A PERSONNEL MATTER IN INDIANA
I find JCD 1273 very unsettling. In writing the commentary on JCD 1244 which is cited by the Council as a a factor in taking jurisdiction, I reminded the Council that JCD 799 dealt with two trials and said that the substance of those trials was not to be raised with the bishop. I said that the procedures should be subject to review by the bishop under Paragraph 415.3 and by the Council which deals with issues of law (procedures) and not new substance.
In this case, a pastor was asked by his church to move. There was no formal complaint involved, hence no substance. The Cabinet attempted to fulfill that request but the pastor asked for an appointment closer to his family, which the Cabinet honored. But it took no other action until an appointment was found at the end of the year. No action was requested by the pastor nor taken by the Cabinet to establish his status during that Aug. 1 to Dec. 31, 2013. In rulings since JCD 492, the Council has laid financial responsibility on the conference to cover such gaps in appointment.
When the Board of Ordained Ministry reported at the 2014 annual conference that the pastor had been retroactively put on transitional leave, without him ever seeking it (it is a voluntary status) nor by a fair process action in which he had the right to a hearing and appeals, even though the clergy session erroneously supported the status, the bishop was asked if the Cabinet had followed proper procedures to make an appointment for the pastor and who was financially responsible for the time between leaving the one and getting into the new appointment.
The bishop’s response was that the transitional leave is an appointment, which the Council firmly rebuffed. No form of leave is an appointment.
The Council misconstrued JCD 799, ensconced (inappropriately in my view) in its Rules of Practice and Procedure (Appendix A), and ruled that the bishop should have identified the questions of law as moot and hypothetical.
The decision identifies several criteria which should have been met for the bishop to answer the questions of law. One, the proper procedure for bringing a question of law (in writing, germain to a specific action of the conference, etc.) was met. Two, the bishop may not be asked a question on the substance of the matter. In this case, there was no “substance” because there were no complaints. The question intended to challenge the procedures. Three, the superisory actions of the superintendents were not to be raised. But at issue was not anything to do with supervisory functions but appointive functions. The Cabinet was unable to find a suitable appointment for many months, having voluntarily accepted the pastor’s request for a church close to his family.
The bishop should have answered the questions of law because they were not moot and hypothetical but procedural. When the bishop did answer, he not only incorrectly identified a leave as an appointment but said the executive committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry agreed with him on the transitional leave, an improper procedure that was not initiated by the pastor nor were fair process hearings held to establish his status during that period without appointment. That carelessness was due to the bishop’s incorrect belief that a leave could be considered an appointment.
The Indiana Conference, based on the information in the decision, should have been ruled to be responsible for paying the pastor for the five months he was out of an appointment. The Council has unintentionally endorsed an erring bishop and punished a pastor for the mistakes of the Cabinet.
There are two mitigating factors that I have to admit.
One, the full story may not have been reflected in this decision’s telling of the facts of the case. There may be other facts that have not been included for some reason. If there were, and they were important in reaching the decision, the Council erred in not including them.
Two, the questions of law could have been more precise. Rather than asking, “Was the pastor properly appointed?”, the question should probably have been, “Were the proper procedures followed with respect to the change of appointment beginning in August and concluding at the end of December, 2013, were the proper procedures followed to establish the pastor’s status as “transitional” leave, and should the conference have taken responsibility for the pastoral support during that period the pastor was without appointment?” It is easy for me to offer this suggestion after the fact and was much harder for the one raising them!
If the Council felt it had to handle this case in haste, it stopped paying attention when the word “appointed” was used and would have missed the implications of a procedural breakdown that was being questioned. The key word in the question of law was the adverb, “properly.” It is my opinion that the Council missed it. But advocates have to look for better ways to write their questions than to count on adverbs.
The Council has developed a better record in dealing with personnel cases in recent years. But it missed this one. Hopefully, the Council will continue on the trajectory of improved sensitivity to procedural issues in personnel cases.
One final note: The decision refers to working such procedural issues “through the appropriate manner and bodies set forth in the Discipline.” To my knowledge, those procedures are fair process procedures involving written complaints against the superintendents and bishop, support by the bishop to go into either administrative or judicial processes, appropriate hearings and appeal, and perhaps finally going to the Judicial Council. The fatal flaw in those procedures is that the bishop who presided over the making of those errors gets to make the decision whether or not to go forward with the complaint against fellow Cabinet members. Such complaints never see the light of day (see Paragraph 424.3). If the complaint is against the bishop, the College of Bishops assigns the presider at any preliminary hearing of the complaint against the bishop which invariably means that unless the complaint is about sexual misconduct, the complaint is dismissed. There is too much self-interest involved in these procedures.
Worse, bringing complaints may show an error was made but at most it punishes the “bad” guy but changes nothing for the harmed pastor.
The other option, face to face discussions about the issues of pastoral support during the interim period and discussing the status of the pastor for that time, was not a part of the statement of facts. Besides, the pastor would have faced a bishop who thought a leave was an appointment and the conversation would have ended there.
The constitution provides for a means of overcoming procedural problems when carelessness, intent to harm, or other negative factors are involved. That is the use of questions of law, Paragraphs 51 and 56.3. JCD 799 has often been used to block this option either by bishops or by the Council itself, as it did in this case.