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.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Commentary on Judicial Council Decisions 1323 to 1337

The following observations are intended to encourage you to read the decisions of the Judicial 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.

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 on this blog.

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.

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. 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 decision is of interest to you.
The phrase “the Council” when used refers to the Judicial Council.

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 may refuse to take jurisdiction, remand, or show a question is not legally appropriate under Council rules.  On rare occasions, the Council may provide their rationale in a memorandum.

Associates in Advocacy (AIA) publishes updated indexes of all Judicial Council decisions and memoranda. If you are interested, contact Rev. Michael Brown, 158 Saxony Ct., Vallejo, CA 94591. The Judicial Council website now offers a search function which covers every JCD since 1940.  Go to http://www.umc.org/decisions/search.  To go straight to all decisions, leave all the boxes blank on that search page and click on the “search” bar.  Then you can scroll and scan to find what you want.  To highlight a key phrase you search for, use the proper box and click on the “search” bar.  While you will get a list of decisions and can go into each, you will not find your phrase highlighted.  To get the highlighting in a particular decision, 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.

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 and 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 also do not think every article has yet been digitized and posted on the site.
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.

JCM 1323

Reconsideration of JCD 1314

The Council turned down this request without a rationale.  The case relates to JCD 1276, the one where the advocate tried imaginative ways to get an appeal before the Council for a pastor involuntarily retired.  I have two observations:

1. Advocates need to persist.  It is rare for the Council to actually respond to a request for reconsideration but once in awhile, like facing the nagging old woman in Jesus’ parable, some kind of breakthrough might occur.  Besides, the involuntarily retired pastor has exhausted all of his in-church options and can see if a civil court can accept jurisdiction.  Civil courts hate to take a case from a denomination with a judicial system unless the pastor has tried everything legally involved in a Church case like this one.

2. Council groups tend not to challenge their predecessor Council groups’ decisions.  That’s one of the dynamics that allows for precedent to develop.  Besides, the previous court applied its best thinking.  The grounds for reconsideration would have to be compelling to get a new Council to do it.

JCM 1324

Reconsideration of JCD 1319

I thought JCD 1319 was perfectly clear.  The time for the Congo Central Conference had been set by the conference and could not be changed by the bishops. Apparently the bishops could not take “no” for an answer.

Unfortunately, I do not know what issues were involved so my snark could be way out of line.  Whatever was brought back to the Council was not compelling so there was no reconsideration.

JCM 1325


Reconsideration of JCD 1321

Silicon based computer chips work very well in binary situations but DNA can be used to store digital information based on more the “0” and “1.”  DNA strands have multiple points that can be used.  Computers of the future will be using “chips” of organic material, be smaller, and be able to handle even more complex things quicker.

Using this as an analogy, there are some of us who can only handle binary matters, yes/no, good/bad, (I’m) right/(you’re) wrong.  So not surprisingly, facing “multiple sources of authority” is incomprehensible to some of us.  In some, our “comprehension” gene is really just a silicon chip. 

I’m saying that as with so many human traits, not all of us have the same genes so some of us get certain kinds of diseases, some of us are right handed, and some of us don’t like coffee.  Those are built into our physiology and there’s not much anyone can do about it.  I think one of those traits is the ability to think in only simple terms without the ability to expand into thinking in complex terms.

I speculate then that those asking for reconsideration in this case cannot make sense out of the original decision.  That does not make them unintelligent.  Intelligence has to do with a different gene.  Hence, black-and-white thinkers can sometimes tolerate or agree to disagree or downplay the importance of a matter they cannot understand.  Similarly, complex thinkers can also tolerate, etc. on some issues and maintain effective relationships with those with whom they disagree.  But once in awhile (and in the Trump era), intelligence is not able to bridge the gap and this difference in ways of comprehending becomes a barrier to community.

Law, then, if respected, keeps us together.  When Law is agreed upon, it bridges the differences and the community is sustained.  When law is abused or some give up on it as having authority, that leads to breakdowns and splintering of relationships.  At least the ones asking for reconsideration were hoping law would work in this case.  That’s a good sign.  If they can live with the result, that is a better sign.

JCM 1326


Election by Casting Lots

Unfortunately, the parties interested in electing delegates to General Conference by lot from Northwest Philippines Annual Conference did not send in the necessary documents by the deadline the Council had set.  It is entirely possible that the folks involved in this case were busy.  In the past year, the Philippines have been hit by several major typhoons and, without further information, we may never know if they even survived those terrible storms.

See my comment  re: JCM 1305 on the Council’s original request for more information on the case and the interesting possibilities involved.

JCD 1327


Conference  Resolution Against Enforcing Laws on Homosexual Concerns

The New England Annual Conference passed a resolution which intended to counter all the things in the Discipline that they felt was oppressive with respect to the LGBTQIA community.  The statement of facts reproduces the resolution which identifies those places in the Discipline.  The bishop ruled against the points of the resolution where they countered church law but allowed those related to non-law portions like the Social Principles.

Usually such resolutions are couched in aspirational terms.  This one was clearly a challenge which directed disobedience to church law.  The Council affirmed the Bishop’s rulings.

The Bishop and the Council were on the same page and were consistent with many past Council decisions about such resolutions.

This was not the only annual conference to assert freedom from following a handful of recent laws.  It is a sign of growing dissatisfaction in the United States and Western Europe with church law on these matters.  For what it is worth, I think it is highly likely that much of the rest of the world will shift in this direction because of so many in the younger generations for whom the attitudes differ from the older generations.  

JCD 1328

Nomination of Conference Agencies’ Officers

Why were questions of law asked over something as drab, dull, and arcane as the work of the conference nominating committee?  Similar questions were raised when the bishop was in Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.  See JCDs 1066 and 1073.  He even referenced them in his response.  Isn’t that a little weird?

The questions I wish were answered are, “Does the bishop sit on the nominating committee?”  Or “does the bishop select the nominating committee chairperson?”  Or “how much influence does the bishop have over the nominating committee?”

I’m with the concurring opinion on this one.  Only maybe I can be a little more blunt.  I, who am notorious for seeing power grabs by bishops, see the real possibility that the bishop is using “eliminating discrimination” as a Trojan horse to allow him to influence the selection of key officers by means of nomination.  After all, if a bishop’s opinion is known, influence of command is a very powerful tool.

Say you are a member of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration and you know the bishop would love to see Joe Bloe as chairperson.  You’d know about that because the conference nominating committee came in with its recommendation of officers, one for each position.  And the bishop would know how you voted because most votes are “show of hands.”  And say you really hoped your next appointment was a better one than where you are now.  You might be willing to vote for Joe Bloe, even if he wasn’t as sharp as Jane Doe.

What you may sense is that the bishop has subtly taken control of the financial agencies of the conference like the Foundation and now would have a degree of control of CCFA.  But you are not a political animal and don’t care about such things.

Don’t many committees save energy when meeting, letting others make decisions so they don’t have to expend the effort?  Don’t most people think of committee work as a kind of boring joke?

Even so, there are people on committees that understand just how much power their decisions have.  And they learned that the bishop is not supposed to have control over legislative matters, which he or she can gain just by having the power of nomination.

In a healthy conference, everyone would be assured when they were told that nominations are just suggestions.  In one where people were nervous about the bishop, they would not be reassured and would seek outside review.  Is this what is really happening in this case?

What is a Council to do?

Given the world wide nature of the denomination, the Council plays it straight.  (The bishop got his way.)

Back in the old days, when the Methodist Church encompassed seven jurisdictions, six in the United States and essentially one for the rest of the world, Council decisions could be made because its members knew the bishops and their conferences and could slant their decisions, finding creative ways of putting up barriers around the bishops whom they didn’t trust.

It may not be all that hard to do in our global Church.  Have you noticed that certain bishops are tested before the Council and most aren’t?  Maybe the number of rogue bishops isn’t all that large.  And maybe the Council could use some research help to spot them.

JCD 1329

Remanding a Moot and Hypothetical Question

Let me first insert an anecdote before commenting on this interesting decision,

When I was interviewed for ordination, I was really asked only one question.  “Do you smoke?”  That was way before sexual orientation was on anyone’s mind and while the Discipline was explicit about our witness being to not smoke or drink.  My answer was “No” because I have always found the habit abhorrent and unhealthy.  The answer was “No” by all of the candidates even though those who were Korean War veterans and rebels smoked.  That was true in southern conferences as well, especially where tobacco was the main cash crop.

Here’s the kicker: No Board of Ordained Ministry advertised their decision to ignore the Discipline.  After a very few years, the Discipline was changed and hardly anyone noticed.

Take that bit of history for what it’s worth.

Second, let me advertise a little.  Last year I completed a study on “moot and hypothetical” and put it in a form of guidelines for bishops that I wish the Council adopted instead of JCD 799.  Anyone interested in my handiwork may contact me.

I bring that up because it suggests that a questioner and the bishop should meet to discuss the question before it goes to the floor of the conference.  The bishop should take a break if one comes up spontaneously as this one appears to have.  The break should be for the purpose of going over the requirements and limitations related to the two kinds of questioning.  Perhaps a parliamentarian should help them evaluate the situation and see if there is a best question and best way to ask it so that the Council is not caught in the kind of bind exemplified in this case.

It is hard to say exactly what questions might have been asked, if any.  To speculate would be to argue this case.  This commentary is badly timed since this case was remanded back to the bishop for reworking her answers.

But let me say a couple things more.

One, the Council is wise to overturn the bishop’s argument that a defeated motion is moot and hypothetical.  Past Councils have overturned personnel cases when there were failures of fair process that led to conference decisions that were being challenged.  A negative action of a conference is an action and may be questioned.

Two, I find it strange when the Discipline requires a two-thirds vote of an annual conference to forward a request for a declaratory decision (P 2609.5) but only one fifth or one-third vote of members of jurisdictional, central, or General Conferences.  That sure makes it hard for annual conferences to challenge bishops to the Council if the bishop is authoritarian.

JCD 1330


Is the Board Required . . . .?

I prepared a full answer and then realized I was preparing a brief.  So except for a short paragraph, I am holding the main body of my comment until after the Council meets in April.  I regret having waited so long to doing these commentaries.

Now, regarding the decision, I think the bishop and Council are both in error.  The four questions are all academic.  Answers to the questions actually change nothing.  They are not related to a specific case.  They are arguments against the Board’s statement of policy which was not actually before the conference for any kind of action

JCD 1331

Constitutionality of Defrocking an Elder by a Different Conference

A good defense lawyer tries every avenue that may help his/her client.  As JCD 629 says, “Ambiguities must be construed in the favor of the person affected.”  And there appeared to be ambiguity between Paragraphs 33 and 2719.1.

I think the bishop’s answer was correct, even if he probably should have let the Council take jurisdiction.  Again, there is confusion as to which kind of legal question was appropriate in this circumstance.  That is not always easily answered.

The case here is really moot.  That the respondent, to my knowledge, did not try to get a change of venue to have the trial in his own conference ended his claim on which conference would be able to end his membership.  To get a change of venue in this case would have put the trial a thousand miles from the witnesses.  The Church always has funds for its witnesses but the defense is put at a marked disadvantage.

Without getting the trial transferred to his home conference, the chance was slim for this case but the defense had to take it.

Update: The last time there was a serious look at our judicial system, as called for in the concurring opinion, was in 1988 when bishops were mired in civil suits costing the denomination huge fees for bonding.  General Council on Finance and Administration which contracts for bonding for the bishops led the way, taking a small petition to the General Conference suggesting a study commission (written by a Judicial Council member) and expanding upon it.  That study commission came back with fair process in 1992 which was a huge leap forward.  However, in a milieu where bishops felt the declining of the denomination was the fault of incompetent pastors, they weakened fair process to get as close to “at-will” firing of pastors as they could get.  The biggest weakness in the system is the supervisory response where intimidation and coercion can go on unchecked, driving pastors to desperation where leaving is the easiest and most sane option.

I have speculated that each pastor mistreated this way may drive twenty or more people away from a congregation.  We lose around 150 pastors a year, a tiny number compared to the total of pastors that we have.  But that is a possible loss of 3,000 people per year.  And there is no telling how many people those folks influence not to consider joining our denomination.

My numbers may not be accurate, but the phenomenon of ripple effect for nasty treatment of pastors goes a long way.  And my argument persuades no one of influence in the denomination.  It will take another series of lawsuits that start costing us big bucks to motivate someone to do something.

Update 2: I do not intend to suggest that bad behavior such as sexual exploitation by a pastor does not also have a negative ripple effect and drive people away from the UMC.  Everyone who harms another under the "banner" of the Church can disrupt and even destroy people's attitudes toward the Church.  All cases must be handled appropriately to avoid further harm to whomever is the victim of the harmful behavior and to the Church.

JCD 1332

Harsh Punishment for a Pastor Slow to Divorce

During the first ten years of my ministry, pastors who had an affair, essentially having slipped once, were usually transferred to another conference where he and his wife, the new one or the old one, could start over with a clean slate.  Then the practice changed.   They were given two years exile or two years leave of absence, and then they returned to their conference for appointment, with either the old or the new wife.

Then there were several bishops who were involved in affairs who divorced and married the one with whom she or he had the affair and they were forgiven by the Church, continuing as bishop or as a pastor.  But those whose spouses forgave them were treated by the Church as spurned lovers.  Since then, the pattern has been much the same.  Where the spouse was forgiving and the marriage continued, the pastor was cut off at the legs.  The Church seems to have become the rod of the wrath of the one who lost the pastor lover.

Oh yes, I’m supposed to be commenting on a Council decision.

Surprise, a pastor admitted to an affair that was broken off when he didn’t divorce his wife and the affairee blew the whistle.  And how did that turn out?  The Council did as it always does.  It dismissed any objections, as did the trial court and the appellate committee.  No one is saying it is because he didn’t divorce his wife.  It just works out that way.

Weird.  Really weird.  It is too much of a coincidence.

The spouse can reconcile and the Church can’t.  Something is upside down here.

Unfortunately, I do not have access to any more information than is in the statement of facts.  I have documented other cases where the woman was the predator and got to the pastor when he happened to be vulnerable.  I have documented cases where the woman lied very effectively, except the evidence showed she lied but no one anywhere in the judicial system of the Church wanted to see that.

I understand that everyone who errs should face consequences.  I understand that confession is not sufficient to necessarily ease the punishment.  What I do not understand is that there is no nuance in the Church, especially for men who do not divorce and marry the one with whom he had an affair.

And if counsel for the respondent in this case is right about all kinds of bad actions against the pastor, it appears the Church can do anything it pleases to that pastor because, well, he said he was guilty.

I have heard all the arguments that appellate bodies should respect the trial court because they received all the evidence and were eyeball to eyeball with the accuser and the accused.  “Respect the closest judicial body to the evidence.”  And I have heard all the arguments about appellate bodies looking only at law and not substance of the case.  

I understand all that.  But you’d think that somewhere along the line, the justice of the Church would be a little easier on some pastor who did not get a divorce.

Not this time.

I’m so glad we don’t have a death penalty!

JCD 1333


Losing “Missional Needs” Verification

If I read this right, a pastor serving in an appointment previously understood as an extension ministry learned the Board of Ordained Ministry withdrew its support, following normal annual evaluation and discussions as provided by the Discipline in Paragraph 344.1d).

If that is what happened, especially that the woman pastor was consulted as part of the annual evaluation that there was a change in the Board about supporting her work as an extension ministry, why would such a question come before the Council?  And why would there be any mention of fair process rights?

I have seen too many times where a particular pastor, often a woman or an ethnic pastor, became the subject of antagonism of someone who attained a high position such as superintendent or chairperson of a crucial board or agency.  The pastor was then subjected to various forms of humiliation, particularly never getting a chance to really be heard before her ministry was brought crashing down.  I have seen good people tell bad lies to cover up what was going on in the matter.  And I have seen the Council not be in a position to pursue all of the material needed to go beneath the possible lies, even when the appellant was sending up red flags that bad things were going on.  

Who is the Council to trust?  What does it take to show someone was lying?  In addition to Cabinet members, I have also seen pastors lie to cover their own bad or inept behavior.  And I have seen conference officers lie to their bishop about what happened and the bishop, who nominates practically everyone who has a position related to personnel work in the conference, is usually caught between his/her nominee and a pastor he/she does not really know.

If the advocate for the appellant is an amateur and a volunteer, which describes nearly everyone in the judicial system of the Church, how would he know what to provide in order for the Council to have enough information so that it can do justice?

This case may be as cut and dried as it appears.  But if someone was willing to stand up on behalf of a fellow pastor on the conference floor and seek an appeal, something is likely to be wrong and we as a denomination may not be handling things right.

JCD 1334


Confusing and Conflicting System

Let me try to reconstruct the situation in the case from the Texas Conference.  A woman pastor was accused of being involved in an affair.  The accusation became formal.  A just resolution was worked out.  One of the bodies that should have been a party to the just resolution, the conference relations committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry without providing a hearing with the woman pastor, refused to accept the terms.  The matter went to trial.  The trial court found guilt and the punishment was what had been worked out in the just resolution.  

If I had been the advocate at the time the conference relations committee decided there would be no hearing, I would have complained immediately to the bishop that the respondent did not get fair process rights as the 2008 Discipline required (Paragraph 363.1).  I wouldn’t have waited until conference.  The bishop, under Paragraph 415.3, could have intervened on the procedural (emphasis added) matter of failure to provide the respondent’s right to be heard and the accompanying rights a hearing with the committee required.  Had the bishop done that, there might not have been the expense and other costs a trial entails.

The Council has not been asked, so far, to look at Paragraph 415.3 as part of the bishop’s administrative responsibilities with respect to handling of complaints.  I made a point of it in my analysis of “moot and hypothetical” rulings of the Council last year.

The 1988 study commission added Paragraph 415.3 as a back up protection of fair process so that if there were mistakes made implementing fair process, the bishop could “ensure” it by stepping in, correcting the situation, and get the procedure back on track.  By doing that, the bishop was not dealing with the accusations or evidence substantively but only procedurally (administratively).

The word “substantive” and its various forms have not been properly parsed in this decision or all the others which have been based on JCD 799.  If we distinguish between having jurisdiction over deciding about procedural matters and deciding about guilt or innocence and identify “substantive” to relate to the latter only, I think we would be better able to sort out the various roles.

As the Discipline currently reads, the bishop’s judicial role includes monitoring and correcting process in administrative and judicial matters, including being required to answer questions of law at annual conference about procedures used in personnel cases.  That is not how the Council reads the Discipline.  There have been serious departures in certain cases (JCDS 1031, 1032, 1156, 1189, 1216,1230, et al) because the cases were clearly unjust.  The Council, by encouraging the use of Paragraph 415.3 for procedural questions, now could have legitimate grounds for what it did in those past cases.

I also happen to agree that bishops should be removed from judicial matters, as I have said innumerable times.  But that would leave a gaping hole in our system that would have to be filled some way.  Perhaps the nominating committee can take over all nominations that the bishop now makes for the groups that deal with personnel matters.  Perhaps a “counsel for the Church” can be elected to take over the tasks of receiving complaints, handling supervisory response tasks, setting up just resolution options or mediation, and so forth.  Maybe there should be an annual conference level court to be the first body to hear questions of law and even requests for declaratory decisions and appeals of church trials.

The system needs a serious review and the various tasks need to be realigned so that the separation of powers is handled better and so that cases like this one do not continue to fall in the cracks as they have since 1997 when JCD 799 was made.

JCM 1335


Is He or Isn’t He?

The Council was invited to consider a Western Michigan Annual Conference matter about membership on a leadership team.  But it could not be resolved because not all of the documents were sent in to show the actions of the plenary that were germane to the “request for a decision of law.”

The Council retained jurisdiction pending the receipt of the materials from the conference.

The bishop answered the questions of law.  The answers were that the questioner was ineligible to be on the Conference Leadership Team.  The ruling of the bishop stands until the Council has everything it needs to make its ruling . . .next April.

There were other cases where the Council Secretary did not get all of the proper information.  The Council is a voluntary body with one clerk who on a very part-time basis helps the Secretary.  What I hope can be resolved is how cases which come in without all the documentation can get an immediate response pointing out, usually to the Annual Conference Secretary, that other specific things need to be sent in or the Council will have to postpone making any decision about that case.

And maybe an annual conference judicial body might have been able to look at the questions and resolve the issue within weeks of its being raised.  Maybe this kind of case is a strong argument for such a court.

JCM 1336

Laws that Seem to Hurt the Respondent

Advocates have a hard time in our system.  It is an amateur system, built out of laws that are covered in several parts of the Discipline and in over a thousand Judicial Council Decisions.  Some of those laws are similar to civil codes and some are definitely not.  Serious cases come up once in a blue moon in an annual conference so there rarely is an experienced advocate around with whom to consult.

There are several avenues of appeal and when to use which is not clearly spelled out anywhere.  In fact, which of the avenues to use remains a mystery to the inexperienced.  Then, when one avenue is tried, all the obscure written and unwritten rules come out and invariably work against the advocate and respondent.  Who knew how complicated it was?  And the Church comes out looking legalistic, protective of the hierarchy, and impenetrable by those seeking justice.  Reconciliation goes out the door and the Church really gets a black eye despite “following the rules.”

At any time, was the advocate told he had only one route and that the time frame began at the close of the trial?  I doubt that the attorney acting as assistant counsel knew.

Church law is now so complex that amateurs and part-time volunteers are in over their heads.  Isn’t it time that the denomination funded a “public defense” corps, a “prosecution” corps, full time clerks for the Judicial Council and appellate committees, and a church law department in some of the seminaries?  The Catholics have established their judicial system, as have some other denominations.  Isn’t it time someone studied those systems to see what we could learn?  And, while I’m at it, how about having a commission to review church trials and challenged personnel cases in much the same way the federal government studies disastrous accidents so we can learn how to avoid them in the future?

Having made all the mistakes I see advocates in the cases have made that have reached the Judicial Council, I wish I had done better at letting them know I and others are out here and could have helped.  Church law has formed around mistakes and most of the time , its rules are meant to help and not hurt.  As you can see by some of my commentaries, I try to pinpoint where law has been used to hurt.

We have to do a better job as a Church to make our system more clear and more effective and maybe even professionalize it.

JCD 1337

Appealing a Case the Wrong Way

The Statement of Facts about this Great Rivers Annual Conference case is like sitting in on a conversation that should have happened in the Great Rivers Conference office.  That is followed by a broken record rendition of a point of law.  To add to the disarray, I think the Council didn’t really want to reverse the bishop’s ruling but rather just say it does not stand as a legal ruling under church law.  The bishop’s response does not even state law but says the questioner misrepresented what was actually happening.  The matter appears to have been a lot of miscommunication for reasons that could be blamed on either or both sides.

I have seen cases where what was said by Church officials differed from what they actually did.  There is not enough information in this decision to be able to raise that question.

Pity the Council for being drawn into this case.  While it appears misunderstandings could have been worked out by a neutral third party, the advocate tried to use the Council for that purpose.  Being so far away from the problem and having so limited amount of time to deal with it, the Council had practically no way the to resolve things.  And on top of that, there are the legal reasons the Council really had no jurisdiction.

Just as I am suggesting the Secretary have the authority to respond immediately when cases come in without all the proper documentation, I’m wondering if he or a small team from the Council could have the authority to request that certain questions like these be handled by mediation or consultation with GCFA, GBHEM, AIA, JUSTPEACE, or some other agency that might have the competence to resolve the matter rather than take up the time of the Council.  I better add that such referrals may run up onto church law difficulties that the Council should address, so jurisdiction should not be lost.

Concluding Thoughts on the Fall 2016 Session

This series of decisions comes from a group that is nearly half “rookies” to the work of the Council.  It takes a couple years for each group to do its best work and some groups actually achieve a measure of consistency and quality considering their infrequent meetings and being volunteers.  As this set of decisions shows, the Council operates within fairly strict limits of law and practice.  Those limits are stated several times.

In the course of my comments, I have suggested that the Secretary or someone authorized by the Council to do some triage the moment any materials come in from the conferences.  While the appellants may sometimes be a little lax, it seems most of the problems with insufficient documentation are the fault of the conference secretary.  The Council Secretary should be free to immediately let the party know they need to provide additional materials, and not wait until the Council session to raise the problem.  Also to be subject to triage would be any questions that do not fit the requirements and limitations the Council points to which do not let them take jurisdiction.  The third kind of triage that should be applied immediately in some reasonable and fair way would be remanding back things that could be resolved by other third parties.  This third category should be understood as still reviewable by the Council, particularly if the parties are unable to resolve the matter.

It is too bad bishops are so loath to use professional mediators.  Too bad some advocates use questions of law from the annual conference floor as a way to resolve everything.  Too bad . . . .  People are just not talking to each other.  Or they are not listening.  Or they are predisposed to misrepresent what is happening for whatever reason.  The divide between congregation level and cabinet level is a chasm way too large and has grown incredibly since 1980 when superintendency changed from being back-ups to pastors to being sheriffs.  When the Discipline changed to allow cabinet members to initiate complaints, all the other factors influencing the gap between superintendents and pastors were exacerbated.  

And these systemic ailments manifest themselves  in the form of “requests for decisions of law.”

But that takes me to another moment of reflection.  I have been surprised by the number of times the phrase “request a decision of law” is used instead of the Disciplinary terminology related to questions of law (asked of the bishop as a form of appeal) and requests for declaratory decisions (to be answered by the Judicial Council mainly to clarify ambiguous or possibly conflicting church laws).

I think the Council should address this terminology and instruct bishops to ask the questioners who they want to answer their question and what change the answer will make.  With those two things, the bishop can work out the proper phrasing with the questioner for the inquiry.  As in JCD 1329 and other recent questions rising to the Council, too many are neither questions of law nor requests for declaratory decisions but some kind of amalgam which adds to the confusion bishops have about answering or not answering the “request for decisions.”

Finally, this Council has talented people on it.  Like when Lebron James and Chris Bosh joined Dewayne Wade on the Miami Heat basketball team, it took half the season before they were able to start winning as a team, so it will take awhile for this group to mesh.  In the meantime, it will make some wise and helpful decisions and it will make some mistakes.  It will have to sort through its rules to avoid bad ones that cause harm.  It will have to agree on definitions of its most commonly used phrases.  It may even have to defer some cases where possible in order to avoid harm and find a better resolution.  It will have to be creative in some cases in order to be able to bring justice that in the past might not have been possible.

The members must be in our prayers.