Archives for October 2013

News Analysis: Split decisions at the Judicial Council

The Judicial Council met recently to consider a long list of cases posed by various annual conferences. I have given a more complete description of the cases Good News was following HERE. The Council made two important decisions that went in favor of the traditionalist perspective and two with which we disagreed.

Questions of Law One-Fifth Requirement Unconstitutional

In a surprising, but welcome, development, the Judicial Council invalidated the one-fifth requirement for questions of law to be ruled on by bishops. This requirement was an issue in the case of a resolution passed by the New York Annual Conference and was also raised in the context of a question of law in the Southwest Texas Annual Conference. The Council ruled that the General Conference may not limit the authority of the Judicial Council and bishops to rule on questions of law. Such authority is found in the Constitution, and limiting it (by a one-fifth vote requirement) would require a Constitutional Amendment.

This ruling is important because it preserves access to the Judicial Council for all matters related to the Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council is the only check on the actions of annual conferences that violate the procedures prescribed by the Discipline. Questions of law are an important part of the accountability process in our church. They will continue to be available to all persons, not just those who can garner a one-fifth vote by the annual conference.

Western Jurisdiction

As expected, the resolution passed by the Western Jurisdiction in 2012 designating an “appropriate penalty” for bishops found guilty of ordaining or appointing a self-avowed practicing homosexual was ruled null and void by the Judicial Council. The resolution was similar to one passed by the Northern Illinois Annual Conference in 2011 that was also nullified by an earlier Judicial Council decision. The Council ruled that the trial court must have full authority to determine a penalty for persons found guilty of violating the Discipline, subject only to the guidelines of the Discipline. Any outside suggestion for a penalty is “an intrusion upon the authority of the trial court” and “undermines the authority of the Discipline.”

New York

The resolution passed by the New York Annual Conference commended many people who crossed the line set by the Discipline against performing same-sex unions or weddings, including some who had been convicted under church law for doing so, as well as some who have promised to do so. The Judicial Council ruled that the resolution was valid because it aspired for change in the Discipline on this matter, but did not negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline. Under the Council’s reasoning, commending certain behavior is not the same as prescribing that behavior. The resolution does not specifically “prescribe that others should engage in those behaviors nor does it advise others to negate or ignore church law in the Discipline.” Therefore, the resolution is acceptable.

This decision is disappointing, in that it seems to ignore the precedent set in Decision 1115, which states that a resolution “which expresses support of conduct which is prohibited” in the Discipline is illegal. To commend something is surely to support it. The Council by this decision allows an annual conference to encourage behavior that is contrary to the Discipline, thereby potentially undermining the authority of the Discipline.


Similarly, the resolution passed by the California-Pacific Annual Conference supported a previous resolution passed by the Western Jurisdiction that “commend[ed] … the challenge to operate as if the statement in Para. 161F [declaring the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching] does not exist.” The Judicial Council accepted this resolution as valid through a tortured process of reasoning, in which they attempted to rule on the resolution passed by California-Pacific without ruling on the previous resolution passed by the Western Jurisdiction, even though the Western Jurisdiction resolution made up the heart of the content of the California-Pacific resolution. Their ruling hinged on the fact that Para. 161F is part of the Social Principles, which is not church law.

Although in a previous decision (1220) the Council ruled that an annual conference may not renounce a statement in the Social Principles, the Council now rules that an annual conference may explicitly ignore a statement in the Social Principles. Another distinction without much difference.

Encouragingly, three members of the Council registered a written dissent, in which they find that “urging others to disobey and ignore ¶161F of the Social Principles is impermissible because the resolution doesn’t merely expresses disagreement with the current language of the Discipline and it doesn’t merely expresses aspirational hopes. The effect is to negate and ignore the church’s clearly stated position on issues of sexuality … as reflected in the Social Principles.” Unfortunately, the rest of the Council did not agree.

Southwest Texas

A question of law asked if a person could be removed from being a candidate for ordained ministry because of her self-avowal as a practicing homosexual, even though she was not interviewed by the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry prior to that removal. (She was interviewed by the District Committee on Ministry, which heard and received her self-avowal.) Bishop Dorff ruled that the question of law was hypothetical and not germane to the business of the annual conference. The Judicial Council disagreed and ordered Bishop Dorff to make a ruling within 60 days. This issue will come back to the Judicial Council for its Spring 2014 session.

North Carolina

A question of law asked whether a contribution by the North Carolina Annual Conference to the North Carolina Council of Churches (NCCC) was legal, since the NCCC was alleged to promote the acceptance of homosexuality, in violation of ¶613.19 of the Discipline. Bishop Ward ruled that an investigation and decision by the Conference Council of Ministries that “such support did not ‘promote the acceptance of homosexuality’ and was therefore not in violation of Paragraph 613.19 of the 2012 Book of Discipline” was sufficient to show that the contribution was legal. The Judicial Council agreed.

An Escalation of Covenant Breaking

The news broke over the weekend that more than 30 United Methodist clergy from the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference plan to jointly preside over a same-sex union service in the next few weeks. They are doing so in support of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who is on trial November 18 for performing a same-sex wedding for his son in Massachusetts in 2007.

This plan represents a serious escalation in the move to disregard our United Methodist Discipline, established from decades of holy conferencing. We have a process for deciding what our church’s policy and standards of behavior will be. Those promoting the acceptance of same-sex marriage have decided that, since they could not convince the church to make changes in policy legislatively or through appeals to the Judicial Council (our “Supreme Court”), they would take matters into their own hands and disregard church policy altogether.

Such an approach is schismatic, believing that one’s dissenting knowledge and moral sensibilities are better equipped than the collective wisdom of the church to determine what the church’s moral teachings should be. Clergy and laity (and bishops!) want to continue to identify themselves as United Methodist, maintaining their position in the church, job security, and benefits, while at the same time acting contrary to the church’s teachings and policies. Integrity would demand that clergy in particular who can no longer in good conscience abide by the church’s policies should withdraw and unite with another denomination that is more in keeping with their conscience.

It is lamentable that an act of worship will once again be used as symbolic political theater in an effort to nullify the moral teaching of the church. Worship ought to be offered for God’s glory, not our own churchly political agendas.

Most troubling, the proposed joint service portrays a United Methodist Church that is hopelessly divided. When a substantial number of our church’s clergy are no longer willing to live within our church’s polity, there are no good outcomes. Either the church will capitulate to covenant-breaking and pressure tactics, rather than Scripture and holy conferencing, to determine its moral teaching, or the church will need to encourage the dissidents to go their own way outside the UM Church.

Either approach will result in a massive distraction of time and resources from our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. At this point, we have Bishop Talbert planning to break church law on Saturday, the Schaefer trial in November, and the 30+ Pennsylvania pastors planning to violate the Discipline in the next few weeks. In addition, four other UM pastors are under complaint for performing same-sex weddings, and four more have done public services or have publicly acknowledged doing them.

This seems like a recipe for schism. It appears that irreconcilable differences already exist in our church. The question is whether those differences will lead to formal separation. Evangelicals in the UM Church will not continue to support a church that is unable or unwilling to enforce its doctrinal and moral standards.

The United Methodist covenant is broken. It remains to be seen what the church can and will do to reconstitute that covenant.

What Is the “Clergy Covenant?” (Part III)

This is the last in a series of three posts attempting to describe what we mean by our clergy covenant within The United Methodist Church. In my first post (here), I talked about the fact that our clergy covenant connects United Methodists with all ordained clergy of any denomination, but is most practically experienced as our personal partnership in ministry with those of our own Order in our own annual conference. In my second post (here), I outlined some of the content of that covenant—what we promise to God and the church.

In this third post, I want to explore how we exercise our covenant. ¶303.3 in the Discipline describes the covenant as a “covenant of mutual care and accountability.” So we exercise our covenant in two ways: caring for and supporting one another in ministry and holding each other accountable to the promises we made when we were ordained.

There are many ways that we can express mutual care for one another within the clergy covenant. In the “old days,” the annual conference session lasted more than a week, since it took so long to get there, and it was the only real opportunity that clergy had to see each other during a year. Annual conference was a time of worship, fellowship, prayer, preaching, and theological discussion that provided a lot of the support and accountability for clergy.

Today, we are encouraged to engage in small groups of clergy in order to know and be known in a deeper way by some other clergy. The kind of small group discipleship that helps lay members grow in faith is just as valuable to clergy. In Wisconsin, we have been divided up into geographical clusters of three to ten clergy who meet monthly for care and support and to plan ways of collaborating in ministry together. Some clergy have formed a “support group” of clergy friends with whom they meet informally as a self-selected group. Other clergy have a mentor who can help support and guide them.

Whatever the mechanism, mutual support among clergy is very important, as we engage in ministry in a challenging time. We are swimming against the current of culture, and we need the support and strength and prayers of each other to avoid discouragement and continue growing in grace.

A small group of clergy colleagues can also provide accountability, if we choose to use the group in that way. We can ask one another hard questions about our relationship with the Lord and the exercise of our spiritual disciplines, as well as give feedback on the practice of ministry. District superintendents also exercise accountability, as they monitor our ministry settings and hold us to our ministry goals.

The least popular (and least used because it is a last resort) form of accountability is the complaint process, which can lead to a judicial trial or to engagement with the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to rectify shortcomings. ¶363.1 of the Discipline states, “Ordination and membership in an annual conference in The United Methodist Church is a sacred trust. … Whenever a person … is accused of violating this trust, the membership of his or her ministerial office shall be subject to review. This review shall have as its primary purpose a just resolution of any violations of this sacred trust, in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ.” Thus, the complaint process has a redemptive, rather than a punitive, purpose.

When informal accountability, through small groups, mentors, superintendents, and others, does not yield results, a formal process is available. This formal accountability needs to be in place, or the covenant promises we make eventually become meaningless—something we do only when it is convenient or when we agree that we should do them. Knowing that there is a formal process of accountability encourages us to keep the covenant intact without having to resort to that process.

Unfortunately, there have been more clergy trials in the last ten years than in many years prior. This is partly due to the breakdown of informal accountability. But mainly, it is the result of persons who have decided to intentionally violate the terms of the covenant and defy the “system” that they have pledged to support and maintain.

These complaints and trials are a test of our church—a test to see whether we are capable of holding ourselves accountable to the covenant we have made with one another. To the extent that we are not capable of holding each other accountable, the covenant itself is harmed and broken. Without that accountability, we become like the people of Israel in the time of the Judges, when each one did what was right in his/her own eyes. It is no coincidence that the period of greatest chaos and disregard of the covenant was one of the lowest periods of spiritual fruitfulness that Israel ever experienced. I pray that we will not learn that lesson the hard way in our current United Methodist experience.

What Is the “Clergy Covenant?” (Part II)

In my last post (you can read it here), I began to answer the question what we and others mean when we say that the clergy covenant is being harmed by the words and actions of some of our bishops, clergy, and other leaders. I talked about the fact that our clergy covenant connects United Methodists with all ordained clergy of any denomination, but is most practically experienced as our personal partnership in ministry with those of our own Order in our own annual conference.

But what is the nature of the covenant connection that we share with each other? Referring back to ¶303.3 in the Discipline, it is described as a “covenant of mutual care and accountability.” I’ll talk more about how we exercise mutual care and accountability next time. In this blog, I want to look at what we are accountable for.

Discipline ¶304.1j, just one page over from ¶303.3, gives further explanation of the clergy covenant. One of the qualifications for ordination is that persons “be accountable to The United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept the supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.” (This statement does not exhaust the meaning of the clergy covenant, but it is an essential part of it.)

This accountability becomes part of the ordination process for deacons and elders through the historic questions that are asked of all who are to be ordained. These questions date back to the time of Wesley and are found in ¶330.5d and ¶336. Some of the questions are:
8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?
11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?
13. Will you support and maintain them?

We as clergy promise some things in these questions (and in the rest of the historic questions, as well as the vows of the service of ordination) to which we need to be held accountable. I was recently contacted by a member of a United Methodist congregation who is concerned that the church’s youth director does not believe in Jesus’ virgin birth or resurrection, and who does not acknowledge that Jesus Christ is “truly God.” When she approached her pastor with her concerns, the pastor told her that she “probably was not a Methodist because of [her] unwavering belief in the deity of Jesus, that Methodism is changing, becoming more liberal and open.”

With all due respect, that pastor was wrong. The deity of Christ is one of the core doctrines of United Methodism, which the pastor said they believed was in harmony with the Holy Scriptures, and which the pastor promised to preach and maintain. To do otherwise is a violation of the clergy covenant, to which this pastor must be held accountable.

A number of United Methodist pastors have been in the news recently because complaints have been filed against them for performing same-sex weddings or unions, which are forbidden by our Discipline. This is part of a movement for what they call “Biblical obedience,” wherein they place their interpretation of Scripture above the church’s understanding and above the policies set forth in the Discipline. When they were ordained, these pastors said that they approved of our church discipline and promised to support and maintain it. Now, they are actively undermining it.

The problem is that some pastors lied when they answered these questions. They would not actually preach and maintain United Methodist doctrines, nor would they maintain those parts of the Discipline with which they disagreed. Some came into the ordained ministry with the express agenda of changing the church’s position on homosexuality and other issues. That is like marrying a person so that you can change them. It usually doesn’t work out very well! It is getting married (or ordained) under false pretences.

Other pastors believed these things when they answered the historic questions and vows, and they entered into the covenant in good faith. In years since, however, their thoughts and opinions have changed. If they were asked these questions today, they could not in good conscience answer them in the affirmative. What are such pastors to do? I believe they must live according to their conscience. If they can no longer in good conscience preach and maintain our doctrines or conform to our discipline, I believe their integrity requires them to withdraw from the covenant and enter a different setting for ministry that they can affirm.

I do not agree with everything in the Book of Discipline. But I am willing to live within its requirements because of my promise to do so. If it ever came to the point where the church required me to violate my conscience, as John Wesley says in his sermon “On Schism,” I would of necessity have to separate myself from the church.

What is so damaging to the clergy covenant is when pastors can no longer preach and maintain our doctrines or live within our discipline, and in fact intentionally fail to do so, yet remain within the covenant relationship of United Methodist clergy. Such an approach makes the clergy covenant meaningless, for there is no longer any accountability or agreed-upon standard by which we must live and do ministry.

We cannot call ourselves United Methodist and yet intentionally fail to live by what it means to be United Methodist. And it is not up to individuals to determine what it means to be United Methodist. The General Conference establishes that, as the only body that can speak for United Methodism.

It is instructive that John Wesley ends the historic questions with this admonition: “And do not mend [i.e., correct or change] our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.” Unfortunately, too many United Methodist clergy have decided to live by their conscience by forsaking the promises they made at their ordination. In doing so, they have followed their conscience in one area by violating their conscience in another area. That has got to cause spiritual and emotional harm to those who take that course, in addition to the harm that it causes to the church.

In the next post, I will talk about how we live out our covenant of mutual care and accountability.

What Is the ‘Clergy Covenant?’ (Part I)

A recent post by Kevin Nelson on the Reconciling Ministries Network blog examined the issue of “covenantal harm” — the idea that United Methodist leaders are advocating disobedience to the Book of Discipline and thereby doing harm to our clergy covenant. Kevin looks through the Book of Discipline for the term “clergy covenant” and finds it only in ¶303.3, which he seems to think is not a very clear or full description of a clergy covenant.

It is a fair question to ask what we and others mean when we say that the clergy covenant is being harmed by the words and actions of some of our bishops, clergy, and other leaders. Although ¶303.3 is not the only place that the clergy covenant is mentioned, it is a good place to start.

“[Ordained persons] also live in covenant of mutual care and accountability with all those who share their ordination, especially in The United Methodist Church, with the ordained who are members of the same annual conference and part of the same Order.” (¶303.3) This sentence lays out what the covenant consists of, and with whom clergy are in covenant.

In this post, I want to talk about who is included in the clergy covenant.

United Methodist clergy are in covenant with all ordained clergy in the Church of Jesus Christ. We are part of the larger body of Christ that extends beyond our denominational boundaries. What we do and say as clergy affects the perception of all clergy everywhere, as the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal and the public moral failures of people like Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, and other prominent Protestant pastors demonstrate.

More particularly, United Methodist clergy are in covenant with all other UM clergy, as part of our connectional system. Methodism began as a movement led by preachers who were “in connexion” with John Wesley. It was a renewal movement that consisted of preachers and societies who were related to one another through their relationship with John Wesley. That relational element of our covenantal connection is present today, although the vast number of United Methodist clergy (over 30,000 in the U.S. alone) makes it difficult to maintain the personal relationship. However, I have seen an example of how this covenant functions effectively when clergy in different states join together to provide coordinated pastoral care for a parishioner who is away from home.

Practically speaking, the clergy covenant is most often experienced with the ordained clergy of one’s own annual conference and Order within that annual conference. My most immediate clergy relationships are with other elders in the Wisconsin Conference, where I hold my membership. That is my “church.” I am a member of the Order of Elders in Wisconsin, not a member of a local church. When we gather for annual conference, I renew relationships and engage in worship and discussion with fellow elders about the best way to pursue the mission of the UM Church in Wisconsin.

(Since bishops remain part of the Order of Elders, they are part of the same covenant connection as I am. However, their membership is in the Council of Bishops, which functions as their “church”—where they relate to one another and worship and strategize about the mission of the church.)

As a member of the Wisconsin clergy, I experience what Paul describes of the body of Christ: “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Corinthians 12:26). I don’t know all the 300+ active clergy in Wisconsin, but I know many of them. When one is going through difficult times, it affects all of us. When one experiences great blessing, it affects all of us.

When one of our clergy decides to disobey the Book of Discipline and foster division in the church, that affects all of us. In the aftermath of the DeLong trial and years of conflict over how our church can be in ministry with gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons, we are no longer able to talk to each other in Wisconsin about these things. Relationships have been broken and trust has been so eroded that people who disagree with one another know it is better just not to talk about it. The broken relationships and lack of trust spill over to affect many other aspects of how we do (or don’t do) ministry together in Wisconsin.

That is part of the harm that has been done to the clergy covenant. The entire web of our connection, both within and outside the UM Church, is affected by our words and actions. Next time, I will talk more about the content of the clergy covenant.