WELCOME!

Associates in Advocacy now has two sites on the internet. Our primary help site is at http://www.aiateam.org/. There AIA seeks to offer aid to troubled pastors, mainly those who face complaints and whose careers are on the line.

Help is also available to their advocates, their caregivers, Cabinets, and others trying to work in that context.

This site will be a blog. On it we will address issues and events that come up.

We have a point of view about ministry, personnel work, and authority. We intend to take the following very seriously:

THE GOLDEN RULE
THE GENERAL RULES
GOING ONTO PERFECTION

Some of our denomination's personnel practices have real merit. Some are deeply flawed. To tell the difference, we go to these criteria to help us know the difference.

We also have a vision of what constitutes healthy leadership and authority. We believe it is in line with Scripture, up-to-date managerial practice, and law.

To our great sadness, some pastors who become part of the hierarchy of the church, particularly the Cabinet, have a vision based on their being in control as "kings of the hill," not accountable to anyone and not responsible to follow the Discipline or our faith and practice. They do not see that THE GOLDEN RULE applies to what they do.

If you are reading this, the chances are you are not that way. We hope what we say and do exemplify our own best vision and will help you fulfill yours. But we cannot just leave arrogance, incompetence, and ignorance to flourish. All of us have the responsibility to minimize those in our system.

We join you in fulfilling our individual vow of expecting to be perfect in love in this life and applying that vow to our corporate life in the United Methodist Church.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you have any questions or suggestions, direct them to Rev. Jerry Eckert. His e-mail address is aj_eckert@hotmail.com. His phone number is 941 743 0518. His address is 20487 Albury Drive, Port Charlotte, FL 33952.

Thank you.

(9/26/07)


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Commentary on Judicial Council Decisions 1380 to 1399

IntroThe following observations are intended to encourage you to read the decisions of the Judicial Council (JC or Council) for yourself. These blog posts are in no way church law in any form but could help you understand some important aspects of the decisions.  Should you feel I have made an error of fact or interpretation, please let me know (email at aj_eckert@hotmail.com) so it can be corrected.


History -I began offering commentaries in November of 2008, starting with JCD 1099.  This brings them up to date.  While I have not considered going back to the earlier decisions of the Council, there have been a few that have drawn comments that you may discover over the years covered in this blog.

Any questions? - Please feel free to send your questions about any ruling by the Judicial Council, past or present, for my observations based on your question.  Like this blog, my answers carry no weight of law.  But maybe we can both learn something.

Terminology - The phrase “the Council” when used refers to the Judicial Council.  As noted above, I will occasionally use their initials (JC).  The Council of Bishops has become a frequent petitioner in recent years. Especially so this session.  They will be referred to as the “Bishops” or “COB.”

Rulings of the Council may be referred to as JCDs (Judicial Council Decisions) or JCMs.  Judicial Council Memorandums do not provide decisions of law but report refusal to take jurisdiction, remand, or show a question is not legally appropriate under the Discipline or Council rules.  On rare occasions, the Council may provide their rationale in a memorandum.

Referring to rulings - I've included the URL for each of the rulings. That should allow you to click it or paste it so you can go directly to the decision.  The website was redone this fall so there may be a problem using the older URLs.  I’ve added subject titles and have put in labels that can be picked up by search engines.

Each decision’s commentary is posted separately so this review doesn't seem so long! And by using the list of contents in the left margin of this blog, you can go to whichever commentary on the decision which is of interest to you.

Finding things – There are three good sources for finding a JCD or JCM that you think exists or hope does.  Associates in Advocacy (AIA) indexes, the JC website search function, and the United Methodist News Service (UMNS):

AIA indexes – AIA publishes updated indexes of all Council decisions and memoranda.  If you are interested, contact Rev. Michael Brown, 158 Saxony Ct., Vallejo, CA 94951.

Council website search function - The Judicial Council website now offers a search function which covers every JCD since 1940.  Go to http://www.umc.org/decisions/search.  The web page gives you several options for finding any decision(s) you may want.  To go to a listing of every decision, leave the boxes empty and just click on the “Search” bar.  To follow up on a theme such as “separation of powers,” or if you remember a short phrase from a decision, or know the conference or a person involved, type that into the “Keywords” box.  Then click on “Search.”  To go to a specific decision by number, ignore the “Keywords” box and type the number into the “Decision Number” box and click on “Search.”  Follow the instructions given on the page to search based on other things like approximate date of the decision.  Clicking on “Search” for all these options provides a list of possible decisions.  Scan those listed to find the most likely decisions that can be of help to you.  To get into a decision itself, click on the red text.

Once into the text of a particular decision, you will not find your phrase highlighted.  To highlight a key phrase you search for, do “Ctrl f” on PC compatible computers or “Command f” on Apple computers.  That gives you a drop down box at the top of the page.  Type in your phrase, click on “Enter,” and the phrase will be highlighted in that decision.

UMNS - Another source of help to find and understand particular decisions, I found articles about people and decisions in United Methodist News Service under www.UMC.org.  I clicked on “News and Media” at the top of their page, clicked on “United Methodist News” to get to their home page and then clicked on the magnifying glass icon in the upper right hand corner.  That opened a box at the top of the page.  I could put in key words, names, or numbers followed by clicking on “Enter.”  The search function will let you know which articles had that content.  There are articles going back as far as 1952, though the articles are not in chronological order.  I do not think every article has yet been digitized and posted on the site.

Concluding remarks -Hopefully, my commentaries on this blog will be a valued resource in your search for understanding church law and its contexts.  I also hope my directions for navigating in UM sites will help you in your research on the work of the Judicial Council.

All my commentaries on Council decisions are subject to editing, updating, and revision.  You may want to check back from time to time on decisions of special interest to you.

DISCLAIMER:  The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the writer and are not necessarily those of Associates in Advocacy nor its individual members.  While the writer has made it a practice of letting AIA’s officers see these commentaries prior to their being posted on the blog, there have been no endorsements by them or the organization now or over past years.

JCM 1380

ee.umc.org/decisions/81130 

No Reconsideration of JCD 1378

Three members of the Council supported someone’s request for reconsideration of the complex “doctrine of severability” case last session.  The docket does not list such a request so it is impossible to know if the three members asked or if WCA or Council of Bishops or MFSA asked.  All would have their respective reasons to challenge something in the complex exhausting decision.

The Council rarely reconsiders.  I do not recall any dissent among the members listed in past requests.  I am not sure how significant that is but if I ever hear or see something I may share, I will pass it on,

JCM 1381

ee.umc.org/decisions/81136

A Conference Secretary Fail?

Several years ago, the Council turned down many attempts by people to get a ruling by the Council because the annual conference secretaries were failing to forward the proper documentation.  A suggestion to the Secretary of the Judicial Council that he check that when everything was due rather than when the Council met might get more cases handled rather than deferred.  

The suggestion appeared to have paid off in recent years.  There have been few deferrals because of the failures to get the paper work in on time.

With the change of Secretaries for the Council, it is possible that this request for Upper New York Annual Conference “fell through the cracks.”

Whatever happened, we will hopefully see the case properly documented so it can be decided upon this coming session of the Council.

JCM 1382

ee.umc.org/decisions/81148

Another Deferral and a Stay

The Council of Bishops apparently got a request for a declaratory decision in to the Council after the docket for this session had been posted.  Docket No. 1019-19 which is mentioned in this memorandum is not listed in the docket.  There is a chance a minor mistake was made and the intended docket item was 1019-4 (and 1019-3) and resulted in several rulings: JCD 1385, 1386, and 1390.  The Bishops had a lot of questions about the Traditionalists’ Plan (TP), as did everyone else!

So when a question of law was raised at the New England Annual Conference about the legality of a resolution regarding the new legislation on separation of churches from the denomination, the bishop made a ruling.  The Council stayed his decision.  

“Stay” is another new term introduced by this Council.  Every lawyer in the world knows what it means but there are so many possible subtleties that non-layers will be confused.  The other decision where “stay” came into church law was JCD 1361.  Just what is stayed during an appeal to the jurisdictional committee on appeals under ¶ 2718.3-.4?  

I wish the Council has just said, “The ruling doesn’t go into effect now and may not be needed if the Council rules in favor of the Bishops.”

As I sorted through the various docket items relevant to the bishop’s situation, it appears a decision about whether his conference could add to the requirements laid out in the GC2019 separation of local church legislation is held up for now.  It does not appear any particular church was affected at this time so the stay does not cause any difficulties for anyone so far.

JCD 1383

ee.umc.org/decisions/81138

End of an Era – Administrative Involuntary Removal of Pastors Is Unconstitutional

Rev. Robert Zilhaver of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, who wrote the petition that became ¶2718.3-.4, the appeal of involuntary administrative actions against a pastor, requested a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of certain administrative practices used against ministers who may have been incompetent, ineffective, or unable to perform ministry.  His request included an option to replace any that were found to be unconstitutional.  Peter Milloy and I were the only ones to send briefs.  No one else showed concern about Zilhaver’s request, probably because they were all focused on issues surrounding homosexuality and the various plans intended to deal with a potential split in the denomination, or maybe, more wisely, very concerned that we may only have a decade to solve the global warming crisis facing the planet.  For whatever reason, no one else realized the impact a ruling on his questions would make. 

At issue was Zilhaver’s concern that for every case of involuntary leave of absence, involuntary retirement, administrative location, and discontinuance of provisional members, the final vote of the clergy session allowed cabinet and Board of Ordained Ministries members to vote even though they had a conflict of interest since they had previously been involved in reviewing and voting on those ministers’ cases..

Let me provide some historical background before I share the impact of the decision.  I will follow this commentary with an analysis of the questions raised by the instant decision.

Historical background - In the late 1960s and early 1970s, several dynamics hit the United Methodist Church in America.  For one, those pastors who had looked after each other during the Great Depression of the 1930s, because of retirement and death, no longer were there to sustain the collegiality annual conferences had experienced.  For another, pastors who had entered ministry during World War II had not all been as well trained and their competence in the less desperate times of the postwar era was being questioned.  For a third, pastors with mental and physical health issues were not always willing to step down from ministry voluntarily.  And fourth, pastors who were Gay began to come out of the closet and even at that time the liberals weren’t comfortable about it.

Bishops had been cooperating on the necessity of keeping pastors in ministry and tended to exchange pastors, transferring them across conference lines to give them a fresh start.  But in 1980, General Conference passed legislation that allowed cabinets to initiate involuntary leaves of absence collaborating with the Boards of Ordained Ministry to handle them.  Church statistics showed that by 1983, mid-term transfers between conferences dropped to nearly zero and the number of involuntary leaves soared to the numerical heights where transfers had previously been.

That led to such a number of lawsuits against the denomination that General Council on Finance and Administration pushed the 1988 General Conference to form a study commission to evaluate the personnel processes, both judicial and the new administrative ones.  Several of us who had been advocates attended meetings of that group as observers and were allowed to contribute to their deliberations.  The most significant thing the commission accepted was due process rights for pastors facing involuntary removal. 

While that stopped the law suits, along side of which a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that gave denominations with judicial systems (no matter how flawed) free reign on personnel matters, it did not end injustice toward pastors.  In fact, legislation passed at succeeding General Conferences limited the role of advocates (even removing the word!) and expanded the authority of bishops and cabinets to remove pastors.  Because of the influence of command that bishops had over appointments, many Boards of Ordained Ministry became rubber stamps.  Bishops could almost fire a pastor at will without cause, though they had to put up a good excuse that they really didn’t have to prove in the administrative track, nor did they even have to take chargeable offenses through church trials in those conferences where advocates were intimidated and neutralized by the power of the bishop.

But those extra administrative steps of hearings were a pain to the worst of the bishops so they were delighted when the restorative justice movement finally influenced them to introduce “just resolution,” a quasi-mediation format which allowed bishops to “settle out of court” on the bishop’s terms with pastors in trouble.

Many just resolutions fell apart because the pastors faced unrealistic demands and their cases were sent back into the administrative track where the pastors could be removed involuntarily with little proof of cause.  And then, those who had already judged and found “guilty” the pastor whose standing was before the clergy session of the annual conference for change at their recommendation, could vote to support their own recommendations.  

So with good networking among advocates, the 2016 General Conference passed the right of appeal from administrative processes (see ¶ 2718.3-.4 of the 2016 Discipline).  The Council of Bishops requested a declaratory decision about this new passage to which the Council responded a year later (JCD 1361, October, 2018).  The Council supported the passage as written so that the appeal had to be addressed before the annual conference could work on the pastor’s standing as recommended by the Board of Ordained Ministry.

Based on two cases on which the original petitioner for ¶ 2718.3-.4 had been asked to consult, he requested a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of members of the Board of Ordained Ministry, administrative review committee, and Cabinet to vote on cases in the clergy session they had already handled in the course of their personnel responsibilities.  

In the instant decision, the Council ruled the processes for involuntary leave of absence, involuntary retirement, administrative location, and discontinuance from provisional membership were unconstitutional.  

Initial Impact - Whoa!  Did that change the game!  The bad bishops’ favorite ways of running off pastors they didn’t like were suddenly gone.

Except for cases already in the pipeline prior to Nov. 1, 2019, no conference could use those tactics and would have to figure out other options to deal with pastors in trouble.

The autocratic bishops panicked because they were losing control of their presumption of their right to fire pastors at will disguised in one of those four tactics.  The good bishops who rarely used them were concerned about situations where recalcitrant pastors had to be handled by some technique that was involuntary.  Advocates were relieved to see a bad system shut down but also had to see what options remained and what new options might be brought into play.  

And what of the cases in the pipeline?  Everyone wondered how those could be carried to their proper conclusions when the principle of those who acted on the respondent pastor’s case would not be allowed to participate in the clergy session votes or even in the Board’s votes.

These questions will be discussed in the article below.  For now, be assured there has been a major shift caused by this decision of the Council.  Its fall-out will extend into the coming years and not be resolved by the 2020 General Conference because the decision came after the deadline for new petitions for GC2020.

The Other Questions asked -The original request for a declaratory decision sought to substitute a previous Disciplinary passage from 1992 to resolve the gap left by the decision nullifying the involuntary processes as unconstitutional.  That old passage was to direct all involuntary actions through the trial process as a way to avoid the flaw of mixing judicial and legislative functions as the now unconstitutional passages do.  The Council saw that as a legislative matter and did not rule on it. 

In the past, when the Council has ruled a passage unconstitutional, the passage’s legal predecessor became effective as the law covering the situation.  That has yet to be identified.  See the article below (What Do We Do Now?) for some possible answers.

What Do We Do Now?

Introduction

Having been an advocate for nearly forty years, I have been involved in all kinds of cases from a church secretary claiming her pastor sexually harassed her to defending a bishop before the Judicial Council.  Without a careful analysis, I would guess that 90 percent of my cases involved helping pastors who were in the administrative track so I feel I can bring some experience and expertise to this question.

Here are the questions I see with which JCD 1383 leaves us:

One, what exactly was found to be unconstitutional?

Two, what were the predecessor passages to each of the passages found to be unconstitutional?

Three, what options are left in the rest of the Discipline?

Four, what do we do in the cases that have been in process prior to November 1 when the new ban was imposed?

I

What exactly was found to be unconstitutional?

At issue in 15 of the 17 questions raised was the allowing of conference boards, committees, and the cabinet to vote in the clergy session on the status of the respondents over whom they had each acted already.

The simplest interpretation would be to just have those folks do all of the jobs the Discipline provides and then leave the room during the consideration of the respondent and let the rest of the clergy session act as judge and jury on administrative matters.  And if the bishop was involved at all, the presiding over the clergy session would have to be done by someone else. 

But the Council did not just say that.  They found all four passages to be unconstitutional.

The Council couldn’t strike any sentences because none of the four takes into account the vote members of the Board and others could take at the clergy session.

The Council realized that the mixing of the administrative, judicial, and legislative functions was what was involved.  Is the Board of Ordained Ministries (BOM) and its committees really not judicial but legislative?  And, in my experience, BOMs tend to think they are the enforcing part of the administrative branch, instead of being a counter-balance of co-equals.  The Council points out that the cabinet which may bring the complaints should have no role in the vote during the clergy session as JCDs 917 and 950 illustrate in other contexts of personnel work.  

In the earliest Disciplines in my possession there is reference to a free standing conference relations committee (CRC) to handle personnel status changes that were to deal with ineffective or ill pastors unwilling to step down.  

The committee on investigation (COI) has been in Disciplines during all of my ministry with one brief exception but their involvement ends at the trial or out of the conference for appeals and, except for part of one quadrennium, their efforts were never touched by voting in the clergy session.

Now that administrative cases can be appealed to the jurisdictional appeals committee und ¶2718.3-.4 prior to clergy session, those cases have entered into the judicial track for review, at least.

Although it is not mentioned in the body of the decision, there could be a numbers problem in some annual conferences.  There are three missionary conferences in the United States and many Central Conferences which have more than a majority of local pastors, meaning that once all of the Discipline mandated members of CRCs, BOMs, and cabinets are recused from deliberations and voting there may not be enough other members of the conference to make up a quorum to vote on an involuntary status change.

Perhaps in the future there can be some kind of merging of conference relations committee, and committee on investigation for the purpose of a hearing, with appeal to a (administrative) review committee or an annual conference-level court with jurisdiction over application of conference rules and the Discipline with appeal to the jurisdiction and Judicial Council.

Despite ¶33, the judicial track has the final say without clergy session review and vote.  Similarly, an administrative “hearing” and appeal would be a part of the annual conference like the judicial track is.  This would take from the clergy session the requirement to vote on involuntary matters, something actually beyond their capability because of how few have personnel training or judicial training and because they are under the control of the bishop in more ways than one.

In light of the decision that the four passages are unconstitutional, it is not hard to think that for the most difficult cases, the only real option is the development of hearing and appeal of administrative concerns through a new judiciary within the annual conference.

Whatever the options are for dealing with involuntary administrative cases (those not dealing with chargeable offenses but with ministerial performance), the whole of the four involuntary processes have been ruled unconstitutional and no longer available for use by bishops and their conferences.  The reason?  The votes cast at clergy session by all the entities that previously processed the complaint and hearings are not impartial.


II

What were the predecessor passages to each of the passages that were found unconstitutional?

The clergy session has apparently had the right without hearings or appeal to involuntarily retire or drop from what we now call provisional members by conference vote, according to my Disciplines back to 1956

Administrative location as a concept entered the 1964 Discipline.  Involuntary leave of absence came in the 1980 Discipline.  Previously, a free standing conference relation committee dealt with incompetent and ineffective pastors for whatever they felt was appropriate, mainly early retirement.  

There were some who had health issues that could be offered “disability” but there was no way to do that involuntarily until 1992.  Disability was determined by a joint committee with backup from the national Board of Pensions so health evaluation markers were pretty clear, set by medical sources outside the biases of influential persons or groups like the cabinet.  I have never been asked to defend a pastor facing involuntary medical leave, nor have any of my associates to my knowledge.  To the contrary, one colleague worked for years to develop an involuntary process because part of some pastors’ sickness was an insensitivity to the serious decline in their performance as ministers.  

Making the CRC a free standing body unattached to the BOM could handle administrative complaints.  Rather than appeal to the BOM , a case would go from the CRC  to the administrative review committee (ARC) and then to the jurisdiction under ¶2718.3-.4.  Then the clergy session could deal with the matter with only a dozen or so as well as the cabinet having to recuse during the vote.

The option suggested in the last two questions by the appellant, Rev. Zilhaver, would put the handling of “administrative” cases into the hands of the Committee on Investigation.

Both committees would retain fair process rights, untouched by the instant decision.


III

What options are left in the rest of the Discipline?

My experiences trying to help pastors with differing problems is that some conference leaders lacked compassion and imagination.  They had many Disciplinary options but tended to focus on anything punitive they could use.  They tended to treat pastors facing issues as guilty disruptors, even when upon careful review of the situations, the pastors were really innocent.  

The primary hammer in the bad bishops’ tool box has been involuntary leave of absence which they used indiscriminately.  That was introduced (in my mind disastrously) in 1980.

By 1983, nearly all bishops stopped using transfers to other conferences.  Since then, the bad bishops never used sabbaticals.  They never used medical evaluations.  Counseling and continuing education were ignored.  They never used competent mediators.  The y usually offered “voluntary” leave of absence or else there would be a church trial.  If the bad bishops consulted with other bishops about what to do, they found other bad ones and perpetuated a cancerous pattern that has harmed the denomination.

There are good bishops, good personnel people, and other competent experts that should have been consulted.  Despite warnings by the Judicial Council, every bad bishop continues “rolling his/her own” and hurting churches, pastors, and those close to them in ways that are causing inestimable harm. (See JCD 777.)

I have watched and listened over the years.  Perhaps I can sum up the best options under the Discipline adding what I’ve seen among the wisest church leaders to provide alternatives that include compassion, imagination, and fairness.

Role of the cabinet

Let me suggest we start off with the role of superintendents (and bishops).  Being a connectional church, “superiors in office” are in a position to be of immense help to pastors and local churches by sharing resources that are needed but not known on the local level.  They can provide support and encouragement that hurting pastors and churches need in times of difficulty.  They can share their years of experience to help understand a situation that may be confusing.  The key Disciplinary passage, ¶419.5-.7, essentially says, “We the cabinet put this pastor and this church together and we will do all we can to help you succeed together.”

Once a superintendent knows each pastor and each church to establish a base line of their respective strengths and weaknesses, then there is a context for the superintendent to properly evaluate issues that may arise.  That means the superintendent has to visit, church to church and pastor to pastor.

ANYTHING THAT INTERFERES WITH THE SUPERINTENDENT DOING THAT MUST EITHER BE DONE BY SOMEONE ELSE OR IT SHOULD BE IGNORED.

Next let me suggest a listing of categories of administrative complaints.  I will use terminology beyond but subsumed under one or another of the Disciplinary terms of “incompetence, ineffectiveness, and inability to perform ministry.”

Unwell

Too many situations among clergy are genuinely medical.  Most ministers put in 60 to 100 hours a week and are literally working themselves to death.  Caring is their primary nature and they give every moment they are awake.  The body and mind can only take so much of that.  Symptoms can range from cancer to depression.  Among the in-between symptoms are hostility and vulnerability to which they no longer have energy to deal properly.  Scientific studies show exhaustion has symptoms nearly the same as being drunk all the time.

Literally, the first question a superintendent must ask of a pastor is “How are you?”  

When the superintendent knows that pastor, it is easier to determine if there has been a change.  If there has, there may need to be a medical or psychological evaluation to be sure of the pastor’s mental and physical condition.  Vacations and other forms of rest, time-use counseling, medical intervention, etc. should be considered when the stress of ministry has hurt the pastor.  The Church has developed a good system that so far has helped work with the unwell who must be dealt with involuntarily, ¶ 356.

Underperforming

Elders have all vowed to fulfill  the tasks of ministry included in the historical list in ¶330.5d).  With that or some other basic list of expectations previously established by the superintendent with the pastor, the specifics of underperformance can be identified.  But why such a pattern exists is the challenge.  Disinterest, being unskilled, or unfocussed among other dynamics all can enter into a pastor’s failure to perform ministry.  

Wellness may be the crucial factor if the superintendent sees a decline in enthusiasm or effort by the pastor.  Lack of focus could be because of a family problem, financial concerns, etc.  Those could be helped by counseling and other available resources..  But if wellness is eliminated as being involved, then the superintendent has two basic resolution options under the Discipline.  

One is ¶419, providing district workshops on the issues that may be held in common by a number of pastors.  Some conferences or jurisdictions conduct refresher programs for clergy which minimize the onus of having been identified as a troubled pastor under the eye of “supervision.”  Offering of a sabbatical might be especially valuable if the pastors’ gifts really relate better to teaching or administration in the denomination.

The other option does get personal, using ¶ 334.3 and getting the pastor into a specific plan in hopes that the particular counseling or continuing education will make a change in the pastor’s performance.

If after two or three serious attempts to set goals and study, they fail to improve the performance, there is a paper trail established to use if voluntary efforts to consider ministry in a different kind of job in or out of the church or if involuntary efforts may be required.  Under the Discipline, referral of the case to the CRC, ARC, and jurisdiction appeal come into play before action by the clergy session.

Broken trust - by mistake

Pastors make mistakes.  Momentary bad judgment, inexperience, or unwellness all are a part of the human situation.  These mistakes are not normal for this pastor, based on past history.  Or there is an appearance of misconduct.  When the matter is unique, tends to be on the level of a misdemeanor, or is an uncharacteristic lapse of some kind that would make it hard for the pastor to re-establish trust in that congregation, the most likely option should be a change of appointment following ¶425 ff.

Sometimes distance may make a start-over better and interconference transfer or even transfer to another denomination might be worth exploring.  

Occasionally wellness or supervisory options described above could work and be worth consideration.  But a change of scenery is most likely to make sense when the mistake could be forgiven but not forgotten.

Broken trust by major financial or other chargeable misconduct

There are the sad situations where the misconduct is too serious, too harmful, or a repetitious pattern of mistakes that are more serious, action has to be taken.  The Discipline provides for the handling of those kinds of complaints (¶¶ 361 ff and 2701 ff).

The superintendent must get a written and signed complaint with time, place, and alleged event(s) from the alleging victim or other legally valid witness to the alleged event(s) in order to begin the involuntary process.

As with other complaints above, the superintendent needs to assess wellness.  Even in some cases of sexual or financial misconduct, the pastor may be vulnerable to the misconduct because of exhaustion or even a brain tumor.  If upon serious evaluation of the situation all other factors are ruled out (including those noted below), entering the judicial track is the most likely option.

Attack by “antagonists in the church”

The books CLERGY KILLERS and ANTAGONISTS IN THE CHURCH document how pastors can be victimized by unwise cliques or individuals in a local church.  They can set traps, they can go outside protocol and go straight to the bishop or superintendent, they can present petitions misrepresenting the situation, they can infiltrate the normal local church structures to poison the atmosphere and seek to drive out the pastor.

The normal supervisory functions required of the superintendent under ¶¶419 ff are the starting point.  Monitoring local church activities through their Facebook page, newsletters, etc. is important. Visiting churches when they have special events is crucial, and dropping in occasionally anytime is critical in helping keep track of the spiritual temperature of a church.  Without that, too many churches can blind-side a superintendent and leave the impression that the ONLY problem is the pastor.  Superintendents have to have long experience in local church politics and behavior to be able to look for manipulation going on among the laity.  Rapport between the superintendent and a variety of members of the local church as well as having a mutually respectful relationship with the pastor is critical to having a leg up in responding to a bad situation.

Far and away the most cases I’ve had relate to antagonists striking when the superintendent is new and hasn’t had a chance to get acquainted enough to know what is going on.  The previous superintendents of those churches have to be ready to help the new one respond so that the pastor is not unnecessarily crunched.  And the bishop has to back up the superintendent and pastor even if the antagonists hold the purse strings.  Cabinet members should, if necessary, invoke ¶221, “Accountability.”

The Discipline also includes dealing with lay violations (undermining the ministry of the pastor, for example) in ¶¶2701 ff.  That so far has rarely happened.  The pastor ends up being the victim because “the customer is always right.”  Maybe it is time to be courageous and use the judicial system to deal with clergy killers.  

Just resolution (¶362.1c) and mediation (¶221 and 362.1c) are also options to consider with antagonists.  When people who really know what they are doing sit down across from nasty people, the nasty ones don’t really know what they are doing in a context where they are forced to be fair so resolution has a chance to occur.

Attacks by an antagonistic bishop or superintendent

While I have spent most of my advocacy helping pastors facing involuntary leaves of absence and variations off of that, I have to say a large percentage have been based on overreaching directly by a cabinet member.  And a number of cases have included the bishop coming into a case on the side of the complainant instead of maintaining an impartial role supervising fair process (¶415.3).  The power imbalance and influence of command have been so bad in some cases that the accused respondent ended up having a heart attack, having a stressed marriage, in the hospital, and even, I’m told, committing suicide.  

Because the complaint process begins at the top, the only somewhat successful remedy has been appeals, usually finally ending at the Judicial Council (¶2609.9).  Those appeals at best exonerate the pastor but do nothing about the offending church leader.  

Because of ¶424.3, complaints about superintendents who I think overreached, the cabinet simply “circles the wagons” and drops the complaint.  Complaints about a bishop (¶413) are similarly dropped at the jurisdictional level.  In other words, the mechanisms to hold our highest officers accountable are ineffective in dealing with overreaching on personnel matters.

Perhaps the idea of setting up an annual conference form of judicial council as a counter balance or even some form of impeachment proceeding for the annual conference with appropriate appeals might be worth considering as a way to minimize certain bishops’ autocratic tendencies. 

Or perhaps having superintendents elected and thus accountable to the annual conference rather than to the bishop could lead to better accountability.

Otherwise, there appears not to be any serious options within the denomination to hold antagonistic bishops and superintendents accountable.

Summation on III

I hope I have illustrated that there are many options available under the Discipline and it may take courage and imagination to use the options available to each kind of case.  I hope the church leaders will reconsider the kind of administrative situation that raises concern to seek an involuntary solution and imagine how they would like to be treated in the pastor’s situation, that is, follow the Golden Rule.  I hope advocates and wise church leaders will join together in spreading word about the variety of options under the Discipline so that even bad bishops realize one hammer does not fit all nails!


IV

What do we do in the cases that have been in process prior to November 1 when the new ban was imposed?

1. Find out if there is a medical or psychological reason causing the performance issues.

2. Ask other bishops and personnel professionals what they’ve found to work.

3. If possible, go back to ¶334.3 to work collaboratively on whatever issues may be under administrative complaint.  Follow through with that, preferably through a third time.  And if that effort has been unsuccessful, the superintendent will be in a much stronger position to persuade the slipping pastor based on real evidence of problems and inability to overcome them making involuntary action unnecessary except in the worst cases.

4. Welcome appeals under ¶2718.3-.4 and push them to follow through as expeditiously as possible so as not to hinder the full scope of the situation for the clergy at annual conference.

5. The bishop has got to avoid the mindsets of being too focused on punishing or getting caught up in litigiousness as the “right” way to resolve personnel issues.  Otherwise, recusal is the ONLY option for the bishop.

6. The bishop should also seek the services of independent, neutral experts in mediation to handle just resolution processes and give up any veto powers they might cherish.  Only controlling personalities refuse to let go and not trust an independent resource they help pick.

7. The bishop in particular has got to butt out of a complaint process, stay impartial, monitor the procedures so they fulfill fair process requirements, and be scrupulous about giving church officers and the respondent and his/her supporters reasonable mounting of the facts and law of the case and mounting of a defense before any vote.  That is the primary role provided in the Discipline.

8. Many conferences already have provision for vocational counseling for transitioning clergy.  The struggling pastor might come alive in one of the many other kinds of jobs available in our denomination.  The General Board of Pensions (Wespath) may have vocational counseling as part of its financial package under the Voluntary Transition Program which provides a half year salary to help pastors move on out of the Church.

9. Conference personnel officers should develop good relations with other annual conferences and other denominations so that transfers can be facilitated in those cases where a change of scenery would benefit the pastor.

10. Brainstorm with the best people in the conference about options, not letting the suggestions in this article pre-empt your own creativity.

11. As an absolute minimum, have Cabinet, CRC, BOM, and ARC members recuse themselves from voting at the clergy session.  They should leave the floor of the plenary, be witnesses as individuals if needed to lay out the case, and let the clergy session be the jury without the votes of those groups.


In conclusion

Here are the questions I see with which JCD 1383 leaves us and in summary my suggestions:

One, what exactly was found to be unconstitutional?

The people on the various bodies that dealt with an administrative case before should not vote on those cases when they get to the clergy session.  Further, because of that flaw, all four involuntary administrative actions (leave of absence, retirement, location, and discontinuance) are now unconstitutional.

Two, what were the predecessor passages to each of the passages found to be unconstitutional?

The clergy sessions, without prior hearings, had the right to discontinue pastors “on trial” and to involuntarily retire pastors.  Pastors considered for leave of absence and location had the right to a hearing from an independent committee called a “conference relations committee” which then could recommend either of those statuses to the clergy session.

Three, what options are left in the rest of the Discipline?

Besides possibly making the CRC independent of the BOM and establishing fair process and appeal through the ARC and jurisdictional appeals committee before clergy session or referring all changes of status to the committee on investigation and on through the judicial processes, there are many options: medical evaluations, a simple vacation, sabbaticals, transfers, collaboration setting up continuing education, to other imaginative (buying out the pastor!) and appropriate possibilities depending on the kind of problem in performance which the pastor faces.  These are not times to have failure of imagination.  Personnel officers must view the situation through the lens of the Golden Rule!

Four, what do we do in the cases that have been in process prior to November 1 when the new ban was imposed?

Make sure the pastor in question is well.  Use collaborative planning to use resources to improve and evaluate.  Get the bishop to recuse from any further direct action that could bias the processes.  Reconsider the validity of the proposed resolution by looking at the poor performance from different angles to be sure that an appropriate resolution is considered, preferably with a trained, independent neutral third party mediator.  Seek expert help and avoid bad practices used by autocratic bishops.  None of the above need Judicial Council permission or changes in the Discipline.

Finally, Decision No. 1383 has not hamstrung our system.  Rather, it has pushed us to look more compassionately at how we deal with pastors considered to be underperforming.  

If worse comes to worse, the bishop can look at the conference statistics on each pastor and make appointments up or down based on those performance statistics as well as the superintendents’ perceptions of competence, thus putting the underperforming pastors in the smaller churches until they can improve or take the hint and leave through the Voluntary Transition Program.  

Far better is to use Disciplinary tools to improve the performance by focusing on helping all pastors succeed in whatever church to which they are appointed, in other words, doing unto others what we’d like done with ourselves.

God bless us all.

JCD 1384

ee.umc.org/decisions/81137

Appeal of an Involuntary Leave of Absence and Discontinuance of Provisional Membership 

As an advocate for Rev. Seise, I was a party at interest and will refrain from commenting on this case beyond letting you know I was stunned by the decision, especially since JCD 1383 found both processes leading up to these statuses unconstitutional.