During her lengthy recovery from a hiking accident last summer, Donna Lachance said fellow members of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church lavished food and other offers of help upon her and her family.
“The community smothered me with love,” said Lachance, identifying herself as the hiker who was assisted off the Gold Branch Trails last August after hurting an ankle.
The social and civic bonds of belonging to one of East Cobb’s biggest faith communities are a major part of the draw for Lachance and her husband Frank, who’ve been Mt. Bethel members for 15 years.
She’s also served on the church staff as a photographer and in communications, and has been involved in other ministries.
What Lachance hadn’t done until recently is delve into the politics of a church with nearly 10,000 members.
But for the last two months, Mt. Bethel leaders, clergy, staff and members have been in an uproar over a decision by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church to reassign Senior Pastor Jody Ray.
In dramatic fashion, Ray declined the reassignment and turned in his credentials as a UMC pastor. Mt. Bethel’s governing board announced it would not accept a new pastor, then declared its intention to disaffiliate from the denomination.
Mt. Bethel leaders also filed a formal complaint against the North Georgia Conference and said Ray would be staying on as CEO and lead minister.
Mt. Bethel is the largest of the 800 congregations in the North Georgia Conference, which has more than 340,000 members.
Mt. Bethel leaders have been vocal about theological disputes that have roiled the United Methodist Church in recent years, and that have prompted the denomination to set up a process to allow conservative congregations to leave.
This year, the United Methodist Church was to have considered adopting the “Protocol for Reconciliation through Grace and Separation.” Due to COVID-19 precautions, that process has been delayed until 2022.
Ferrell Coppedge, a member of the Mt. Bethel Executive Committee, also serves on the governing council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group of conservative UMC churches that formed in 2016. Mt. Bethel was the host for the WCA annual conference in 2018.
In April, in his first sermon since the dispute began, Ray addressed his children by saying that “your Daddy didn’t bow the knee, or kiss the ring, of progressive theology. . . . which is no theology.”
‘Divisive like we have never seen’
Next Friday, July 1, the pastor reassigned to Mt. Bethel, Dr. Steven Usry, formerly of Sugarloaf UMC in Duluth, is set to begin his duties in East Cobb.
With that deadline approaching, Lachance, her husband Frank and Mt. Bethel members Bob and Janet Graff distributed an open letter to several hundred other members, concerned that the church leadership’s refusal to adhere to the UMC Book of Discipline—the denomination’s governing and doctrinal document—could trigger legal action and escalate continuing battles that have been brewing for years.
“I hope we can come together and get it to stop before it destroys our 180-year old community of faith,” they wrote in the first paragraph of their letter.
“If we don’t accept Dr. Usry, the Bishop will have no choice but to invoke the exigency clause and sue to take control of all Mt. Bethel property which, as with all UMC churches, is held in trust by the conference,” according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by East Cobb News.
“Both sides agree she will likely win.”
The letter, entitled “A Different Perspective,” accuses the Mt. Bethel Executive Committee—made up of seven church leaders—of trying to “drag this fight out, hoping to run out the clock, until the Protocol is passed. . . .
“We don’t know about you, but we haven’t asked for this fight, and we don’t want it,” the letter continued. “We don’t know who is going to pay the substantial legal costs. We do know that we will all pay the costs in terms of discord, uncertainty, and suspicion among people who, until this started, were loving Brothers and Sisters in Christ.”
East Cobb News has contacted the North Georgia Conference and Mt. Bethel leadership seeking comment.
In an interview with East Cobb News, Lachance said she’s met with Usry, who’s considered a theological conservative, but not on the main Mt. Bethel campus on Lower Roswell Road.
She said he’s not been allowed to do that, and had been meeting with Mt. Bethel members at their request at nearby Mt. Zion UMC and neighborhood clubhouses in the East Cobb area.
“Saying you won’t accept a pastor isn’t something you can do,” Lachance said, adding that when Mt. Bethel leaders initially announced that decision, she wasn’t aware of that. “This is the bishop’s appointment to make.”
Lachance signed the open letter by citing Romans 13:1, which says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
After attending a special town hall meeting held by church leaders last month, Lachance said her concerns grew.
“There was more to this story than what was being said,” she said, adding that she had kept an open mind about the dispute.
‘Not what Mt. Bethel is about’
Lachance said she admires Ray, calling him inspiring and saying he has been of great pastoral assistance to her family.
“I love Jody, he’s been great for Mt. Bethel,” she said. “But at this point we’re still United Methodists.”
What’s more, the full Mt. Bethel membership hasn’t weighed in on the matter, and a congregational vote would be required to disaffiliate. That can’t happen for at least another year.
“Basically, we’re being torn apart,” Lachance said. “I don’t know why we’re fighting this now.”
If that vote comes, Lachance predicted, “it will be divisive like we have never seen.”
Currently the Book of Discipline doesn’t allow for the ordination of gay clergy or performing same-sex marriage, but that could change should a new Protocol be approved.
Lachance said that “I don’t believe this is something our church should leave the denomination over.”
The Book of Discipline also has a specific paragraph allowing for disaffiliation for reasons concerning human sexuality.
“[Mt. Bethel leaders] will say it’s not just about that issue,” Lachance said. “But that’s how I feel it comes across.”
But she said her concerns are less about theology, but the procedural steps Mt. Bethel is taking now.
She said since her open letter went out this week, she’s heard from Mt. Bethel members who agree with her, but are reluctant to come forward.
“This is not what Mt. Bethel is about,” Lachance said. “We’re fighting ourselves instead of winning souls.”
‘A big test of our faith’
Church leadership created a petition against Ray’s reassignment that nearly 5,000 people have signed, but Lachance said there’s a considerable difference of opinion about how to proceed.
In their open letter, the Graffs and Lachances wrote that while Mt. Bethel leaders “are all good people, doing what they think God called them to do . . . we do not believe they should be taking us down this contentious path without a full, transparent discussion of the costs and benefits of doing so, and without listening to those who disagree.”
They also pleaded with their fellow members to tell the Executive Committee to pursue a different course: “If enough of us speak up, perhaps it will make a difference.”
Lachance said when she was picking up her husband on Friday from an activity at the main Mt. Bethel campus, she saw a fellow member who’s been a good friend, someone with whom she disagrees about how to resolve the congregational dispute.
“We just hugged and said we loved each other and had a very civil conversation,” Lachance said.
That’s the Mt. Bethel fellowship that she says has long nourished her as an evangelical Christian.
She thinks a lot of Mt. Bethel’s divisions “would go away” if Ray were to tell church members to embrace the new pastor, but she doubts that will happen.
“We are not winning a soul for Christ right now, and that’s what we’re called to do,” she said.
However, Lachance also is optimistic that Mt. Bethel will not stay this way.
“This is a big test our faith, but I do believe that we will get past this,” she said.
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