Skip Navigation

Judicial Council Decisions Search


Decision No. 798

Back to Search

October 24 1996
In Re: Review of Bishop’s Decision of Law in the Minnesota Conference Concerning Validity of Voluntary Surrender of Credentials of a Clergy Member.

Digest of Case

The procedures for the grievance and complaint processes described in ¶ 454 of the 1992 Discipline and the provisions for withdrawal of conference membership and surrender of ministerial credentials under ¶ 453.4 and other related paragraphs, namely ¶ 2622, ¶ 2623 and ¶ 2628 have been appropriately followed. Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher's decisions are affirmed.

Statement of Facts

At the 1996 session of the Minnesota Annual Conference, five questions of law were raised relating to concerns about the handling of complaints of sexual harassment and immorality against a clergy member of the Minnesota Conference, by the bishop and several members of the Cabinet. These questions expressed his concerns about proper procedures in handling the grievance and the complaint and whether the withdrawal of the clergy member by the surrender of his credentials is valid. Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher responded to each of the questions, giving her ruling and a rationale for each decision of law. Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2613 of the 1992 Discipline. Analysis and Rationale It appears that a key issue in this case is whether a meeting held on January 19, 1996, with Bishop Christopher, Superintendents Ormsby and Hutchens, and James Beyer in attendance was a supervisory meeting for the purpose of presenting to the clergy member the grievance filed against him and defining for him the grievance/complaint process or a hearing. Bishop Christopher’s response to the question makes it clear that the meeting on January 19 was a supervisory response meeting held in accordance with ¶ 454.1(a) of the 1992 Discipline, for the purpose of presenting the written complaint to the clergy member and to communicate to him the disciplinary grievance process. Bishop Christopher’s rulings on the five questions of law submitted to her and the findings of the Judicial Council are as follows: (1) Is it permissible under The 1992 Book of Discipline for a supervisory response meeting pursuant to ¶454.1a to take place with less than twenty days notice to the respondent? By the content of Question #2, the "supervisory response meeting" referred to in this question could only be the meeting in which the signed, written grievance was read and given to the pastor by his district superintendent and bishop. The purpose of the meeting was to share the written grievance with the pastor and communicate to him the disciplinary grievance process. The 1992 Book of Discipline does not define the supervisory process. Rather, the plan of supervision of an annual conference is placed in the hands of the bishop by the constitution of the church (¶51) and in the hands of the district superintendents, extensions of the episcopal office, by the Discipline (¶520.2). Consequently, The 1992 Book of Discipline does not dictate a procedure for notifying a pastor of a grievance filed against him/her. In keeping with the pastoring and supervising responsibilities of the bishop and district superintendent, the Minnesota Cabinet presents grievances and explanations of the disciplinary process in person rather than by mail. The one against whom a grievance is brought has opportunity to be accompanied by another person to this meeting of notification. It is an action that occurs in the midst of the supervisory response. In this meeting the pastor is informed of the method of making or not making a response to the grievance. The meeting with James Beyer was not a hearing. It assumed the innocence of the pastor. It sought clarification of the issues stated in the grievance so that reconciliation and justice might be sought in the supervisory process. It occurred prior to the forming and sending of the grievance as a complaint to the Board of Ordained Ministry. (The Administrative and Judicial Procedures Manual [First Edition - 1995] indicates that "the fair process principles of ¶2622 are meant to be applicable both to the procedures outlined in the 2600 paragraphs as well as those proceeding which occur after the matter has been referred on as a complaint.") The sharing of the written grievance in this particular case was preceded by several supervisory conversations and meetings with the pastor that were focused on the behavior named in the written grievance. These conversations took place primarily in the five-month period prior to the receipt of the written grievance. The sharing of the written grievance was only one part of a larger supervisory process. THE RULING The meeting in question occurred during the supervisory process that preceded the filing of a complaint. The 1992 Book of Discipline places the definition of the supervisory process in the hands of the bishop and district superintendents. It does not prohibit the presentation of a written grievance against a pastor in person. Neither does The 1992 Book of Discipline require a written grievance to be presented to a pastor by mail. Further, to notify a pastor that a written grievance has been filed against him/her but the content cannot be provided until a meeting twenty days hence, is not good supervisory practice. Neither is the delivery of a grievance by an impersonal mail system a good supervisory process. Therefore, the meeting was in order by disciplinary standards. The Council’s decision on question #1: The twenty days notice as set forth in ¶ 2622.2 applies to a hearing in the judicial process, not to a supervisory meeting. The bishop’s decision is affirmed. (2) May such a meeting take place without the respondent having seen the grievance prior to the meeting? THE RULING It is impossible to present a written grievance to a pastor prior to a meeting that has as its intent the presentation of a written grievance to a pastor. The Council's decision on question #2: Par. 454.1(a) does not delineate a process for notifying a pastor of a grievance filed against him/her. Nor does it state that a written grievance must be submitted to the pastor prior to the supervisory meeting convened for the purpose of sharing the grievance with the pastor. Most bishops and district superintendents prefer to present the grievance in person and to explain the grievance/complaint process to the accused pastor. This, apparently, is the way Bishop Christopher and the Cabinet handle grievances and complaints in the Minnesota Conference. The bishop’s decision is affirmed with the understanding that there is nothing to prevent a written grievance being mailed or delivered to the pastor prior to a supervisory meeting to discuss the nature of the complaint and delineating the process for grievances/complaints. (3) Is it permissible under The 1992 Book of Discipline for the Joint Review Committee to interview the respondent in the absence of the grievant, and vice-versa? THE RULING The pastor in this circumstance surrendered his credentials prior to a scheduled meeting of the Joint Review Committee that had as its purpose the interviewing of the grievant and the respondent. Consequently, the Joint Review Committee did not meet and could not have interviewed the respondent in the absence of the grievant or vice-versa. This question is hypothetical in nature and therefore moot. (cf. Judicial Council Decision #33) The Council’s decision on question #3: The Joint Review Committee did not meet because the respondent surrendered his credentials prior to the meeting which had as its purpose the interviewing the grievant and the respondent. This question is hypothetical and therefore moot. The bishop’s decision is affirmed. (4) May the Joint Review Committee consider supporting materials which have not been made available to the respondent? THE RULING The Joint Review Committee may consider materials that come to it through the process outlined in ¶454.c (sic) of The 1992 Book of Discipline as it has been amended by the interpretation of the Judicial Council. In this particular case, the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry had sent to both the respondent and the chair of the Joint Review Committee the same material. The Joint Review Committee did not meet to consider the complaint against the pastor. Consequently, it could not have considered any supporting material which had not been made available to the respondent. This question is hypothetical in nature and therefore moot. (cf. Judicial Council Decision #33) The Council’s decision on question #4: Par. 454.1(c) of the 1992 Discipline in describing the nature of the Joint Review meeting says, "At the initial hearing, the respondent and the person or persons bringing the complaint shall have the right to present written materials and other documentary evidence including a list of persons with pertinent information." Therefore the committee could have considered any pertinent material which had not been made available to the respondent. Since the Joint Review Committee did not meet, this is hypothetical and therefore moot. The bishop’s decision is affirmed. (5) If church law was violated in any or all of the above ways during the process leading up to the withdrawal of the Rev. James Beyer, is his withdrawal valid? THE RULING Since the above rulings indicate that the procedure fit within the rules of The 1992 Book of Discipline and no church law had been violated, this question has no relationship to the particular circumstances at hand. It becomes hypothetical. A withdrawal during the disciplinary disposition of a grievance or complaint, unless shown to be coerced, must be considered to be valid. When there is no evidence of coercion, actions taken by a clergy to stop the process are at the discretion of the clergy. During the process, matters of procedure are open to question at each step of that process. If no questions have been presented to the proper person or group, in the above case to the Committee on Joint Review, there is no reason to assume that the withdrawal is based upon those considerations. In this circumstance the pastor had the content of the complaint and the process of the church before him for several months prior to his voluntary surrender of credentials. He could not have known more at a later time than he already knew at the time of his surrender of credentials. To allow a pastor to withdraw under complaint and then later to question procedures directly to the Judicial Council, removes from the annual conference an opportunity for timely response. Further, it violated the basic constitutional right of the annual conference (par. 36) to decide on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members and to consider the matter on the merits of the complaint. Such action leaves the annual conference no way to deal directly with the issues of procedure legally given to it in The Book of Discipline. The Council’s decision on question #5: This question is hypothetical and therefore moot. The bishop’s decision is affirmed.

Decision

The procedures for the grievance and complaint processes described in ¶ 454 of the 1992 Discipline and the provisions for withdrawal of conference membership and surrender of ministerial credentials under ¶ 453.4 and other related paragraphs, namely ¶ 2622, ¶ 2623 and ¶ 2628 have been appropriately followed. Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher's decisions are affirmed.

Back to Search