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First Methodist May Raise Stakes-Withhold All Apportionments

Divided and upset by the transfer of its popular senior pastor, Marietta First Methodist Church may raise the stakes in its ongoing feud with the general church hierarchy.

The Board of Steward's at the First United Methodist Church of Marietta is considering withholding almost $300,000 in church apportioned funds, said several church members who attended a packed quarterly Board of Steward's meeting Sunday evening.

Founded in 1833, with a $3.3 million annual budget, First United is one of the largest Methodist churches in north Georgia.

The board voted to table a proposal to withhold 100 percent -- or $286,000 -- of the funds designated for the national church.

Last year the church withheld about $67,000 -- or 26 percent of the funding -- from the national church. Instead the money was redirected to several north Georgia ministries.

Many church members were stunned -- and outraged -- when the bishop of the North Georgia Conference, the Rev. Lindsey Davis, decided last week to reassign the Rev. Charles Sineath, a pastor at the church for 22 years, to another church in June.

Rev. Sineath, himself, said last week his reassignment was linked to the church's controversial stance against the general church.

Rev. Sineath commended the board again Sunday at the board meeting for voting in November to hold back the funding, said a source in attendance. He told the governing body he would have been disappointed last year if the money was not withheld.

Now the board may go a step further this year and withhold the entire funding for the general church.

A motion was made to that effect by Robin Burruss, immediate past chairman of the board and an owner of "Tip Top Poultry" a Marietta chicken processing plant.

Burruss reportedly told the governing body "we must continue to take action against the hierarchy," and "we cannot stand by...the leadership of the Methodist church just doesn't get the message," said one of the sources at the meeting.

A lively debate ensued with about eight other board members speaking out in favor of the proposal, one source said. Several other members, including Jack Miller, chairman of the parish-relations committee, which recommended that Sineath, who will be 60 this month, be reassigned to the church until his retirement, urged the board to reject the motion.

Miller said the board has already embarrassed the church and said if the vote passed, it would make it more difficult to find a minister to replace Sineath, one course said.

Eventually, the board voted to table the proposal for 30 days while emotions cooled, chairman Bucky Smith said.

"We're going to pray about it. Emotions are still too high...from last week," Smith said. "A lot of people were not thinking rationally."

Still, measuring by the intensity of applause given to those speaking in favor of withholding the funding, several board members believe Burruss's proposal would have easily passed, one source said.

The vote in November to withhold 26 percent of the funding was overwhelmingly passed by the board, 90-22.

Upset over Rev. Sineath's impending departure and certain church policies, some board members want to keep the fire going "until moving day," an insider said, referring to widespread speculation that some members of the congregation may break away from the church.

As tension grows between the denomination hierarchy and the Marietta church, lines are beginning to be drawn among the congregation.

Smith said three factions are emerging within the 5,300 member church; those who are loyal to the Methodist church, those who are loyal but do not accept the policies of the national church, and third, the members who feel they cannot stay under the "umbrella of Methodism".

There is speculation that the third group may break away from First Methodist and start their own church.

When asked about a possible split at the church, Smith said "there are all kinds of rumors out there."

For his part, Smith declined to say which group he is part of.

"I have made up my mind, but because I am chairman of all of the board, I've chosen not to reveal it."

In a sermon Sunday morning, Rev. Sineath criticized a caller who was threatening church members who do not support Sineath. He told the church to unite and accept his transfer.

Sineath still has not said if he will accept a position offered by the bishop, but said last week he will not start a new church as some have speculated.

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