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Decision No. 557

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October 24 1985
In Re: Precedence of Par. 455.1 or Par. 2623.3(b) in Matters Involving Termination of Ministers.

Digest of Case

Neither Par. 455.1 nor Par. 2623.3(b) is assured of precedence. The district superintendent who first receives the grievance or accusation may determine which process shall be initiated, depending on the nature of the grievance or accusation and the surrounding circumstances.

Statement of Facts

The Judicial Council has received a request from the Council of Bishops for a declaratory decision to determine whether Par. 455.1 or Par. 2623.3(b) takes precedence. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Par. 2615 of the 1984 Discipline. ANALYSIS Provisions for involuntary termination of ministerial membership by Annual Conference action have long been included in the Discipline of The United Methodist Church and of its predecessor denominations. A more detailed process by which this might be accomplished, or by which lesser penalties might be imposed, was set forth in Par. 449 of the 1980 Discipline. With only minor changes, it was continued in Par. 455 of the 1984 Discipline. Par. 455.1 reads as follows: Ordination and membership in an Annual Conference in The United Methodist Church is a sacred trust. The qualifications and duties of associate members, probationary members, and full members are set forth in the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, and we believe they flow from the gospel as taught by Jesus the Christ and proclaimed by his Apostles. Whenever an ordained minister in any of the above categories violates this trust, the membership of his/her ministerial office shall be subject to review. This review shall have as its purpose the reconciliation and the restoration of the minister and the strengthening of the Church. If the remedial process is unfruitful, discontinuance or termination may follow. There is an even longer history of legislation providing for trial of a ministerial member and the minister's right to trial is guaranteed by the church Constitution, in Par. 18. The process is detailed in Par. 2621 ff. which includes the portion in question. If a ministerial member of an Annual Conference, or a local pastor shall be accused in writing of any of the offenses in Par. 2621, the accused person's district superintendent shall within sixty days of receiving such accusations convene the Committee on Investigation. There appears to be a possibility of contradiction between the two procedures. Par. 2623.3(b) directs a district superintendent to convene the Committee on Investigation within 60 days of receiving an accusation against a minister, citing one of the offenses in Par. 2621, thus beginning the process which may lead directly to trial. Par. 455.1, on the other hand, permits a district superintendent, under circumstances which may appear to be similar, to initiate a less formal process of negotiation, reconciliation, and resolution which would result in a trial only as a last resort, when all other efforts had failed. Though there is the appearance and possibility of conflict between the two, they may also be understood as offering a choice of channels for dealing with ministerial problems, either of which may be selected by the district superintendent to whom the grievance or accusation first comes, according to that district superintendent's understanding of the nature of the problem and the urgency of the need to deal with it. Par. 2623 is to be invoked only if a minister is accused of one of the chargeable offenses listed in Par. 2621. Par. 455, on the other hand, gives attention to problems of performance as well as character, The grievance may grow out of limited gifts, a matter of ineffectiveness rather than immorality. The process delineated in Par. 455 seems especially appropriate for problems which may be less serious, less demanding of immediate solution, and more amenable to satisfactory negotiation. There are a number of steps, of increasing seriousness and complexity, with the preliminary ones aimed at resolution without judgment or penalty. As a last resort, "in rare instances, the board (of Ordained Ministry) may refer the matter to the Committee on Investigation." In following the process, the district superintendent, upon receiving the grievance, may work with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee or other appropriate group to resolve the difference. Failing that, the district superintendent may sign a complaint and lodge it with the Board of Ordained Ministry. The Joint Review Committee then takes up the task of seeking resolution and reconciliation. If that also fails, the complaint is again lodged with the Board of Ordained Ministry, and that board is to prepare a recommendation for the Annual Conference. The recommended action may range from dismissal of the complaint to termination of the minister's Annual Conference membership and surrender of the ministerial office. If termination is recommended, the minister has the right of withdrawal or of trial. Should trial be chosen, the procedures of Par. 2623 apply. Seen in this fashion, the two paragraphs need not conflict, nor is there a question of precedence. The language of Par. 455 is such as to give the district superintendent an option when the grievance is first received. "The district superintendent may receive or initiate grievances . . ." Following efforts to resolve the problem, the district superintendent "may refer the matter as a complaint . . ." The language of Par. 2623.3(b) is less permissive. If a ministerial member of an Annual Conference ... shall be accused in writing of any of the offenses in Par. 2621, the accused person's district superintendent shall within sixty days of receiving such accusation convene the Committee on Investigation. If the district superintendent judges the grievance to be problem which may be resolved through the administrative process described in Par. 455, it may be received as a grievance rather than an accusation, and that process begun. If on the other hand the district superintendent judges that it is an accusation rather than a grievance, and if one of the offenses in Par. 2621 is specified, then the accusation shall be taken to the Committee on Investigation and the judicial process begun within 60 days. There are correctives in both processes in case of error in the district superintendent's initial evaluation. If what was judged to be a simple problem amenable to resolution through Par. 455 should prove in fact to be a more serious matter requiring trial that step is provided in Pars. 455, 2623, and 2624. If the district superintendent errs in the other direction and calls the Committee on Investigation into session for a matter that proves not to have justified that action, the case need not proceed directly to trial. The committee may find insufficient grounds for the accusation and file no charges. Even if there is cause for further action, the committee is to be guided by Par. 2620: "At each step in the proceedings listed in Par 2621 through Par.2624, efforts for reconciliation shall continue, so long as these efforts are not used to hinder due process" and Par 2624: "Church trials are to be regardedas an expedient of last resort. Only after every reasonable effort has been made to correct any wrong and adjust any existing difficulty should steps be taken to institute a trial." In some cases, those reasonable efforts could include the steps described in Par. 455; so the process could move from Par. 2623 to Par. 455 if circumstances warrant, just as it may move from Par. 455 to Par. 2623 if necessary. Par. 455. 1(b) and Par. 2623.1(b) agree in imposing a two-year statute of limitations on any misconduct, unsatisfactory performance, or offense on which a grievance or accusation is based. The filing of either a grievance or accusation within the two-year period meets this requirement, so that the statute of limitations may not expire as either process (455 or 2623) is followed from that point. It should be emphasized that no matter which course is chosen initially, the minister's conference membership may not be terminated without the constitutional right to trial if the minister so chooses.

Decision

Neither Par. 455.1 nor Par. 2623.3(b) is assured of precedence. The district superintendent who first receives the grievance or accusation may determine which process shall be initiated, depending on the nature of the grievance or accusation and the surrounding circumstances.

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