Archives for October 2014

What Really Happened with the Schaefer Decision

The Judicial Council for the 2012-16 Quadrennium pose for a group photo during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. Seated, from left: Belton Joyner, J. Kabamba Kiboko, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., and Kathi Austin Mahle. Standing from left: Ruben T. Reyes, Dennis Blackwell, Beth Capen, William B. Lawrence and Angela Brown. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

The Judicial Council for the 2012-16 Quadrennium pose for a group photo during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. Seated, from left: Belton Joyner, J. Kabamba Kiboko, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., and Kathi Austin Mahle. Standing from left: Ruben T. Reyes, Dennis Blackwell, Beth Capen, William B. Lawrence and Angela Brown. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with reaction to the Judicial Council decision released Monday to affirm the reinstatement of Frank Schaefer as an ordained elder. Schaefer’s ordination had been revoked by a trial court in Eastern Pennsylvania that found him guilty of disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church for performing a same-sex wedding for his son.

This decision does nothing to change The United Methodist Church’s position that marriage is between one man and one woman, that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and that clergy are forbidden to perform same-sex marriages or unions.

What the decision does do (unless the Discipline is changed) is push trial courts (juries) to be more punitive in the penalties they assess for those found guilty of offenses in church trials (for any reason, not just on same-sex marriage). Had the Pennsylvania trial court simply revoked Schaefer’s ordination or issued a one-year suspension, the penalty would have withstood appeal.

Instead, the trial court attempted to be gracious, giving Schaefer time to discern his new “calling” as an advocate for LGBTQ persons and causes. After 30 days of discernment, if Schaefer had determined that this calling did not allow him to maintain his conduct within the requirements of the Book of Discipline, he was to surrender his credentials of ordination. Schaefer did determine that he could no longer uphold the requirements of the Discipline, but he refused to surrender his credentials, so the Board of Ordained Ministry revoked them.

The impulse motivating the trial court was a noble and Christ-like attempt to give an offender a second chance. However, that impulse is what got the penalty overturned. One cannot blame the trial court for their error in levying the penalty, since there was nothing in the instructions given to them about penalties that told them they had to choose only one penalty. By the Judicial Council’s reading of the Discipline, a trial court must choose to 1) revoke a guilty clergy’s credentials, 2) suspend the person for a set amount of time, or 3) levy some lesser penalty. Since the trial court levied a suspension (even though it was fully paid), they could not also revoke Schaefer’s credentials. (This reading of the penalty requirements would preclude other common-sense penalties, such as suspending a pastor convicted of embezzling funds and also requiring them to pay the money back.)

So, because of a legal technicality, Schaefer’s penalty was overturned. But this decision did not alter the position of the church on this contentious issue.

Schaefer is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “Justice was done. This really signals the entire Methodist church is interested in keeping the dialogue going, rather than just outright banning a minister who speaks up for LGBT rights. This is definitely a step farther down the road.”

With all due respect, this was not a decision of “the entire Methodist church.” It was a decision of one body – the Judicial Council – and perhaps as few as five of the nine members of that body.

It was also not a “signal” that the church wants to “keep the dialogue going, rather than … banning a minister who speaks up for LGBT rights.” It was a technical decision that disallowed a particular penalty. And Schaefer was not “banned” because he spoke up for LGBT rights. He was penalized for his act of disobeying church policy. There are plenty of pastors who “speak up for LGBT rights” and who are not “banned.”

What is sad about the outcome of this case is that it adds one more instance to a litany of occasions when church leaders have not been held accountable for violating the vows they took. We have learned that, when a bishop or pastor is determined not to abide by church policy, if they have the support of colleagues, they can escape any consequences for their unfaithfulness. What secular company would ever allow such a thing? Yet the church has been repeatedly unable to compel its leaders to abide by the policies determined by the General Conference through the processes we all agreed upon.

As the Good News statement said, “An ordained elder who has stated publicly that he cannot uphold the covenant that governs our life together as United Methodist clergy is still actively serving in ministry. Such an outcome betrays the dysfunction in our denomination and the inability to hold members accountable to the vows they have made.” This lack of integrity in our system is a corrosive acid, eating away at the trust that holds our connection together. It affects many local church ministries and is the reason many United Methodists have left and are leaving our church.

This decision, while from one perspective it may be technically correct, further undermines the confidence that ordinary church-goers have that the church can uphold its own policies. This trend puts even more pressure on the 2016 General Conference to resolve the impasse and bring about renewed accountability. Absent such a resolution, our church is headed for disintegration.

Disappointment in Schaefer decision


The Rev. Frank Schaefer (third from right) stands with family and supporters during a prayer service for unity at Court Square Park in Memphis, Tennessee, prior to the Oct. 22 oral hearing on his case by the United Methodist Judicial Council. Mike Dubose, UMNS.

Good News strongly disagrees with the October 27 decision of the Judicial Council to uphold the appeals committee and restore the Rev. Frank Schaefer to ordained ministry. Schaefer was found guilty last year of violating church law by performing a same-sex wedding for his son in 2007.

The new decision overturns the good faith effort of the trial court to craft a penalty that tempered justice with grace. The decision will push future trial courts in a more punitive direction.

One result of the decision is that the Rev. Schaefer experienced no legal consequences for violating the Book of Discipline. His penalty was reduced to a 30-day paid suspension, which does not sufficiently reflect the seriousness of Schaefer’s disobedience and his subsequent highly public advocacy on behalf of that disobedience.

A further consequence of the decision is that an ordained elder who has stated publicly that he cannot uphold the covenant that governs our life together as United Methodist clergy is still actively serving in ministry. Such an outcome betrays the dysfunction in our denomination and the inability to hold members accountable to the vows they have made.

We understand the frustration that this decision will cause grassroots members of the church. We hear regularly from persons who have left The United Methodist Church because of the lack of integrity displayed by those who hold positions in the church but are unwilling to live by its covenant. The only way to stop the ongoing damage posed by our deep theological divisions is to arrive at a negotiated solution that protects the consciences of orthodox and evangelical members who are unable to spiritually and financially underwrite an agenda they believe is contrary to Scripture.

Good News will continue to advocate scriptural doctrinal and moral teachings and be a voice for those whose evangelical faith is often discounted by the leadership of our church. In continuity with 2,000 years of church history, we continue to support our worldwide church’s democratically adopted statement that defines marriage as “the union of one man and one woman,” while requiring that “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

Methodism as a Missional Movement

Several weeks ago, I attended the inaugural New Room Conference in Franklin, TN, sponsored by Seedbed and the Wesleyan Covenant Network.  I’d like to share some of the things I found helpful and stimulating in this post and others in weeks to come.  The New Room Conference was an incredibly motivating experience, with an amazing lineup of speakers who spoke from and to the heart of Methodism.  I would highly recommend that you attend next year’s conference!

Thoughts from Ed Stetzer, highly respected researcher of the Southern Baptist Church, on Wesleyanism as a Missional Movement:

  • “A movement with so great and obvious a heritage must do more to connect that heritage with today.  Wesley got right years ago what we are trying to get right today.”
  • The engine of Methodism’s growth on the American frontier was the church planting movement.  In a 15-year span, Methodists and Baptists planted 3,000 churches.  This is something in our DNA we need to recover today.
  • Ingredients of a fruitful denominational ministry (all of which were exemplified by the Wesleyan movement in the past):
    • Student ministry (students are the age group most open to the Gospel)
    • Church planting
    • Global ministry
    • Holistic mission (deeds of mercy and justice, serving the hurting and saving the lost – combines demonstration with proclamation)
    • Lay involvement
    • Intentional discipleship
    • 75% of conversions happened through small groups in Wesley’s ministry (not large meetings)
    • Goal in church planting ought to be 3% of existing congregations – for a denomination of 30,000 churches in the U.S., that means 900 church plants per year (we are currently around 300, which is an improvement from previous quadrenniums)
    • “The majority of the people in the majority of churches are unengaged in the ministry of the church.”
    • Areas to focus on:
      • Indigenous leadership – be the church of the common person, led by common people – “institutionalization leads to the professionalization of ministry, which leads to clericalism”
      • Simplicity – have an easily reproducible organizational structure – have a low threshold of involvement (“desire to flee the wrath to come”), but a high commitment to involvement (requirement to renew one’s “ticket” quarterly in order to keep attending)
      • Intentionality – spiritual discipleship – Wesley used the class and band meetings
      • Urban ministry – that is where the people are – Methodism’s growth in the 1800’s took place in rural areas because that is where the people were – we have failed to transition to urban ministry, and the declining rural population in the U.S. is a major factor in our decline
      • UMC is the most liked of all groups tested among the unchurched – Methodism has the best contextual alignment with the current cultural context
      • Labels on the church are not helpful – many congregations are forsaking a denominational label (even those that are denominational churches) – people are more open to non-denominational or community churches
      • An emphasis on sanctification produces “nice” people, who are well liked by others – one of our best tools in evangelism

These remarks were very hopeful to me, as they laid out a promising possibility for fruitfulness and growth for Methodism in the future, whatever form it takes.  Ed Stetzer’s address set the tone for the whole conference, which addressed many of the themes he introduced.  I particularly resonated with the need to plant churches and engage in intentional discipleship.  I perceive these to be the greatest weaknesses of our church right now.  (Others would be the need to simplify our structure and set the laity free to engage in ministry.)

As Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, blessed are you if you do them!”

Are Bishops Accountable?

Book of DisciplineThe mantra in The United Methodist Church right now is “accountability.”

The Council of Bishops has repeatedly committed itself to holding its members accountable. They instituted accountability groups among themselves for implementing the Vital Church initiative and seek to “hold each other’s feet to the fire” to engage in leadership strategies that will yield more fruitful and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

The one area where bishops have not been accountable historically is in regards to the complaint process in the Book of Discipline. When bishops commit a chargeable offense or are ineffective in their ministry, there often seems no way to hold them accountable. The attempt in 2012 to remove Bishop Earl Bledsoe for ineffectiveness was notable for being the only time something like that has been attempted. And the attempt failed. (I am not taking a position on whether Bledsoe deserved to be removed or not.)

One of the cases before next week’s session of the Judicial Council repeats the tired refrain of accountability lacking. Ten years ago, the Pittsburgh District in Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference raised $100,000 to construct a new church building in Uganda, Africa. When representatives visited the site at intervals between 2005 and 2011, the building remained unfinished, and Bishop Daniel Wandabula indicated that the money had run out. Subsequent investigations by the General Board of Global Ministries and the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) showed that funds were missing and unaccounted for. In 2011, a complaint was filed against Wandabula. Since then, the GCFA has cut off all funding for the East Africa Annual Conference and demanded that Wandabula resign and surrender his credentials. There have been two Judicial Council decisions upholding the accountability process.

Yet Bishop Wandabula is still in office as a bishop, with his credentials intact. He claims that the complaint against him was dismissed, yet the person who filed the complaint was never consulted in the process.

The problem is that, in our system, the persons who handle complaints against bishops are other bishops – their colleagues and friends. It is unrealistic to expect bishops to process fairly a complaint against one of their own. Indeed, it has never (to my knowledge) happened in the history of The United Methodist Church. There has never been a trial for a bishop. And I do not know of a case where a bishop was reprimanded as part of a complaint process.

The Judicial Council is being asked to rule whether the complaint process has been followed as required in the Wandabula case.

In a second case, a complaint against Bishop Melvin Talbert for performing a same-sex marriage and undermining the ministry of another bishop has seen no public action. At the request of the Council of Bishops last November, two complaints were filed by Bishops Rosemarie Wenner and Debra Wallace-Padgett in February or March. By now, there should have been a resolution of the complaints, according to the timelines required by the Book of Discipline.

Instead, the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops – the bishops charged with handling Talbert’s complaint – have asked the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on the process of how to handle complaints against bishops.

When a complaint is filed against a bishop, ¶413 requires the college of bishops to institute a supervisory response aimed at arriving at a just resolution, if possible. Discipline ¶2704.1, on the other hand, seems to require that the complaint be “forthwith” referred to an elder who will serve as a counsel for the church and begin the legal processes.

The Judicial Council is being asked to resolve the apparent conflict between these two paragraphs.

If “justice delayed is justice denied,” then these two complaints and their accompanying delays reflect the denial of accountability regarding bishops. We are hoping the Judicial Council will strengthen the accountability processes in these decisions. There will also be proposals coming to General Conference to create some form of global (general church) body not made up of bishops who can handle complaints against bishops. This move would give consistency across the different parts of the church in how such complaints are handled and enforced.

United Methodist bishops are ordained elders who are set apart (consecrated) for special service as bishops. They should have the same level of accountability as ordained elders have, since that is what they still are.

Photo for this story is from Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.

Why the Rules Matter

When a person brings up the Book of Discipline in a United Methodist meeting, most eyes glaze over. A seminary professor teaching a course on UM polity (church government) suggested that the Discipline makes good bedtime reading. And parts of it are extremely hard to follow and seem disconnected from everyday reality in the church. (Other parts of the Discipline can be encouraging and even inspirational.)

Two cases coming before the Judicial Council at its meeting October 22-25 in Memphis, Tennessee, will have far-reaching implications for how the church operates.

The first case involves the number of delegates elected to General Conference. For many years, there have been just under 1,000 delegates elected from all over the world. For 2016, however, the Commission on the General Conference (CGC) decided to reduce the number of delegates to 864. Delegates are elected according to a formula established by the General Conference. According to ¶511.5e, the CGC has the authority to apply the formula in a way that brings the number of delegates within the Constitutionally-specified range of 600-1,000. The North Alabama annual conference is asking the Judicial Council to rule on whether the CGC is supposed to just bring the number of delegates within the range (yielding a number near 1,000 delegates) or whether they can arbitrarily set the number of delegates anywhere within the range of 600-1,000. This question obviously has implications for how many delegates each annual conference is allowed to elect to General Conference. Many annual conferences saw their number of delegates reduced for 2016. And some are proposing to further reduce the number of delegates in 2020 or 2024 to nearer 600. Such a drastic reduction of over 35 percent would make for unfair representation for parts of the church, due to quirks in the formula.

The second case involves a question of whether it is lawful for the General Conference in ¶101 to specify which parts of the Discipline are adaptable by central conferences and which are not. This paragraph, enacted in 2012, is an attempt to begin to implement the plan to live more fully into the reality that we are a worldwide or global church. What works in the U.S. may not work as well in other countries, due to differences in law and culture. ¶ 31 in the UM Constitution allows central conferences to make “such changes and adaptations … as the conditions of the respective areas may require.” ¶101 says that central conferences (conferences located outside the U.S.) may not unilaterally change the UM Constitution, our doctrinal standards, the paragraphs on the mission and ministry of the church, or the Social Principles. Further action in 2016 will determine which other parts of the Discipline are not open to adaptation. But the request for declaratory decision maintains that the restrictions of ¶101 change the powers and duties of the General and central conferences without amending the Constitution (and thus illegally restricts the ability of central conferences to adapt parts of the Discipline).

If the Judicial Council affirms this reasoning, then it is possible that the central conferences might be able to adapt any part of the Book of Discipline, essentially freeing them from operating under our common covenant. It would mean that any attempt to limit the ability of central conferences to modify the Discipline for their local setting would require a constitutional amendment, which is a difficult process requiring 2/3 approval of both the General Conference and all the annual conferences. A Judicial Council decision like this could create chaos in the church and allow each part of the church to evolve separately into entities functioning in radically different ways.

That gives a clue as to why the request may have been made. The author of the request, a well-known progressive in the Upper New York Annual Conference, may envision a proposal to make the U.S. its own central conference, which would then give the U.S. blanket permission to modify the Discipline (perhaps in the areas of sexuality and marriage?) as we see fit. This would truly be a significant decision.

So the interesting and complicated cases coming before the Judicial Council in October are not just legal mumbo jumbo or insignificant arcane details. The decisions of the Judicial Council will affect how our church operates and can create conditions allowing the church to move into greater faithfulness and fruitfulness—or not. Stay tuned to hear the results!

Resolving to be Unaccountable

“Accountability” is the watchword of the numerous Judicial Council cases to be considered at its October 22-25 meeting in Memphis, Tennessee. The work of the Judicial Council is aimed primarily at providing the legal framework from our Book of Discipline to govern the actions of clergy, bishops, annual conferences, and General Church agencies.

Since before 2012 and the beginning of the public “disobedience” movement to perform same-sex weddings and unions, some annual conferences have worked hard to find ways around the clear accountability process in the Discipline. The strategy in 2014 has been to pass resolutions “supporting” clergy who perform same-sex services, contrary to the church’s teaching.

The New England Annual Conference described itself as “those who oppose, seek to change, and intend to live in disobedience to the United Methodist Disciplinary language that ‘homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching’ as a criteria for ordination and marriage and those policies that emanate from this language.” Their resolution calls for “prayerful support [for] those clergy who have been brought to trial” for performing same-sex weddings. It asks that the annual conference be “a place of welcome and refuge to those convicted by Church trial courts for presiding over same gender Christian weddings or faithfully responding to the call to ordained ministry.” It strongly urges the General Conference to provide annual conferences with a “local option” to decide these matters for themselves. And it encourages “congregations and their clergy to open their ‘hearts, minds, and doors’ to all couples regardless of gender seeking to sanctify their unions in holy matrimony.” Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar ruled that this resolution is legal.

The Northern Illinois Annual Conference passed a similar resolution to the New England one, except that it does not ask for the “local option,” but instead asks for “all language that prohibits the ordination and marriage of persons based on sexual [orientation]” to be removed from the Discipline. Bishop Sally Dyck ruled that this resolution is legal.

The Detroit Annual Conference went even farther in support of “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lay members who marry.” The resolution asks conference members to “refrain from filing complaints against pastors and deacons who perform marriages between gender and sexual minorities,” to “refrain from using its resources to investigate or enforce a ban on marriages between lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, or for church trials,” and “not to use its resources to enforce a ban on the certification of a lesbian, gay bisexual, or transgender candidate[s] for ministry, or the ban on ordination of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender minister.” Bishop Deborah Kiesey ruled most of the resolution “null and void as an intention, encouragement, or summons either to ignore or to violate Church Law, or to expressly discourage the enforcement of Church Law.”

The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference passed a resolution almost identical to the Detroit resolution, except that, instead of “strongly urging” its members to the actions, it asked them to “consider” refraining from complaints and from enforcing the Discipline’s requirements on same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Bishop Marcus Matthews ruled that this resolution was in order, setting up conflicting rulings for the Judicial Council to adjudicate.

The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference also engaged in a new process, called “circles of grace,” to address its resolutions on human sexuality. The process called for discussion around tables, rather than plenary speeches. The process was challenged by a question of law on the grounds that speeches for and against and amendments were all disallowed. None of the questions used by discussion facilitators encouraged the conference members to express an opinion against the resolutions. Instead, the questions all led toward supporting the resolutions (which were to change the current Discipline teaching prohibiting same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals). Other annual conferences will probably imitate this process in dealing with future resolutions.

All of these resolutions, which will be examined by the Judicial Council, are examples of the ways in which some annual conferences are pushing to change our church’s teaching on homosexuality and circumvent the rules governing marriage and ordination in our church. The Judicial Council has an opportunity to reinforce annual conference accountability to the General Conference. Regardless of which way the Judicial Council rules, however, these resolutions demonstrate that there is a vocal minority within the UM Church that has repeatedly indicated its determination not to live by the covenant that United Methodists have agreed upon. This unwillingness to live by the covenant and an unwillingness to be accountable to the General Church has created an impasse that can only be resolved by a negotiated or “political” solution passed by General Conference.

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