Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 404
October 16 1975
In Re: The Power of an Annual Conference to Grant Full Membership to a Person Earlier Denied Such Membership When the Conference Deems the Earlier Action to Have Involved Injustice and Inequity, and the Retroactive Granting of Ministerial Status.
Digest of Case
An Annual Conference may under unusual circumstances grant full ministerial status to a person it deems previously to have met the disciplinary requirements, when in its judgment there has been injustice and inequity in the manner in which the original application for conference membership was processed. Such action may not be declared retroactive.
Statement of Facts
At a session of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference meeting in Salem, Oregon, June 5, 1975, a motion was introduced by the Board of the Ministry to grant Gertrude Sorlien probationary membership effective 1956 and full membership effective 1960. The presiding officer, Bishop Jack Tuell, ruled the motion out of order, as not being in compliance with the Discipline, on the basis that there is no provision in the Discipline for the granting of ministerial status to persons on a retroactive basis. With that motion ruled out of order, the Board of the Ministry offered a second motion: "Having found the training and experience of Gertrude Sorlien to be the equivalent of the requirements of the Discipline, and having found her services for six years as an associate member to be equivalent to the disciplinary requirement of two years service as a probationary member, we move that Gertrude Sorlien be granted full membership in the conference." Bishop Tuell ruled that the second motion was in order and the full ministerial members voted to grant Mrs. Sorlien full membership in accordance with the motion. Mrs. Sorlien was asked the disciplinary questions and was retired as a full member of the Conference. The facts are that before 1956 Gertrude Sorlien was barred, along with all women, from full membership in the Annual Conference. However, she began service as an accepted supply pastor in 1943 and served a number of years in the Pacific Northwest Conference. She completed the four year conference course of study in 1953 and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Southern Methodist University in 1955. She was ordained a local deacon in 1950 and a local Elder in 1955 in the Pacific Northwest Conference. In 1956, after the General Conference had taken action permitting women full conference membership, Mrs. Sorlien made application to the Board of Ministerial Training and Qualifications of the Oregon Annual Conference for full membership. She had recently been married to Rev. Palmer Sorlien and she was apparently informed by the Board that it would be impossible for a husband and wife to be accepted as members of the conference. She reports that she felt there was nothing she could do about this so she served with her husband in 1956 and 1957. In 1958 she was appointed a pastor as an accepted supply to the parish at Gardiner, Oregon. She served there for four years. After the death of her husband she was appointed to Yoncalla and in 1969 she was appointed to Joseph and Wallowa charge in Oregon. In 1969 she was received as an Associate Member of the Oregon Conference. In 1975, at the age of 67, Mrs. Sorlien was ready to ask for retirement. Once again she made application for full membership. On this request the motions of the Board of the Ministry were made at the Annual Conference. The action of the Annual Conference was duly passed appealing the decisions of Bishop Tuell on this matter to the Judicial Council. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Paragraph 1511 of the Discipline. ANALYSIS The matter before the Council is whether or not a person who at one time has met the qualifications for admission on trial and progression to full membership, but who was denied this in part on the basis of her sex and marital status, can later be voted into membership at a time when her qualifications do not meet the current standards which have been set by the General Conference during the intervening period. How may an Annual Conference deal with a person who was denied full ministerial membership during the years when it would have been possible and appropriate for her to have completed the specific requirements for full membership, and who has served faithfully since that time as a devoted minister? It hinges upon whether or not she met the educational requirements. Paragraph 323 of the 1956 Discipline under which the Conference was legally operating at the time of her first application read: "A candidate for admission on trial must (1) have been graduated with a bachelor of arts or equivalent degree in liberal education in a college or university accredited or approved by the University Senate and (2) have completed at least one-fourth of the work required for a bachelor of divinity or equivalent degree in a school of theology accredited or approved by the University Senate except under the special conditions of Paragraph 325." The 1956 Discipline provides for exceptions under the special conditions of Paragraph 325, which read: "Under special conditions an Annual Conference may, by a three-fourths majority vote, admit a candidate on trial in the following exceptional cases: 1. (Applies to graduates of non-accredited colleges). 2. If he is a graduate with a bachelor of arts or equivalent degree in liberal education from a college accredited or approved by the University Senate, and has completed satisfactorily the introductory studies for the ministry. 3. (Applies to approved supply pastors). It appears that the argument that Mrs. Sorlien was not eligible for admission on trial in 1956 is not an accurate one in view of the provision in Paragraph 325.2. Mrs. Sorlien did in 1956 hold a bachelor of arts degree from an accredited college and had completed the entire conference course of study. The 1956 Discipline would have made her eligible, after serving a regular appointment under supervision of the District Superintendent for two years while on trial, to be admitted into full membership. Paragraph 343.1 stated: "Acandidate who was admitted on trial under the terms of Paragraph 325.2 may meet the educational requirements for admission into full connection by completing the entire 4-year ministerial course study." This Mrs. Sorlien had done prior to the year 1956. The 1968 General Conference established the status of associate member of the Annual Conference. She immediately applied for this and was duly elected at the Conference in 1969. In the 1972 Discipline, Paragraph 308.2 states: "Menand women are included in all provisions of the Discipline which refer to the ministry." In Decision No. 317 the Judicial Council ruled: "A Board of the Ministry ofan Annual Conference may not deny approval of a candidate for probationary membership on the basis of marital status or the ministerial occupation of a spouse." The argument was made that Mrs. Sorlien should not have been elected to full membership in 1975 because she had not been a probationary member for the two years as required in the 1972 Discipline, Paragraph 333. Evidently the Board of the Ministry and the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference felt an injustice had been done by the Conference in 1956 in denying Mrs. Sorlien her probationary membership at a time when she could qualify from the educational standpoint under the powers given to the Board of the Ministry by the Discipline. It is the judgment of this Council that the Board of the Ministry of the Oregon-Idaho Conference and the full ministerial members of that Annual Conference were within their rights in this instance in finding that the years of service as an associate member by Mrs. Sorlien could be deemed equivalent of years of service as a probationary member. Complying with strict construction of the provisions of Paragraph 333 of the Discipline in this instance could amount to an unconstitutional deprivation of the rights of Mrs. Sorlien as a member of The United Methodist Church under rights given her in the constitution. Paragraph 15.14: "To secure the rights and privileges of membership in all agencies,programs and institutions of The United Methodist Church regardless of race or status." It seems clear to this council that at least a part of the basis upon which Mrs. Sorlien was not granted her application for probationary membership in 1956 involved certain injustice. In essence, a recognition of her constitutional rights by the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference in receiving her into full membership immediately prior to her retirement is an action that moves in the direction of restoration of rights and redress for injustice. Since the Discipline makes no provision for the retroactive granting of ministerial status, the Oregon-Idaho Conference was in violation of the Discipline in seeking to entertain a motion before the conference electing Mrs. Sorlien to full membership at the 1975 session of the conference retroactive to the 1960 session of the conference.
An Annual Conference may under unusual circumstances grant full ministerial status to a person it deems previously to have met the disciplinary requirements, when in its judgment there has been injustice and inequity in the manner in which the original application for conference membership was processed. Such action may not be declared retroactive. The decisions of Bishop Tuell are affirmed. Dissenting Opinion I am in accord with that portion of the majority opinion that upholds the ruling of Bishop Jack M. Tuell that there can be no retroactive granting of ministerial status. I respectfully dissent from that portion of the majority opinion that states, "An Annual Conference may, under unusual circumstances, grant full ministerial status to a person it deems previously to have met the disciplinary requirements, when in its judgment there has been injustice and inequity in the manner in which the original application for conference membership was processed." The opinion suggests that the justification for permitting the Annual Conference to substitute its discretion for disciplinary requirements was "injustice and inequity." The evidence of injustice and inequity submitted fell far short of establishing with any clarity the manner in which the original application was processed. The only written record was taken from the minutes of the Board of Ministerial Training and Qualifications: "Gertrude Sorlien. Mrs. Sorlien did not appear, as she was ill. She is uncertain as to whether or not she wishes to unite with the Conference. Credentials are to be secured from P.N.W. Conference where she has been serving. Moved, seconded, passed to list as approved supply as a local Elder." Certainly Mrs. Sorlien had access to the minutes at the time and if they improperly reported her "uncertainty," the error should have been corrected at that time. We are told that in recent testimony, Mrs. Sorlien indicated that her uncertainty was due to the matter of ". . . the Board's discussion about her appointability if she were received on trial." We are further advised that in her letter of January 7, 1975 Mrs. Sorlien indicated that this question centered around the fact that she "did not want an appointment of her own but somehow to share one with her husband." In my opinion the evidence of injustice and inequity in the processing of Mrs. Sorlien's application to the Board of Ministerial Training and Qualifications is insufficient to form a valid basis for the opinion. Further, I do not believe that annual conferences should be encouraged, even in "unusual circumstances" to substitute discretion for disciplinary requirements. Where the Discipline intends discretion such intent is clear. Paragraph 333 of the Discipline is explicit in requiring every candidate for membership in full connection to be a probationary member for at least two years. Paragraphs 314.2 and 322.1 give additional evidence of the intent to make probationary membership a prerequisite for membership in full connection. Paragraph 322.1 reads as follows: "Associate members are eligible for ordination as deacons but may not be ordained elders unless they qualify through probationary membership for membership in full connection in the Annual Conference." (Emphasis added.) There is absolutely no indication that Associate membership can be substituted for probationary membership. On the contrary, there is every indication that probationary is a required preparatory step to full connection. There is little doubt that the fact that Mrs. Sorlien was about to retire at the time that she applied for membership in full connection made her situation rather unique. However, to open the door to varying the requirements as set forth in the Discipline is a dangerous precedent. FLORENCE LUCAS EDWARDS