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Two more Georgia churches withholding churchwide giving, at least temporarily - April 2, 1998

By Alice Smith*

ATLANTA (UMNS) –- Two more large United Methodist congregations near here -– Acworth and Mt. Bethel -- have announced plans to withhold, at least temporarily, their giving to churchwide causes.

The board of stewards at First United Methodist Church of Marietta approved a similar move on March 22. All three churches are in Cobb County.

The Rev. Med Roach, pastor of the 1,500-member Acworth congregation, and the Rev. Randy Mickler, pastor of 5,400-member Mt. Bethel, said the decisions made by their administrative councils were in response to the verdict in a recent clergy trial in Nebraska.

Omaha pastor Jimmy Creech was acquitted March 13 of charges that he violated the order and discipline of the denomination by performing a covenant ceremony for two women.

The 46-3 vote at Acworth was taken at the council's March 15 meeting; the 63-5 vote at Mt. Bethel occurred on March 29. Both councils voted to hold in escrow the apportionments requested by the denomination for churchwide programs while waiting to see what happens next in the United Methodist Church regarding the Creech verdict.

Mt. Bethel's total apportionments for 1998 are $224,041, while Acworth's are $65,100. About 30 percent of those amounts would go to churchwide ministries.

Stewards of First Church Marietta voted to pay jurisdictional and conference apportionments, but they also decided to "redirect" money that would have gone to the general church to conference ministries instead.

That decision related to problems of "doctrinal integrity" in the denomination and not specifically to the Creech verdict, the Marietta church board said.

In a pastoral letter to the members of First Church Marietta following the board of stewards' decision, Bishop Lindsey Davis expressed disappointment in the move. He said he hoped the decision regarding apportionments would be for the short term.

"I am committed to seeking both truth and unity within our church, but I cannot stand by quietly and allow Marietta First United Methodist Church to proceed in a direction which I believe to be negative and contrary to the expressed will of the North Georgia Conference," he wrote. "It is my earnest prayer that this action of your charge conference will be reconsidered and reversed."

Mt. Bethel has indicated its intention to withhold churchwide apportionments for 120 days. After that, it will decide whether to disburse the funds or keep them in escrow. Acworth did not set a time limit, although the next meeting of the administrative council is set for May.

"We are not saying we are not going to pay apportionments," Roach said. "We are saying we want to hold payments until our church (at the national level) has demonstrated it believes in its own Discipline . . . (and) our denominational leaders make appropriate responses."

Acworth members "believe in the United Methodist Church and want to be part of the connectional system," he said. "We just felt like we needed to make a statement."

Both Mt. Bethel and Acworth expressed appreciation for Davis' leadership in the wake of the Creech verdict. In two open letters, Davis had expressed dismay at the outcome and stated his intention to uphold in the North Georgia Conference the Book of Discipline prohibition against same-sex ceremonies.

The enforceability of that prohibition became a central issue at the Nebraska trial. The 1996 General Conference added a sentence to the Social Principles in the Book of Discipline stating that "homosexual unions shall not be conducted by a United Methodist minister and shall not be conducted in our churches."

The question of enforceability has been referred by Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez to the denomination's Judicial Council.

Some in the denomination have said that they are gearing up to have the next General Conference adopt a prohibition against same-sex unions that can be unquestionably enforced. The General Conference, the church's lawmaking body, meets next in 2000.

Mickler said the administrative council of his church "is also aware of the attitudes and opinions of some of the United Methodist universities and national boards and agencies, which apparently are contrary to the one approved by the 1996 General Conference."

Mickler said the Mt. Bethel decision came after a "great debate to put an end to paying apportionments immediately. This is a compromise . . . (and) allows us to take a step back and wait and see before anything is decided (permanently). Had it not been for Bishop Davis, that would have occurred. His adamant support for the church's position caused the cooler heads to prevail."

The Rev. Warren Latham, pastor of the 3,600-member Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., and a conservative voice in the conference, said he sympathized with churches that felt a need to act after the Creech trial. However, he said, Mt. Pisgah is not considering withholding general church apportionments for now.

"I don't think that accomplishes what we need to accomplish . . . and is not the right route for us to take," he said. "We're looking to the bishop to give us leadership."

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*Smith is the executive director of the Georgia United Methodist Communications Council.

Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.

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