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:


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.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

What Do We Do Now?


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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!


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.

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