email protected]
Ginger Smith (L-18)-Archives and History [email protected]
Laity – Men Ernest Cooper (L-21) [email protected]
Mathew Pinson (L-16) [email protected]
John Lawrence (L-16) [email protected]
Harold Tarpley (21) [email protected]
Treasurer – Allison Berg [email protected]
Conference Chancellor – Jim Thornton [email protected]
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