Skip Navigation

Judicial Council Decisions Search


Decision No. 777

Back to Search

April 21 1996
In Re: Review of Bishop's Decision of Law in the Alabama-West Florida Conference Concerning Leave of Absence and Grievance Procedures,

Digest of Case

The decision of Bishop William W. Morris is reversed at some points and modified at others. The case on which it was based lacked a timely, signed grievance and a complaint specifying the chargeable offense in Disciplinary terms, both of which are indispensable requirements for any such matter referred to the Joint Review Committee for possible punitive action.

Statement of Facts

The case is much too long and complex to detail fully in this decision. The essential facts are summarized. It originated in 1989, when the resident bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, C. A. Hancock, received word of the discharge from naval chaplaincy of a clergy member of that conference. The bishop sent a letter to the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry informing him of the discharge for "conduct unbecoming an officer and fraternization." and directing the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry to "call the Joint Review Committee to perform its duties." The clergy member was placed on involuntary leave of absence, effective September 1, 1989, and was required to engage in counseling and career evaluation. From 1990 until 1994, the clergy member was listed in the conference-journal as on leave of absence "with consent," During that period, he repeatedly requested that the leave be terminated and he be given an appointment. In 1994, he requested a church trial, The Board of Ordained Ministry filed charges with the Committee on Investigation,, but the committee found that the filing did not constitute proper charges as defined by Discipline, The Board of Ordained Ministry submitted revised charges. We are informed that in July of 1995, these were also found to be inadequate by the Committee on Investigation. The 1995 session of the Annual Conference did not extend the leave of absence . and the clergy member was appointed to a pastoral charge, effective July 1, 1995. At the 1995 session, a seven-question request for a decision of law concerning the case was presented to the presiding bishop, William W. Morris. His decision came to the Judicial Council for review at the fall session in 1995, and was deferred to the spring of 1996 to allow time to seek additional information, Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Par. 2613 of the 1992 Discipline. Analysis In making his decision of law, Bishop Morris was disadvantaged in that the case had its origin long before he became the resident bishop, He has been most cooperative with the Judicial Council as we sought essential information and documents. The questions and the bishop's responses are summarized briefly, with the Judicial Councils analysis of each. 1. Is the submission for the second time of a charge by the Board of Ordained Ministry a violation of Par. 2622.5 (1992)? 2. Does it violate Par, 453 (1988) when a bishop conveys an unspecified allegation and an unspecified complaint to the Board of Ordained ministry without having followed the grievance procedures and supervisory response spelled out in that paragraph? 3. May an issue not previously specified in a grievance or complaint nor addressed by the Joint Review Committee be acted upon in a substantive way and/or presented to the Committee on Investigation without violating Fair Process? 4, Since the Administrative Review Committee found that Fair Process was not followed when the respondent was placed on involuntary leave of absence, is the respondent due compensation for the period he was without appointment? 5. Could the respondent be legally listed on voluntary leave of absence when he had made no such request and, instead, had asked to be removed from that category? Should the record be changed? 6. In view of the fact that there is no signed grievance and no valid complaint as defined in Par, 453 (1988), has the statute of limitations not expired? 7. Does the use in judicial procedure of material generated in administrative procedure violate Par. 2622.5 (1992)? The crucial issue, on which the entire case hinges, is raised in Question 2, which refers to "an unspecified allegation in an unspecified complaint." and in Question 6, which includes a similar reference, Par, 453 (1988) defines a grievance as "a written and signed statement claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties," It further requires that a "complaint must be based on incompetence, ineffectiveness, or any one or more of the offenses listed in Par, 2621 . . . It The complaint is dependent upon the timely filing of a grievance: "No complaint shall be considered for anymisconduct or unsatisfactory performance which shall not have been committed within two years immediately preceding the filing of the grievance." The Judicial Council repeatedly requested a copy of the signed grievance on which the complaint was based, but received none. The Judicial Council repeatedly requested a copy of the complaint citing one or more of the offenses listed in the Discipline. we were provided only a copy of the letter from Bishop Hancock to the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry, dated June 23? 1989,, which refers to a "charge of behavior unbecoming an officer and fraternization." "Behavior unbecoming an officer" and "fraternization" are military terms which have no precise translation into the language of the Discipline or the performance of parish ministry as a civilian pastor, There are actions inappropriate for an officer in a military setting which may be perfectly appropriate for the pastor of a local church, If the clergy member is accused of actions which are listed as offenses in the Discipline, they must be clearly and specifically spelled out. otherwise, the respondent has nothing on which to base a response, and there is no tenable basis for reconciliation, corrective action, termination, or vindication. Bishop Morris and others in the Alabama-West Florida Conference have been fully cooperative in our inquiry. We have no reason to doubt that, had the material we requested been available, it would have been provided, Therefore, we must conclude that a signed grievance and specific complaint which would have established a legitimate basis for action against the clergy member do not exist, and that the process was fatally flawed from the outset. There were other lapses. Some were noted by the Administrative Review Committee in its report to the Clergy Session of the Alabama-West Florida Conference on May 28, 1995. Major deficiencies caused the Committee on Investigation to notify the Board of Ordained Ministry on May 23, 1995, that the committee was unable to proceed because of the lack of properly drawn charges. Given the procedural errors and the absence of essential documents, we must reverse the bishop's decision at several points. To Question 1, the bishop responded that there was no violation because the second presentation of the complaint was "an expansion of the original process," and it was offered before a judgment had been rendered. The Judicial Council finds the question and answer moot in this case, since the original complaint failed to meet Disciplinary requirements as detailed above, The decision of the bishop is not affirmed. To Question 2, the bishop responded that the previous bishop had stated "forthrightly and with sensitivity the process and the charge," and that ' there was no violation of Par, 453. The Judicial Council finds that, as previously explained, the complaint was couched in military, not Disciplinary terms, and did not meet the requirement of Par, 453, The decision of the bishop is reversed. To Question 3, the bishop's answer was that the issue before the Board of Ordained Ministry was the respondents failure to complete all of the Joint Review Committee's recommendation of personal counseling, and that the Board of Ordained Ministry had "the right to make a judgment based on the current knowledge it possessed." The Judicial Council finds that this question is also made moot by the fact that the original complaint, on which the recommendation of the Joint Review Committee and the requirement of personal counseling were based, was invalid, The Board of Ordained Ministry could not recommend termination under the circumstances, The decision of the bishop is not affirmed. On Question 4, the bishop ruled that remuneration is due "a minister in good standing unless the person is on sabbatical leave or disability leave or is on leave of absence or retired, The (respondent) was on leave of absence . . . (and) is not entitled to remuneration in that the process is still pending since no judgment has been made, and at no time did he report to his Charge Conference as required by Par. 448.2 of the 1992 Book of Discipline." The Judicial council finds this question the most difficult of all those raised in the case, There is irreconcilable dispute over whether leave of absence was with or without consent. The clergy member repeatedly requested termination of leave of absence and appointment to a parish, However, there was also correspondence in which he indicated his intention to request or willingness to accept leave of absence. It is not possible for the' Judicial Council to determine whether this reflected voluntary willingness or resignation to the inevitable. It is clear, though, that in 1994 the clergy member requested removal from leave of absence in a timely manner, and that the request was considered and rejected by the Board of Ordained Ministry and by the Annual Conference In addition to the finding of the Judicial Council that the case originated without the requisite signed grievance and specific complaint, the Administrative Review Committee determined, in a report accepted in 1995 by the Annual Conference, that Fair, Process was not followed in dealing with the request, In his decision of law, Bishop Morris acknowledged that one meeting "did not meet the letter of the law." Despite all the confusion and uncertainty, it seems clear that the clergy member is entitled to compensation, at the equitable salary level prevailing in the Alabama-West Florida Conference at that time, for the period from the adjournment of the 1994 session of the Annual Conference until July 1, 1995, when his appointment became effective. The decision of the bishop is modified. To Question 5, the bishop responded that, in view of the circumstances, the leave of absence category in which the clergy member was listed in the conference journal was appropriate. As the Judicial Council has admitted, it is not possible to determine to what degree leave of absence was voluntary, though it is possible to determine that there was no valid basis for involuntary leave, lacking a proper grievance and complaint. We see no basis for ordering a change in the record in the conference journal. Any errors there, as at many other points in the case, are beyond correction at this late date. We lack sufficient evidence either to affirm or reverse the decision of the bishop. On Question 6, the bishop ruled that the statute of limitations had not expired because the original complaint was filed within the two-year period of the statute. The Judicial Council finds that, since there was no valid grievance and complaint, the statute of limitations has expired. The decision of the bishop is reversed. To Question 7. the bishop responded that it was a rephrasing of Question 1, on which his decision was that the action taken did not constitute double jeopardy. This question and the bishop's ruling are also moot because of the flawed origins of the case. The bishops decision is not affirmed. However, it should be noted that, though a clergy member may be put on involuntary leave of absence through the administrative process (Par. 448, 1988), any matter referred to the Joint Review Committee through the filing of a complaint (Par. 453, 1988) may, if not resolved, move through the judicial process. Reliance by successive bodies on records of preceding bodies does not constitute double jeopardy. (See Decisions 697 and 699.) There are indications of other errors, omissions, and violations in the case that are either not within the scope of the decision of law or that the Judicial Council does not have the documents to pursue fully. It should be emphasized that both the administrative and the judicial processes in the Discipline are carefully and specifically designed to protect the rights of clergy and of the church. The steps set forth there must be followed carefully and explicitly or injustice results. Lack of diligence, integrity, care, or compassion in dealing with a case almost always results in irreparable harm to both individual and church. That has usually happened by the time a case of this nature gets to the Judicial Council.

Decision

The decision of the bishop is reversed at some points and modified at others. The case on which it was based lacked a timely, signed grievance and a complaint specifying the chargeable offense in Disciplinary terms, both of which are indispensable requirements for any such matter referred to the Joint Review Committee for possible punitive action. Tom Matheny, President Wayne Coffin, Secretary Concurring Opinion I agree fully with the Judicial Council Decision as written and I write only to clarify the Digest in order to prevent future misinterpretation. A timely signed grievance and a complaint specifying the chargeable offense in disciplinary terms are indispensable requirements for any and all matters referred to the Joint Review Committee regardless of whether the Committee's action is punitive, remedial or results in a dismissal. Evelynn S. Caterson

Back to Search