The United Methodist Church (at least those who follow the news) is reeling with the actions of a bishop in the North Georgia Annual Conference who has closed down the largest church in her conference and seized their assets. She did this to retaliate against the church for its, let’s see. What was it. Oh yes, they decided to question her right to remove their pastor without asking them for input. She made an appointment projection in April of this year that sought to bring new leadership to this the largest church in her conference at a time that neither the church nor the current pastor anticipated. The church, rightly, balked and the current pastor turned in his credentials (an act that removed him from her power), and the church turned around and hired him, as is their right, to a non-appointive position they created (Lead Preacher and Senior Administrator). It seems the church and pastor had gotten too cozy to the Wesleyan Covenant Association. They were creating an alternative reality within the area of her oversight. They were saying as a congregation and pastor that they disagreed with the bishop’s leadership and the direction the more progressive side of the denomination was taking to liberalize teachings on sexual ethics and inclusivity at the expense of being loyal to scripture. And the conference leadership had taken the further steps (of which I assume this church and pastor were not supportive) to declare openly their refusal to abide by the actions of General Conference in the special called session of 2019 when among other things the “gracious exit” plan was approved allowing churches to leave with their assets and real estate through a process the GC mapped out.
Which brings us to our story today. In the process of declaring a change of appointment for the senior pastor position (over which bishops have the ultimate and non-vetoable “say-so”) the bishop wanted to show her power and willingness to adhere to a part of the Discipline while denying any other part, and enacted what one commentator has called the “nuclear option” of seizing control. Christ would be so proud of His servant leaders in this denomination.
The reaction to the news of this action by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson has been pretty universally characterized as strong, if not abusive and bullying. Even liberal voices are saying that. The General Conference would have already met and voted on the “Protocol for Grace Through Separation” agreement if Covid-19 hadn’t hit us, and we are in this waiting game, looking for a time when it is safe to gather our 800+ delegates from around the world and the nation to have this meeting, which is scheduled for August, 2022 (next year). In the mean time, it would seem that if a congregation wants to enact the more expensive option of disaffiliation, the least a leader like Bishop Sue could do is lay off them and give them some grace-filled space. But no, Pharoah doesn’t want to let the oppressed go free. She means to destroy a church that has done much to serve its community and region. She means to harm a pastor who has stood against her values on LGBTQ+ issues, and means to do as much harm as her episcopal position can allow her to do. She seems to think this is a prophetic thing on her part. It is a pathetic thing and she needs to wake up and see that. The sooner the better.
The conservative side of the United Methodist Church has been gaining strength for decades, especially through representation in Africa, where the church is growing by new converts, and they are represented by delegates who are sent to General Conference. It is widely expected that soon the African Delegations will outnumber Americans, and liberals are desirous of a split before that happens due to the fact that Africans espouse a much more biblical worldview when it comes to sexual ethics, a worldview very much in opposition to that of liberal westerners in the US. The birthing of the Global Methodist Church by the Wesleyan Covenant Association is granting hope to all those within the United Methodist denomination who adhere to biblical values and describe themselves as “traditional.” The Mt. Bethel Church in Georgia, which is the congregation Bishop Haupert-Johnson is trying to bully, is one of those traditional groups. It’s pastor has been very supportive of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The church served as a host site of a WCA meeting not long ago. It is not the only such church and pastor. Many are in agreement and lined up philosophically with it. It is widely anticipated that when General Conference does finally get to meet (which delay is caused partly by vaccination rates in foreign countries to the US, as well as travel visas), that the GC will pass the Protocol agreement allowing traditionalists to enter into the new denomination with their buildings and assets and a fair portion of the UMC’s funds ($25 million according to the agreement).
Many within the Christian world have looked upon the story of the exodus in the old testament as a model for standing up to power. The bishop has certainly put herself in the role of Pharoah. Even in my conservative/traditionalist position I recognize that others, like those grappling with LGBTQ inclusion must also deal with Pharoahs and perhaps we traditionalists are somewhat Egyptian to them. I know that no one is completely innocent in any conflict, especially a divorce like we are headed for as a denomination. Yet so many voices have yearned for this to be a “graceful” separation. We have sought to be fair to one another. For instance, it is conservatives in the UMC who hold the majority voice (even though liberals managed to send their own in larger number to the 2020 delegations through elections held right after the special session in 2019). If we as traditionalists are willing to submit to the liberal notion that we should leave instead of forcing them to go, I think it would behoove people like Bishop Sue to be less heavy-handed in her dealing with a congregation like Mt. Bethel.
The Florida Conference had a similar situation with a pastor who is a former District Superintendent who is working with that conference’s WCA Chapter. He was being harassed by his conference Board of Ordained Ministry, and even though they had a right to question his leave status, he found himself having to choose to withdraw to stay out of range of their attack against him. He expressed it in terms of “bullying” too. And several traditionalist Korean congregations recently expressed disdain at having their pastors removed without notice. They even invoked the term “racism” as a characterization of what they were feeling from their bishops.
It seems Pharoah (the liberal side of the church) cannot let the people go (I started to say “the people of God” but ultimately that’s all of us). I want to thank Bishop Sue for showing us that we really cannot imagine staying together at this point. We may need to have been awakened to that reality. I will miss some of my colleagues who won’t go with me to the promised land of the GMC. I’ve worked alongside them, I’ve prayed with and for them, I’ve delighted in what gifts God has given them for ministry. That we cannot be together is a travesty, but we need to separate so the “harm” stops. And the sooner the better.