Centrists and some progressives within The United Methodist Church are fond of talking about how we can have a “big tent” version of Methodism that embraces (or at least accommodates) a broad spectrum of theological and moral understandings.
In my experience, however, there are places in the U.S. church where evangelicals have been marginalized and excluded from the church. Over the years, we have heard first-hand testimony from evangelical candidates for ministry who have not been approved by district committees or conference boards of ordained ministry. Likewise, we have heard from evangelical pastors who have not been given appointments commensurate with their gifts and graces. In some cases, evangelical clergy and laity have not been given leadership positions in the annual conference. My previous blog told the story of one such pastor who was recently given a “punitive appointment.”
Now we are dealing with an exploding situation in North Georgia regarding a licensed local pastor (not ordained) who was summarily dismissed from her pulpit without being given a chance to defend herself. Besides the inherent unfairness in the way she was treated, it appears to observers close to this case that the source of the animosity against her is that she was outspoken in her defense of the church’s position on marriage and homosexuality.
The Rev. Dr. Carole Hulslander had a well-paid position as a scientist working for the Kimberly-Clark Corporation in the Atlanta area when she and her husband, Douglas, began a Bible study in their living room. The Bible study engaged people from various racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds in a diverse community of Christian faith. After meeting and growing for two years, the group felt called to begin a church to reach people like them. In 1999 the church began to meet under her leadership. She was licensed in 2000 as a local pastor, and the church was chartered in 2001. Hulslander pursued theological training, with an MDiv degree from Asbury Theological Seminary and a DMin degree from Columbia Theological Seminary.
In 2004 Hulslander quit her job with Kimberly-Clark to go full-time with the church. The congregation has grown to about 120 members in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic urban environment. When the church was ready to move into its first facility, the Hulslanders, along with a couple other families in the church, put up tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to make that move possible. The church is an active congregation with outreach programs into the community, including a homeless ministry, a Christian day care, elementary, and middle school, music and language schools, participation in the Candler Theological Seminary contextual student mentoring program, and outreaches to a retirement community and three government housing projects. Throughout her 15 years of ministry, Dr. Hulslander received positive annual reviews from her superintendents and the district committee.
According to Hulslander and congregational leaders, without warning, on March 17, 2015, less than three weeks before Easter, Dr. Hulslander was de-licensed and removed from her position as pastor of Still Waters UM Church by the Atlanta-Emory District Committee on Ordained Ministry. This followed her annual interview by the committee on March 16, which – according to Hulslander – lasted all of ten minutes. During the interview, there was no indication that her license might not be renewed, nor was she confronted with any complaints or issues that needed correcting.
Good News has reached out repeatedly to the district superintendent, bishop, and communications director of the North Georgia Annual Conference and received no response or acknowledgement. Dr. Hulslander has told her story publicly in a radio interview and has given permission for her personnel file to be accessed to prove her story.
Why was Hulslander removed from ministry? The committee gave two reasons:
1) “Failure to order the life of the local church to the 2012 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church; in regard to laity serving on standing committees.”
This issue did not come up in her interview with the committee, and Hulslander had no idea what this charge referred to. Only AFTER she was dismissed, did the district superintendent elaborate on this charge in a letter to the chair of the pastor-parish relations committee. Apparently, there were two instances of spouses serving on the same committee and one instance of the same person serving as both financial secretary and church treasurer.
This was not a willful violation by the pastor, but born of ignorance; it was never brought to the attention of the church or Hulslander, even though the district superintendent had presided over several charge conferences that approved the committee membership; she was not given a chance to correct the situation; and she was not warned that this irregularity jeopardized her license or position as pastor.
How many ordained clergy would be dismissed from ministry for this type of error?
2) “Failure to properly report and handle an allegation of Child Abuse within your congregation/ school.”
The district superintendent made Hulslander aware on December 8, 2014, of an anonymous report of an alleged incident that might have been “child abuse” at the school. Hulslander investigated the alleged incident and reported back to the district superintendent two days later (December 10) that the incident was not child abuse, that the parents and school principal had been involved in the alleged incident, and that no further action was needed.
The superintendent responded to Hulslander, “Thank you for your research and your thoughtful approach to the possible concerns being shared via my office.” No further mention was made of the incident.
Although the superintendent claims to have reported the incident to child protective services, the agency never sent a representative to investigate the allegations. The superintendent did not investigate the incident with the parents or school. In the March 16 interview with the committee, this issue was brought up, and Hulslander described how she had handled the reported incident. In the interview, the committee did not reprimand, correct, or instruct Hulslander regarding improperly handling the allegation.
Normally, when a licensed local pastor is discontinued, the person serves out the remainder of the appointment year until a new pastor can be appointed around July 1. In Dr. Hulslander’s case, she was dismissed without warning, effective immediately. Why? The Discipline allows that, “When deemed appropriate, to protect the well-being of the person making the complaint, the congregation, annual conference, … and/or clergy, the bishop, with the recommendation of the executive committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry, may suspend the person from all clergy responsibilities, but not from an appointment, for a period not to exceed ninety days” (¶ 363.1d). Did either of Hulslander’s alleged violations merit her immediate suspension “to protect the well-being” of anyone, much less her immediate dismissal from her position? The district superintendent had not pursued either of these matters with her in the preceding three months, so he evidently did not believe them to be urgent. How then could he suddenly decide to summarily fire Dr. Hulslander from her position?
Was the Board of Ordained Ministry executive committee involved as required in the 24 hours between her interview and the letter announcing her termination? It is unlikely.
The reasons given for Carole Hulslander’s termination are chargeable offenses (“disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church; child abuse” ¶2702.1d, g). Yet, the committee and the superintendent failed to give Hulslander the opportunity to defend herself against these charges. She did not receive the fair process that is required by ¶363 of the Discipline, which applies to local pastors, not just ordained clergy.
Paragraph 426 of the Discipline requires superintendents to engage in consultation with “the pastor and committee on pastor-parish relations” (PPRC) as “both a continuing process and a more intense involvement during the period of change in appointment.” This “process of consultation shall be mandatory in every annual conference.” Yet, neither the pastor nor the PPRC were consulted or even informed of the contemplated change in appointment at the church. Two interim pastors have been sent to the church since Dr. Hulslander’s dismissal, again without any consultation with the PPRC. According to Still Waters leaders, both of them proved unsatisfactory and unable to handle the delicate situation they were walking into.
The approach taken by the superintendent and district committee showed no pastoral concern for Dr. Hulslander or the Still Waters congregation. The abrupt removal of their pastor without legitimate cause traumatized the congregation. Hulslander’s removal allowed no kind of consultation or orderly transition. The congregation could not even prepare a way to say good-bye to their founding pastor or provide for a ritual of leave-taking.
There are so many things wrong with the way Dr. Hulslander was treated that a lawyer would have a field day in court, proving that the district did not follow the church’s own processes laid out in the Book of Discipline. Just from a moral and ethical perspective, the way she was treated is wrong. According to sources close to the case in the North Georgia Annual Conference, the underlying motivation for her dismissal on trumped up charges appears to be her vocal support for The United Methodist Church position on marriage and homosexuality, as defined by General Conference and the Book of Discipline. It appears that there is no room in the Atlanta-Emory district for an evangelical clergy woman who stands up for what the church teaches.
Here is a pastor who left a professional position with a large corporation in mid-life to pursue God’s call to ministry. She has devoted 20 years of her time, energy, and personal finances to birthing a church. Her ministry has borne fruit, yielding that most rare of animals—a multi-racial, multi-cultural thriving congregation whose members’ average age is 40 years old. When the church was formed, they asked to become a United Methodist congregation. They began paying apportionments before they were even chartered as a church, and they have consistently paid 100 percent of their apportionments as loyal United Methodists. She is the only pastor this congregation has ever known. To have her taken from them in one day without warning, less than three weeks before Easter and seemingly without cause, has devastated this congregation. As a typical smaller congregation, they depended upon her leadership for many of the ongoing ministries of their church. Without her leadership, some of those ministries have stalled or stopped functioning. How has any of this furthered the cause of Christ or strengthened The United Methodist Church? Instead, the irresponsible actions of a district committee and superintendent have alienated a loyal congregation of people and alarmed an annual conference that thought there was room there for devoted evangelical clergy.
Heavy-handed exclusionary practices like this, when added to a decades-long pattern in some areas of anti-evangelical experience, make us pessimistic that a “big tent” United Methodism has ever existed or could ever exist. It seems like the theological cleansing of United Methodism is a reality in some areas.