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Decision No. 915

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October 25 2001
In Re: Review of Bishop’s Decision of Law in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference Related to the Termination of Voluntary Leave of a Clergy Member of the Annual Conference.

Digest of Case

The decisions of law of the bishop are reversed in part and affirmed in part. This case is remanded to the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference to terminate forthwith the leave of absence or begin the process of involuntary leave in accordance with the provisions of the 2000 Discipline. It is ordered that the member shall receive equitable compensation as required for clergy members in full connection, insurance, housing, pension, and other benefits, according to annual conference policy and procedures for the period beginning July 1, 1999 until she receives another appointment or is declared ineligible for appointment.

Statement of Facts

This matter comes before the Judicial Council on a series of long and complex facts originating in 1998 involving clergy Member Kumji Hwang and her relationship with the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Washington and the church secretary. The relationship deteriorated to the point that during a meeting on March 18, 1999, with the bishop and three district superintendents, the clergy member was placed on extended vacation until July 1, 1999. She was instructed to stay away from the church and the congregation and not be involved in any of the church ministries. She was further instructed to seek counseling. Four issues were identified for her to work through with the counselor. The clergy member says the district superintendent wrote her a letter on March 24, 1999 stating that she would receive a new appointment beginning July 1, 1999. On May 19, 1999, the clergy member met with the district superintendent. She was advised that she would not be appointed to a church after June 30, 1999. During the meeting an unsigned complaint against the clergy member was also delivered. By letter dated May 21, 1999, the district superintendent memorialized the discussions of the May 19, 1999 meeting. In this letter, the district superintendent instructed the clergy member to choose between requesting a voluntary leave of absence or having the district superintendent request that she be placed on involuntary leave of absence. The letter also reiterated the requirement that the clergy member enter into a “therapeutic relationship with a certified counselor who is approved by [the] cabinet.” It further stated that the purpose of the counseling is for the clergy member to “come to an understanding of four categories of inappropriate behaviors which we have identified for you.” The letter specified the inappropriate behaviors that were identified by the superintendents. In a subsequent meeting with her district superintendent and another district superintendent, the clergy member says she was promised financial support, certain benefits, including health insurance for the duration of the leave, and was promised that the complaint would be removed from her file if she requested a voluntary leave of absence. The clergy member requested a voluntary leave of absence. By letter dated June 18, 1999, Bishop Sharon A. Brown Christopher informed the clergy person that the request had been approved effective July 1, 1999. The bishop’s letter advised that health insurance would be provided for up to ninety days and that housing and other financial support would not be provided. By letter dated June 30, 1999, the district superintendent denies telling the clergy member that he would remove the complaint from her file and that the Conference would provide financial support while she was on leave of absence. On July 15, 1999, the clergy member submitted a request that her voluntary leave be held void since the conditions of the request had not been met. She also requested that she be given an appointment and if not granted, then she would be given a hearing before the board of ordained ministry on the basis of an involuntary leave. A request to terminate voluntary leave of absence effective at the 2000 Annual Conference was made by the clergy member. The request was denied. In December 2000, the clergy member made a request in writing to terminate voluntary leave of absence effective with the 2001 Annual Conference. A request for an interview with the executive committee of the board of ordained ministry was also made. The chair of the Conference Relationship Committee responded to the clergy member’s request to come off voluntary leave of absence. He advised that this committee was willing to schedule an interview with her but the interview would only happen upon her fulfilling the requirements adopted by the executive committee of the board of ordained ministry. These requirements dealt with the counseling to address the inappropriate behavior previously identified by the district superintendents. On May 17, 2001, the chair of the Conference Relationship Committee advised the clergy member by letter that she would not be approved “to come off leave of absence for the next appointment year”. He asked her to send a request to stay on leave from July 1, 2001 to June 30, 2002. A recommendation was made to the 2001 Annual Conference by the board of ordained ministry to continue the clergy member on a voluntary leave of absence. Before the conference voted on the matter, four questions of law were presented in writing to the bishop. The bishop answered those questions in writing on July 2, 2001. The questions and answers are as follows: QUESTION NO. 1: In view of the provisions of ¶ 352.4 of The United Methodist Book Discipline, 2000, can a full member of the annual conference who is on a voluntary leave of absence, and who requests in a timely manner the termination of his/her voluntary leave of absence, be continued in a voluntary leave of absence against his/her will? If so, under what conditions? ANSWER: ¶ 352.4 of The Book of Discipline, 2000, indicates that When an end to the leave of absence is requested by the probationary, associate, or full member in the case of a voluntary leave of absence, and by the district superintendents in the case of an involuntary leave of absence, it shall be by written request at least six months prior to the session of annual conference. The board of ordained ministry shall review the circumstances surrounding the granting of the relationship for the purpose of determining whether those circumstances of the voluntary leave have been alleviated or resolved. When the board has determined that the circumstances of the voluntary leave have not been alleviated or resolved and the request is denied, the board must promptly begin a process to place the clergy person on involuntary leave of absence, administrative location, involuntary incapacity leave, or involuntary retirement or such other action as is deemed appropriate. In the case of Rev. Hwang, the request for removal of leave of absence was made in writing at least six months prior to the session of the annual conference. The board of ordained ministry, after reviewing the circumstances surrounding the granting of the leave of absence relationship, determined the circumstances had not been alleviated or resolved and denied the request. Choosing to act compassionately and pastorally, they recommended to the 2000 clergy session of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference a voluntary leave of absence status for Rev. Hwang to give them the time needed to complete their dialogue with Rev. Hwang that would, they hoped, resolve the issues that led to her request for leave of absence and therefore, enable her to return to active service. Because Rev. Hwang lives in California and chose not to attend the 2000 conference session of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, the resolution of this matter was not completed by the clergy session of the conference. However, the board is in active conversation with her to facilitate the completion of the requirements. Should this dialogue not bring the hoped-for resolution, the board executive committee will complete its action as outlined in ¶ 352.4 at its meeting on July 19, 2001. The board of ordained ministry is functioning appropriately within ¶ 352.4. QUESTION NO. 2: If a clergyperson requests termination of the voluntary leave of absence under the provisions of ¶ 352.4 of The United Methodist Book of Discipline and the board of ordained ministry fails to begin the process to place the clergyperson on an involuntary leave of absence following the provisions of ¶ 352.1b and instead, recommends the continuance of the voluntary leave of absence, is the action of the annual conference, in voting to continue the clergyperson on a voluntary leave of absence, valid? ANSWER: The board of ordained ministry has not failed to begin the process of a change of status for Rev. Hwang from voluntary leave of absence following the provisions of ¶ 352.1b and consequently this question is moot. QUESTION NO. 3: When a clergyperson is continued on a voluntary leave of absence after having requested the termination of the voluntary leave of absence, is the annual conference required to provide the same benefits that it does to other clergypersons who are in the active relationship to the annual conference: namely, insurance, minimum salary, and pension credit? ANSWER: The board of ordained ministry is operating within the disciplinary requirement as stated above. Consequently, the annual conference is not required to provide the same benefits that it does to other clergypersons who are in active relationship to the annual conference. QUESTION NO. 4: Does a bishop or district superintendent have any disciplinary authority to set the requirements a clergyperson must fulfill before coming off a voluntary leave of absence? Specifically, can a district superintendent require a clergyperson to receive counseling with regard to issues specified by the district superintendent and require that the counselor be approved by the district superintendent and require that the clergyperson give the consent in writing for the counselor to report back to the district superintendent? ANSWER: In the case of Rev. Hwang, the board of ordained ministry, not the district superintendent or bishop, set the requirements for coming off leave of absence. On June 28, 1999, Rev. Clyde Snyder, a member of the board of ordained ministry, sent a letter to Rev. Hwang stating the recommendations of the board and noting the requirements necessary for her to fulfill during her leave of absence. At the board’s request, the cabinet had, prior to Rev. Snyder’s letter, submitted to the board information and recommendations concerning the issues to be addressed by Rev. Hwang during her leave. This information with recommendations is not to be confused with the decision the board itself made regarding the leave of absence requirements. Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2609.6 of the 2000 Discipline. Analysis and Rationale Changes in conference relationships are provided in the 2000 Discipline. Par. 351 of the Discipline provides in part that: When ordained ministers sense that God is calling them to seek a change in conference relationship, either for a short or long term, they are urged to review this with colleagues, the district superintendent, and the bishop. Probationary and associate members and members in full connection seeking a change in conference relationship shall make written request to their board of ordained ministry stating the reasons for the requested change of relationship. In addition, the board of ordained ministry may request personal interviews with the probationary or associate members and members in full connection requesting the change in relationship, except where personal appearance results in undue hardship. (Footnote omitted) Other provisions of the Discipline relative to the issues of this case include: ¶ 352. Leave of Absence—1. This relationship is granted to clergy who are probationary, associate, and full members, who because of sufficient reason are unable to or who choose temporarily to cease to perform their ministerial duties. This relationship may be initiated by clergypersons as a voluntary leave of absence or by district superintendents as an involuntary leave of absence through the board of ordained ministry and granted or renewed by the vote of the clergy session of members in full connection with the annual conference upon the board’s recommendation. Between sessions of the annual conference, leave of absence may be granted or terminated, with the approval of the bishop and district superintendents, by the executive committee of the board of ordained ministry. (Footnotes omitted) a) Voluntary Leave of Absence—The written request for this relationship should be made at least ninety days prior to the annual conference session, giving specific reasons for the request. Representatives of the annual conference board of ordained ministry may interview the clergy member to determine sufficient cause. This relationship shall be approved annually upon written request of the clergy member and shall not be granted for more than five years in succession, except by a two-thirds vote of the clergy members in full connection. (Footnotes omitted) b) Involuntary Leave of Absence—The district superintendents may request an involuntary leave of absence without the consent of the probationary, associate, or full member, at least ninety days prior to the annual conference session. They shall give to the probationary, associate, or full member and the board of ordained ministry in writing the specific reasons for the request. The fair process for administrative hearings as set forth in ¶ 359.2 shall be followed in an involuntary leave of absence procedure. The clergyperson has the right to a hearing before the bishop, district superintendents, and executive committee of the board of ordained ministry prior to being placed on involuntary leave of absence. . . . Given the procedural errors in this case, the bishop’s decisions of law are reversed on several points. In answering the first question, the bishop said that the “board of ordained ministry is functioning appropriately within ¶ 352.4.” Par. 352.4 of the 2000 Discipline says When an end to the leave of absence is requested by the probationary, associate, or full member in the case of a voluntary leave of absence, and by the district superintendents in the case of an involuntary leave of absence, it shall be by written request at least six months prior to the session of annual conference. The board of ordained ministry shall review the circumstances surrounding the granting of the relationship for the purpose of determining whether those circumstances have been alleviated or resolved. When the board has determined that the circumstances of the voluntary leave have not been alleviated or resolved and the request is denied, the board must promptly begin a process to place the clergyperson on involuntary leave of absence, administrative location, involuntary incapacity leave, or involuntary retirement or such other action as is deemed appropriate. (Footnotes omitted) The clergy member made a timely written request to end her leave of absence. It was determined, however, that she had not fulfilled the requirements to come off leave of absence. Upon such a determination, the Discipline requires that the board of ordained ministry promptly begin the process to place the clergy member on involuntary leave, administrative location, involuntary incapacity leave, or involuntary retirement. The board was not functioning appropriately within the provisions of ¶ 352.4. We reverse the bishop's decision on this question. With respect to the second question, the record before the Judicial Council reflects that the clergy member was placed on “extended vacation” on March 18, 1999 up to July 1, 1999. This “extended vacation” was a de facto suspension. Calling the leave “extended vacation” did not change its true character. The 1996 Discipline provides specific guidelines to be followed in placing a clergy member on suspension. Those procedures were not followed. This signal event initiated the serious errors that have tainted this entire procedure. The second question asks whether the action of the annual conference, in voting to continue the clergyperson on voluntary leave of absence, is valid. The bishop ruled that the question is moot because the board has not failed to begin the process of a change of status. We hold that the question is not moot since the procedure has been tainted from the beginning. Therefore, the bishop’s decision of law on the second question is reversed. In the third question the bishop was asked if the annual conference is required to provide benefits to a clergy member who is continued on voluntary leave after having requested the termination of the voluntary leave of absence. Since the initial error occurred at the time of the “extended vacation," the action of the conference in placing the clergy member on voluntary leave of absence was inappropriate. At no time was the clergy member afforded fair process. The clergy member was given an unsigned complaint specifying purported inappropriate behavior. When the complaint was given to the clergy member, the 1996 Discipline defined "[a] complaint [as] a written and signed statement claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties." (Emphasis Added) (See Decisions 763 and 777). The unsigned statement does not meet the test of a complaint and in fact is not a complaint. On these facts, it is difficult to determine whether the clergy member’s request for a voluntary leave of absence was truly voluntary. Therefore, the bishop’s decision of law on the third question is reversed. In the fourth question, the clergy member asks who has authority, a bishop or district superintendent, to set the requirements a clergy member must fulfill to come off voluntary leave of absence. The clergy member received a letter from the district superintendent instructing her to choose between a voluntary leave and having her district superintendent request an involuntary leave. With either option, the clergy member was informed by the district superintendent that there were certain requirements that she would have to meet in order to come off leave. On December 18, 2000, the clergy member received a letter from the conference relations committee indicating that these requirements had been adopted by the executive committee of the board of ordained ministry. The decision of law of the bishop concerning the fourth question is affirmed in that the requirements that the clergy member must fulfill in order to return to active status were established by the board of ordained ministry, even though they may have been recommended by the district superintendent. This case presents errors, omissions, flaws and violations that never should have occurred or at the least should have been corrected at a much earlier stage. The bishop is incorrect in ruling that the board is operating within disciplinary requirements. The district superintendent should have requested an involuntary leave of absence thereby triggering the fair process for administrative hearings procedure. We quote approvingly Decision 777. “It should be emphasized that … the administrative … [process] in the Discipline [is] carefully and specifically designed to protect the rights of [individuals] … 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 decisions of law of the bishop are reversed in part and affirmed in part. This case is remanded to the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference to terminate forthwith the leave of absence or begin the process of involuntary leave in accordance with the provisions of the 2000 Discipline. It is ordered that the member shall receive equitable compensation as required for clergy members in full connection, insurance, housing, pension, and other benefits, according to annual conference policy and procedures for the period beginning July 1, 1999 until she receives another appointment or is declared ineligible for appointment.

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