A Georgia megachurch is parting ways with the United Methodist Church after it reached a settlement this week that would effectively end litigation. Mt. Bethel Church, which is based in Marietta and has about 10,000 members, has agreed to pay $13.1 million to UMC so that the Georgia megachurch can leave the mainline Protestant denomination with its property.
The settlement agreement dated June 3 and approved in Cobb County Superior Court said that Mt. Bethel will pay $13.1 million in order to keep its property and assets, while being officially allowed to leave the UMC.
In a statement, Mt. Bethel expressed gratitude that they had reached a settlement with the Trustees of the North Georgia Conference, which effectively ends litigation and enables the Georgia megachurch to "move forward in faith as an independent church." They added that they extend their "abundant thanks" to the congregation and supporters who have prayed for a "God-honoring outcome."
Mt. Bethel Undertook Lengthy Processes of Separating from UMC
The process of leaving the UMC denomination began back in April 2021, when Mt. Bethel's 50-member administrative council unanimously decided to launch a discernment process for leaving the UMC, the Christian Post reported. They cited the reassignment of their lead pastor Rev. Dr. Jody Ray and the general direction of the UMC as reasons.
East Cobb News reported that in September 2021, UMC filed a lawsuit against Mt. Bethel following months of contentious actions and public statements about Rev. Ray's reassignment. Mt. Bethel than announced its intention to leave the UMC. Both Mt. Bethel and Rev. Ray said they were not properly consulted by the North Georgia Conference, which annually makes clergy announcements based on the UMC's "itinerant ministry" tradition.
Mt. Bethel's conservative leadership and UMC had been in conflict over theological disputes, including issues about the ordination of LGBT clergy and same-sex marriages. UMC's Book of Discipline currently prohibits both, but the denomination is expected to revise its policies surrounding LGBT issues.
UMC Filed a Lawsuit Against Georgia Megachurch
In summer of 2021, mediation failed between UMC and Mt. Bethel, which is a founding member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a coalition of conservative Methodist churches looking to start a new denomination called Global Methodist church. The North Georgia Conference then filed a lawsuit against Mt. Bethel in an attempt to seize $35 million worth of property, claiming the Georgia megachurch was not a church in good standing.
Mt. Bethel fired back by taking issue with North Georgia Conference's Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the conference claiming "exigent circumstances." The Georgia megachurch insisted that it did not violate the Discipline by hiring its "preaching pastor" and denied that it "allowed uncredentialed use of the Pulpit."
Mt. Bethel isn't the only congregation separating from the North Georgia Conference, as the UMC is now facing a great divide over its years-long debate on LGBT issues. Earlier this month, the UMC admitted that 70 congregations or 9% of the regional body's churches are set to depart from the denomination.