Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 534
October 27 1983
In Re: Eligibility for Election to General and Jurisdictional Conferences of a Ministerial Member of an Annual Conference While Under Suspension.
Digest of Case
A minister under suspension from the exercise of the functions of the office of an Elder is not eligible for election to General or Jurisdictional Conference. The ruling of Bishop Frank L. Robertson is affirmed.
Statement of Facts
During the session of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, Bishop Frank L. Robertson was presented a written request on May 22, 1983 for an episcopal ruling. it read in part: We therefore request the chair to make an Episcopal ruling on whether or not Thomas Lane Butts may stand for election to General and/or Jurisdictional Conference during the election of General and/or Jurisdictional delegates at this 1983 session of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, in order that the validity or invalidity of ballots bearing the name of Thomas Lane Butts be made clear. The Bishop ruled: It is the ruling of the Resident Bishop of the Birmingham Area that Thomas Lane Butts as an Elder under suspension in the Alabama-West Florida Conference is not eligible to stand for election as a member of the General Conference and/or Jurisdictional Conference of 1984. The ruling was not challenged by the Conference during the session, but was reported to the Judicial Council by the Bishop, as required by the Discipline. An oral hearing was held on October 27, 1983 at which time Andrew S. Turnipseed, Sr. and A. Spencer Turnipseed, Jr. spoke as counsel for Thomas Lane Butts, who was also present. Bishop Frank L. Robertson presented a brief defending the basis of his ruling. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Par. 2612 of the 1980 Discipline. ANALYSIS The request for this ruling arose as a result of a trial court verdict finding Thomas Lane Butts guilty of "Relationships and/or behavior which undermines the ministry of another pastor." The trial court then determined the penalty to be "suspension from the exercise of the functions of the office of an Elder from this date (April 22, 1983) until the Annual Conference of 1985." The action of the Trial Court was recognized by the Annual Conference and the suspension entered in the minutes of the session, in Questions 18 and 70 of the 1983 Journal. The key issue in this ruling is the interpretation and meaning of "suspension from the exercise of the functions of the office of an Elder" in relation to eligibility for election as a ministerial delegate to General or Jurisdictional Conference. The word "suspension" is not defined in the Discipline. Judicial Council Decision 240 turns to a definition of suspension generally accepted according to Black's Law Dictionary, 3rd Edition: To suspend is to interrupt, to cause to cease for a time; to discontinue temporarily, but with an expectation or purpose of resumption; to forbid an ecclesiastical person from performing his duties or functions for a more or less definite interval of time. To "suspend" is then contrasted to "depose" or to "expel." In this case suspension is a withdrawal of all functions of an Elder until the Annual Conference of 1985 when they will be restored. A minister under suspension is barred from office or privilege, is forbidden to perform the duties or functions of office, and is deprived of the normal rights of Annual Conference membership for a period of time. It cannot be argued that, because the case is under appeal, the person under suspension should be accorded the rights and privileges of full conference membership and ordination in the hope that at some future time the suspension may be lifted. Par. 2625(1)g is quite specific to the contrary: In no case shall an appeal operate as suspension of sentence. The findings of the Committee on Investigation or the Trial Court must stand until they are modified or reversed by the proper appellate court. The qualifications for ministerial delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference are set forth in Par. 39 of the Constitution and include these words: ... such delegates shall have been traveling preachers in the constituent churches forming this union or in The United Methodist Church for at least four years next preceding their election and are in full connection with the Annual Conference or Provisional Conference electing them when elected and at the time of holding the General and Jurisdictional or Central Conference. The Constitution stipulates that ministerial delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference must be both traveling preachers the four years next preceding their election at the time of election and full members of Annual or Provisional Conferences. In this case the minister was not a "traveling preacher" after April 22, 1983 when he was suspended from "the functions of the office of an Elder" and hence at the 1983 Annual Conference was no longer a traveling or appointed pastor in the conference, being suspended from the ministry of the "word, sacrament, and order" to which Elders are ordained. Par. 433 of the Discipline specifies that Elders are ministers who "have been elected itinerant members in full connection" further underscoring itineracy as an expected function of an Elder. (See also Pars. 422, 423 and 437.) Word, Sacrament, and Order are specific functions to which Elders are ordained. In the unofficial glossary of the Discipline, Order is defined as "The process by which the church organizes and diversifies its life together and its mission in the world." This function of ministry is required not only in the local church but also in the general church. Ministerial delegates to General Conference are fulfilling a portion of the ministry of Order to which they are ordained as they enact legislation for The United Methodist Church. In the present case, the minister was placed under "suspension from the exercise of the functions of the office of an elder and shall serve no function of ministry from this date (April 22, 1983) until the Annual Conference of 1985." The suspension was general and inclusive. Similarly inclusive wording appears in the minutes of the Annual Conference, where it was recorded that "in a Church Trial ending April 22, 1983, Thomas Lane Butts, Jr., an elder in full connection, was suspended from all duties of an elder until the 1985 session of Annual Conference." Therefore, it must logically be assumed that such suspension takes from the minister eligibility for election, along with other ministerial rights, privileges, functions, and prerogatives.
A minister under suspension from the exercise of the functions of the office of an Elder is not eligible for election to General or Jurisdictional Conference. The ruling of Bishop Frank L. Robertson is affirmed. Concurring Opinion We agree with the decision. However, in order to be helpful we would point out that in Decision 497, the Judicial Council called attention to the fact that although "Pars. 2521 (1976) and 2624 (1980) state that the findings of the Trial Court shall be final, they must be read in light of Par. 37, which gives the Annual Conference final authority with regard to character and conference relations of its ministerial members." (See also Pars. 703.4 and 704.5.) Par. 2624 (1980) gives to the Trial Court "the exclusive right to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused." This also must be read in light of Par. 37. The Disciplinary paragraphs cited here are relevant to the present case, and the steps they require were followed. The suspension imposed by the Trial Court was affirmed by the Annual Conference when Question 18 was answered as a part of the report of the Board of Ordained Ministry. In adopting that report the Annual Conference by its own action placed Thomas Lane Butts under suspension, thus exercising the Constitutional right of the Annual Conference to vote on the character and conference relations of its members. The Court of Appeals of the Southeastern Jurisdiction has since reversed the verdict of guilty. This would have the effect of lifting the suspension imposed by the Trial Court. It does not lift the suspension voted by the Annual Conference. The final determination of the character and conference relations of ministerial members is lodged with the Annual Conference by Par. 37 of the Constitution. A ministerial member who has been placed under suspension by the Annual Conference remains under suspension until the termination date specified, or until further action by the Annual Conference to lift the suspension. October 28. 1983 Florence Lucas Edwards Tom Matheny