June 4, 1998
ATLANTA (UMNS) The administrative council of the 5400-member Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church of Marietta, Ga., has reversed an earlier decision to withhold apportionments, money asked of it for mission and ministry in the state and around the world.
The decision was made after financial records of churchwide agencies were analyzed and actions related to a clergy trial in Nebraska were reviewed.
The council voted 67-1 on May 31 to support the recommendation of senior pastor, the Rev. Randy Mickler, who had been asked by the local church leaders to "speak to the bishop and give a report on where the church (denomination) is heading."
"We are releasing all our funds held in escrow ... in light of all the developments that have taken place in the last few weeks," Mickler reported.
He cited pastoral letters from the North Georgia bishop and district superintendents and the denomination's Council of Bishops pledging to uphold statements in the Book of Discipline and Social Principles on homosexuality, including a prohibition against clergy performing same-sex unions. Omaha pastor Jimmy Creech was acquitted March 13 in a church trial in Nebraska for conducting a commitment ceremony between two women, setting off a firestorm of protest across the denomination.
Although Creech was reinstated as pastor at Omaha's First United Methodist Church at the conclusion of the trial, he was not re-appointed as senior minister when clergy appointments were announced in May for the coming year. Although he was offered another appointment in the Nebraska Conference, as is the requirement under United Methodist church law for clergy in good standing, Creech has decided instead to take a leave of absence from the ministry.
Another development in the trial's aftermath is an expected decision in August from the church's Judicial Council on whether the prohibition on same-sex ceremonies is binding on pastors or just advisory. Creech's defense had argued successfully that its placement in the church's Social Principles did not carry the weight of church law.
With regard to another denominational concern by members at Mt. Bethel, Mickler said he had investigated the finances of the denominational boards and agencies and had concluded that accusations they mishandled funds were unfounded.
He said audits of the agencies "clearly show how our money is handled, where it's going. The message is very simple, they can be trusted."
He said members of his church had received mailings from Mark Tooley, executive director of UMAction, an unofficial committee of United Methodists related to the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank.
"UMAction had their facts incorrect," Mickler said. "They listed the assets of the different boards and agencies as all liquid assets, and that's not the case. ... They listed the value of the property and buildings ... which are not liquid assets."
Mt. Bethel's administrative council had voted 46-3 at its March 15 meeting to hold in escrow churchwide apportionments for 120 days while awaiting further developments in the denomination with regard to the Creech trial. The May 31 decision removes them from escrow about six weeks quicker than the original time line.
Mt. Bethel's apportionments, Mickler said, are about $259,000, about $60,000 of which go to churchwide causes. He said the council had agreed to pay apportionments monthly, instead of quarterly, in order to "review the course the (general or worldwide) church is pursuing. The council reserves the right at any time to escrow the accounts again (if) the church gets away from what is scripturally sound."
Both North Georgia Bishop Lindsey Davis and Atlanta-Marietta District Superintendent Jamie Jenkins, said they were "obviously pleased" by Mt. Bethel's decision.
"I'm glad they reached their decision as a result of their own study and investigation," Jenkins said. "If people would do more serious study and ... study the issues from all sides, a lot of really intelligent decisions would be made as opposed to decisions based on biased, one-sided information."
There are problems in the church, he conceded, "but not as severe as the alarmists want us to feel. ... People need to take a serious look at all the issues and what the church's position is ... not what one bishop said or what one preacher did, but the church's stand. Then we would not be as alarmed."
Both Davis and Jenkins urged church members who read or hear negative information about the church to seek a balanced perspective beyond statements that come from groups on the far left or right.
Information from extremist groups in the church, Davis said, is often biased. "People need to read and study the issues from other perspectives. I tell them to read the Advocate (United Methodist Georgia weekly newspaper) and UMNS (United Methodist News Service) stories on the Internet."
"I get on the Internet every day and read what is on UMNS," he said. "I have found that kind of reporting is generally the most balanced. ... I don't believe UMNS has any ... agenda (except) to report as faithfully as they can what is happening in the life of the church. Other sources of information have specific agendas and perspectives which may not represent the center of the church."
He said he realizes not every individual has access to the Internet, but that in every church there are people who do and who could print UMNS stories and distribute them. The daily releases from UMNS can be accessed through the United Methodist Web site, http://www.umc.org/umns/
Jenkins also encouraged local churches to analyze carefully whether actions they are taking actually address the issue at hand.
In the Creech trial, he pointed out, withholding church apportionments for churchwide causes was inappropriate for two reasons: the denomination was not at fault and withholding funds would not change the outcome of the trial but only penalize mission and ministry at that level.
"The representative of the (denomination) church, Bishop Joel Martinez, acted appropriately," Jenkins said. He first warned Creech not to conduct the ceremony, and after Creech disobeyed brought him up on charges according to the procedures in the Book of Discipline. Although the trial jury found him not guilty by a one vote margin, the decision did not change the denomination's stand on same-sex unions nor set a precedent that would be followed by other annual conferences.
"Why punish the general church (by withholding apportionments) for what one trial jury concluded?" Jenkins asked. " We see a concern we are unhappy with, and we react in ways that probably won't affect that issue but affect other unrelated things."
Instead, he urged, "look at the issues, study them seriously to discover what the problem areas are, and then find ways to (directly) impact those problems."
*Smith is executive director of the Georgia United Methodist Communications Council.