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Decision No. 767

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October 26 1995
In Re: Review of Bishop's Decision of Law in New England Conference Concerning Clergy Member's Right to Trial.

Digest of Case

The ruling of the bishop is reversed. We remand the case back to the New England Annual Conference. We order that a neutral third party mediator be obtained to seek reconciliation unless the clergy member asks for a trial. If the case goes to mediation the Annual Conference is responsible for fees incurred. If she chooses a trial, at any time, it is ordered that the New England Annual Conference begin the process immediately.

Statement of Facts

A clergy member, Joyce Sheehan, of the New England Annual Conference had requested a trial. At the 1995 session of the New England Annual Conference, Robert Thornburg, advocate for her, made a request to the presiding bishop, F. Herbert Skeete, for a decision of law as to whether the bishop "rules that such a trial will take place in the speedy and judicious manner which the Discipline mandates, and what time period he has set for such trial." The bishop responded that: Reverend Sheehan is presently on Voluntary Leave of Absence. No one recommended her termination from the ordained ministerial office. She was administratively removed from her last appointment. Two bodies of her peers affirmed justification for the action of the cabinet. It has been requested that she go through a process to strengthen her effectiveness and attitude for ministry. Upon completion of this process she may apply, at the appropriate time, for an appointment The Book of Discipline states in Par. 2623.2: "A Bishop, clergy member of anannual conference, or diaconal minister may choose a trial when the appropriate body (Par. 317, 453, 513) recommends involuntary termination." Since nobody has recommended involuntary termination, The Rev. Joyce Sheehan does not have a right to trial. Para. 2626 also states that "church trials are to be regarded as an expedient of last resort." A trial, moreover, would be counterproductive to the church's hope that she successfully complete her process of strengthening her effectiveness and attitude for ministry and return to an appointment in the annual conference. This ruling is in furtherance of my supervisory responsibility under the Book of Discipline over clergy membership of the annual conference to which I have been assigned. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Par. 2613 of the 1992 Discipline . ANALYSIS Grievance procedures as outlined in Par. 454 were ignored and neglected to the detriment of all parties. "The supervisory response shall be directed toward justice for and reconciliation between all parties" (Par 454). As the Council stated in Decision 691 supervision under Par. 454.1(a) is of primary importance in bringing about reconciliation. Additionally, Par. 454.1(b) states: "If supervisory activity does not achieve the desired results, thematter may be referred as a complaint to the chairperson of the Board of Ordained Ministry." Little supervisory activity occurred between June 29 and October, 1993, when the bishop administratively removed Joyce Sheehan. The illegalities and misunderstandings would not have gone nearly so far had appropriate applications of the Discipline been followed. The need to enter into a "process to strengthen her effectiveness and attitude for ministry" might not have been indicated. In fact, the Board of Ordained Ministry of the New Hampshire Conference and the Joint Review Committee attempted to recommend a course of action which would return Sheehan to an appointable status. In November 1993, the New Hampshire Board of Ordained Ministry (the predecessor body to the New England Board of Ordained Ministry) refused to grant the bishop's request for involuntary leave of absence. It is unclear as to whether the 1994 leave of absence was intended by either Joyce Sheehan or the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Cabinet to be voluntary or involuntary. The record also indicates that the bishop and the Cabinet requested that she be placed on involuntary leave of absence and the Board of Ordained Ministry, on the other hand, granted a voluntary leave of absence, although the clergy member did not request it. There is no evidence that Sheehan provided written request for voluntary leave of absence at least 90 days prior to the Annual Conference session. [Par. 448.1(a)] Involuntary leave of absence may be requested by the district superintendent without the consent of the clergy member at least 90 days before the Annual Conference session. [Par. 448.1(b)] The status of this request is unclear. The lack of clarity of intent and the failure to follow the procedures outlined in the Discipline in this regard add to the irreconcilability of the conference relationship. She remains illegally on voluntary leave of absence. After February 22, 1994, when the complaint was filed under Par. 2623.1(d), (e) for "failure to perform the work of ministry" and "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church" other issues emerge, although the complaint was then properly forwarded to the Joint Review Committee. On March 9, 1994, the Cabinet presented to the Committee on Investigation "charges brought against Reverend Sheehan." On April 9, 1994, the Committee on Investigation was convened to hear the charge(s) brought against Joyce Sheehan as presented by the Cabinet. On May 24, 1994, the Joint Review Committee attempted to do its job by "seeking resolution" (Par. 454.1) and made its recommendation to motivate resolution. Joyce Sheehan signed the agreement on that day. On June 2, 1994, "following this attempt to resolve the differences the Board (of Ordained Ministry) voted to refer the above complaint as charges to the Committee on Investigation for possible trial." On August 5, 1994, the Committee on Investigation met and decided that the charges and accompanying evidence were "specific enough for us to pursue." On December 9, 1994, the Committee on Investigation met and unanimously voted that: On the basis of the evidence that we have examined, which has been submitted to us and the testimony we have heard, the Committee on Investigation determines that there are reasonable grounds for the charge against Reverend Joyce Sheehan of "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church" as lodged by the Cabinet and forwarded to this Committee by the Board of Ordained Ministry. We therefore certify the charge as proper for a trial according to PP 2625.g of the 1992 Book of Discipline. These votes mean that there will be an ecclesiastical trial; I pray God that in the trial, both justice and mercy will prevail. On February 8, 1995, and again on April 26, 1995, Robert Thornburg requested of the Cabinet the name of the presiding officer (bishop) for the Trial Court and the date of the trial. Having received no reply, he requested the bishop to rule on the question of law at the subsequent Annual Conference session. It is clear that under the circumstances, Joyce Sheehan is entitled to a trial, if that is what she desires.

Decision

The ruling of the bishop is reversed. We remand the case back to the New England Annual Conference. We order that a neutral third party mediator be obtained to seek reconciliation unless the clergy member asks for a trial. If the case goes to mediation the Annual Conference is responsible for fees incurred. If she chooses a trial, at any time, it is ordered that the New England Annual Conference begin the process immediately. This copy subject to final editing and correction.

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