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.

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