HYPERLINK "http://www.umc.org/decisions/64871/eyJyZXN1bHRfcGFnZSI6IlwvZGVjaXNpb25zXC9zZWFyY2gtcmVzdWx0cyIsInNlYXJjaDpkZWNpc2lvbl9udW1iZXIiOiIxMzA4In0" http://www.umc.org/decisions/64871/eyJyZXN1bHRfcGFnZSI6IlwvZGVjaXNpb25zXC9zZWFyY2gtcmVzdWx0cyIsInNlYXJjaDpkZWNpc2lvbl9udW1iZXIiOiIxMzA4In0
VULNERABILITY OF LOCAL PASTORS
A lay member following proper procedure within the time frame of the annual conference, raised a question of law about a Local Pastor who was dropped from ministry by a district committee on ministry because of charges against her. The bishop ruled the question of law was moot and hypothetical, using JCD 799 as the main reason. The Council supported that ruling. Case closed.
Lay woman frustrated, Local Pastor frustrated. And possibly the congregation frustrated.
This is so disturbing because that’s completely legal under church law in the United Methodist Church.
Even though Local Pastors have fair process rights when under complaint (¶ 2702), they can be dropped from ministry simply by the bishop refusing to appoint them or by the District Committee on Ministry having the discretion to taking away their license without a hearing (¶ 320).
The bishop has full discretion about appointing Local Pastors or not (¶ 316.3). For years, unappointed Local Pastors came to our annual conference hoping to be appointed again but even though licensed, they never were. And there was no explanation.
When the district committee takes away the Local Pastor’s license, there is no vote at Annual Conference even though that license requires a vote by the clergy session to authorize it (¶ 319.2). The de-licensing is simply reported with no action required by the conference (¶ 320.1).
The way the Council and that bishop understand the situation, there is no appeal by means of questions of law. Such questions are understood as moot because the bishop under current church law may not answer any questions about what is going on in the personnel area because of “separation of powers” (JCD 799).
The fact that the lay woman raised the question of there being complaints that were not resolved under fair process is hard to assess. I have been aware of situations where a bishop lied about there being complaints against a pastor and where a superintendent told the pastor there were complaints but that word was never passed up the chain of command to anyone else. Did the latter occur in this case? We do not know. The Council was convinced that there were no complaints, though I have not seen any of the briefs where that matter might have been addressed.
I wish the Council’s secretary or staff would follow up on that kind of claim and request any evidence about possible complaints in order to help the Council deal with the reality of the case and not just what the bishop can give them under the shadow of plausible deniability. While the Council as an appellate body is not a “fact-finding body,” it is required of them to have all the available materials related to the case, something they are very serious about in other cases such as where a conference secretary sends in no minutes or the bishop sends only an email notification rather than details of a change of appointment. As JCD 595 says, “The Judicial Council has authority to determine factual matters which are essential to decide the legal question involved.”
In short, church law gives but then takes away fair process protections for Local Pastors.
There are other serious problems showcased by this decision that I address in other contexts and in previous blog postings. I try to show that JCD 799 is only partly right and grossly unjust in some important ways, and that there are no real forms of appeal in the administrative track, thus no way for administrative actions like administrative location, involuntary leave of absence, or involuntary retirement to be appealed, which violates ¶¶ 20 and 58, the constitutional rights of trial and appeal. I also want to clarify that “substantive” can mean a bishop may answer a question of law about process but answering a question about the substance of a complaint may be inappropriate. The bishops and the Council need to learn such distinctions or many more people will be very frustrated with the United Methodist Church.