Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 406
October 16 1975
In Re: Ruling of Bishop John B. Warman in the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference on Whether or Not There Is a Principle of Confidentiality Which Would Permit an Annual Conference Board of the Ministry to Withhold Information Requested by Members of an Executive Session of the Annual Conference Bearing on the Moral Character or Spiritual Dicsiplines of Candidates for the Ministry.
Digest of Case
It is the right of the Executive Session of an Annual Conference to have full information presented to it pertinent to the qualifications of any candidate for the ministry. Any principle of confidentiality in this regard must include not only the Board of the Ministry but also the Annual Conference Executive Session.
Statement of Facts
On June 12, 1975, in the regular session of the Central Pennsylvania Conference at Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, a member of the conference asked for an official interpretation under Paragraph 56 of the Discipline, on the following question: "Is there a principle of confidentiality or secrecy, not formerly known in this Conference, that permits or requires the Board of the Ministry, at its discretion, to keep from any Executive Session of the Conference information requested by members of the Executive Session bearing on the moral character and the disciplines of the Christian life of candidates seeking approval for ministerial orders and Conference membership?" The following morning on June 13, 1975, Bishop John Warman made the following statement: "The language of the request is not entirely clear. It asks 'is there a principle of confidentiality or secrecy, not formerly known in the Conference.' There is no way of knowing what was 'formerly known in the Conference.' I only know that in the two preceding years that I have been with the Conference the recommendations of the Board of the Ministry have been accepted by the Executive Session without inquiry into the particulars of any interview of any candidate. "Let me indicate what I believe to be the respective Disciplinary responsibilities of the Board of the Ministry and of the Annual Conference in regard to the examination and reception of candidates for membership in the Annual Conference. In the several paragraphs of the Discipline relating to the matter, the duty of examination and recommendation of the candidate is laid upon the Board of the Ministry (Pars. 319; 323; 325; and 333). The only public examination of the candidate provided in the Discipline is the examination by the Bishop in the presence of the Conference as detailed in Paragraph 334. "Had the General Conference contemplated a direct examination of the candidate by the Executive Session it would have written the requirement into the Discipline. That it did not do so and that it specifically laid the duty of examination on the Board of the Ministry would seem to indicate that all pertaining to the examination is the peculiar property of the Board to be used by it in the formulation of its recommendation. "In these same paragraphs the Annual Conference is charged with making the final determination. It can accept the recommendation of the Board or it can reject the recommendation of the Board. It cannot use the recommendation as a covert way of conducting an additional examination of the candidate by requiring the Board to yield over the candidate's answers as made to the Board. The interviews conducted by the Board of the Ministry are confidential. "This is in harmony with Judicial Council Decision No. 318: 'Any rule or regulation which seeks to add to or subtract from the provisions of Paragraph 318 and 326 is in conflict with the Discipline of The United Methodist Church.'" A copy of the decision of law was forwarded to the Judicial Council according to Paragraph 56 of the Discipline with indication that the ruling was challenged by the conference, and a decision requested of the Judicial Council on the legality of the ruling. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Paragraph 1512, the Discipline. ANALYSIS The issues here are the right to knowledge on the part of Conference ministerial members concerning qualifications of candidates for the ministry and the need to preserve the aspect of confidentiality in regard to privileged information. Does the Annual Conference ministerial member or members in Executive Session have the right to question the Board of the Ministry for additional information beyond its report on candidates for the ministry? Or, is this information to be available only to the Board of the Ministry which reports its recommendations to the Executive Session, but keeps confidential to itself information concerning questions asked and answers given within the Board of the Ministry which may be sought through questions in the Executive Session? Paragraph 37 of the Constitution states: "The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote on all constitutional amendments, on the election of ministerial and lay delegates to the General and the Jurisdictional or Central Conferences, on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members, and on the ordination of ministers and such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution, with the exception that the lay members may not vote on matters of ordination, character, and conference relations of ministers. It shall discharge such duties and exercise such powers as the General Conference under the Constitution may determine." On all matters of "ordination, character and conference relations of ministers" the ministerial members of the Annual Conference are given the power of determination. To the Annual Conference is given the responsibility, as a part of the business of the conference, to make inquiry into the moral and official conduct of its ministers. It may order an executive session of the ministerial members to consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character, and conference relations. Paragraph 663.5 of the 1972 Discipline states: "The Annual Conference shall make inquiry into the moral and official conduct of its ministers. In response to the inquiry whether all ministerial members of the conference are blameless in their life and official administration, the district superintendent may answer for all the preachers in the district in one answer, or the Board of the Ministry may make inquiry of each district superintendent about each minister in the district and make one report to the bishop and the conference in open session; provided that the conference or the bishop may order an executive session of the ministerial members to consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character, and conference relationships." There is also a public examination by the bishop of the class to be admitted into the conference, when the questions of Paragraph 334 are asked of all candidates seeking admission into full membership and associate membership of the Annual Conference. The Board of the Ministry is a required board in each Annual Conference. (Par. 665.4 a, 1972 Discipline) The Board of the Ministry duties are listed in Paragraph 665.5. Among the duties listed are: "To inquire into the educational and spiritual qualifications of each candidate for the ministry. (Par. 665.5 g, 1972 Discipline) "To examine each candidate to be advanced to membership in the Annual Conference and to orders and each minister from another church seeking entrance into our fellowship according to the provisions of the Discipline, and report its recommendations to the Annual Conference. (Par. 665.5 h, 1972 Discipline) "The board shall examine all applicants (a) for employment as lay pastors and (b) for conference membership as to their fitness for the ministry, and shall make full inquiry as to the fitness of candidates for admission into full connection. This must include an examination as to character, habits of life, conversation, call to the ministry, Christian experience, evangelistic and missionary concern, age, educational qualifications, domestic situation, cooperation with others, ability to lead a service of worship, and understanding of the Church's mission. The answers to the examination questions may be submitted in writing. The board shall also report recommendations concerning: (a) candidates for ordination as deacons, (b) candidates for ordination as elders, (c) those to be received from other churches, (d) those to be transferred into the conference, and (e) students, not yet elders in full connection, to be appointed to attend school and assigned to a Charge Conference. (Par. 665.8, 1972 Discipline) "The board shall certify all information and recommendations concerning each candidate to the Annual Conference in duplicate. One copy of this record is to be kept by the registrar of the board, and one copy is to be mailed after each conference session to the Division of the Ordained Ministry." (Par. 665.9, 1972 Discipline) The relationship of the Board of the Ministry to the Annual Conference is stated in Paragraph 665.16 of the 1972 Discipline: "The board shall be directlyamenable to the Annual Conference for its actions" The examination of candidates for the ministry is a responsibility of the Board of the Ministry. But, it is also the obligation of the ministerial members of the Annual Conference to ". . . consider questions relating to matter of ordination, character and conference relations . . ." (Par 663.5) A candidate for the ministry has the right to expect that the personal data and private information provided through the examinations of and by the Board of the Ministry will not be available for wholesale distribution and publication. As one petitioner argues, "If candidates know such information as is gained through inquiry and counsel must b revealed, upon demand, to hundreds of others, there will be a natural reluctance to share openly and honestly with the Board." There are certain matters of personal information which need the protection of individual privacy. There are occasions when the Board of the Ministry would not report privileged information which if revealed in the Executive Session would be an undue invasion of the privacy of the candidate without adding measurably to the conference's information about the candidate's qualifications for ministry. For example, a report by the Board that psychological examination reports have convinced the Board member that the candidate gives promise of emotional maturity should be sufficient. It is not necessary for test results nor medical reports to be specifically revealed in detail. Having said this, we must face the crux of the question of confidentiality:does this apply only to the Board of the Ministry or also to the parent body, the Annual Conference in Executive Session. Paragraph 663.5 states: "The Annual Conference shall make inquiry into themoral and official conduct of its ministerial membership." Are we to conclude that the Discipline proposes that the confidentiality for candidates is confined to the Board of Ministry, while that for all other members, and for the candidate after he has become a member, may be extended to the conference membership in total? It should be noted that all matters relating to ordination and conference relationship may be dealt with in the Executive Session of the Annual Conference. Paragraph 663.5 states: "The Annual Conference shall make inquiry into the moral and official conduct of its ministers..... in open session..... provided that the conference or the bishop may order an Executive Session of the ministerial members to consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character and conference relationships." Judicial Council Decision 42, held this provision in the Discipline to be constitutional. Disciplinary recognition of the importance of confidentiality in matters of personal privacy on the part of ministerial candidates clearly points to the importance of keeping such information within the ministerial family. The ruling in the instant case raises the question as to whether or not such information is the peculiar property of only a small portion of that membership, the Board of the Ministry. A principle of confidentiality must be respected and preserved by both the Board of the Ministry and the Annual Conference Executive Session. It is important to understand that members of the conference must distinguish between matters relating to qualifications and areas that could prove an undue invasion of personal privacy. Certainly, it is reasonable to assume that a trust relationship is set up between candidate and Board of the Ministry members over the period of years in which the candidate is in preparation for conference membership. One could not assume such a trust relationship would attend the appearance of a candidate before two hundred ministerial members of an Annual Conference. Our procedures operate on the assumption that ministerial members will be judicious in their efforts to secure information that might represent an invasion of privacy not warranted by the basic Information needed to qualify a candidate. Should a member trespass on this right, the presiding bishop could suggest that the matter, if requested by the candidate, could be immediately referred back to the Board of the Ministry with the inquiring conference member privileged to bring his inquiry within the more intimate bounds of the Board of the Ministry. Any conference member with information concerning a potential candidate for the ministry which might well disqualify him or her for admission to the conference, is privileged, indeed obligated, to bring that question to the attention of the Board of the Ministry, and not wait until a recommendation arrives on the conference floor to raise his question. The Annual Conference through its ministerial members has a right to know that the Board of the Ministry has found no weaknesses in a candidate that would hazard an effective ministry. Such a right would require that members be permitted to comment or question the Board of the Ministry when it brings its recommendations. In contrast to the Bishop's ruling in this case, the Discipline suggests the circle of confidentiality extends to all ministerial members in matters of ministerial relationship when it establishes ministry as a covenant relationship. Paragraph 331 states: "Members in full connection with an Annual Conference by virtue of their election and ordination are bound in special covenant with all the ordained ministers of the Annual Conference. In the keeping of this covenant they perform the ministerial duties and maintain the ministerial standards established by those in covenant.... Only those shall be elected to full membership who are of unquestionable moral character and genuine piety, sound in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and faithful in the discharge of their duties." Should the Bishop's ruling stand, the long-practiced procedure in many conferences could be called into question. In many such conferences in the Executive Session when a candidate is presented for reception, he is excused from the room while opportunity for persons to say a personal word of recommendation is given. Does not such a procedure imply that negative comments could be made if a member so desired? What would happen in the case of a recommendation from the Board of the Ministry which did not include the name of a potential candidate who had been turned down by the Board? Does the Board simply say, "We do not recommend-", or does the Annual Conference have a legal right to some explanation? If this ruling is allowed to stand, then what purpose is there in the Executive Session or indeed in any detailed report of recommendations from the Board of the Ministry? The Discipline clearly provides that all decisions as to the disposition of candidates for the ministry are in the hands of the Annual Conference. The Board of the Ministry can only make recommendations. It does not have the final decision. If that decision is to be an intelligent one, it requires not only faithfulness in performance of its duties by the Board of the Ministry, but also that the Annual Conference shall exercise the freedom to make its decision on the basis of the report of the Board and any further information considered necessary by the conference through questionings and comments by its members. Thus, with no non-ministerial members present, confidentiality is maintained within the fellowship of the ministerial members. Otherwise, the Annual Conference has given over to the Board of the Ministry the decision-making process in regard to ministerial candidates, which the Discipline has clearly delegated only to the Annual Conference and not to one of its amenable boards or agencies. Furthermore, the Judicial Council spoke to this point at issue when in Decision No. 42 it stated: "The right to vote carries with it an inherent rightto be present and to participate in the discussion leading up to such a vote." In the judgment of this Council the assignment of investigating and information-gathering procedures to the Board of the Ministry for candidates applying for entrance into conference membership and orders, while normally sufficient for an intelligent vote by the Annual Conference, does not imply that no question can be raised on the floor of the conference following a recommendation by the Board. The fact that no questions have been raised does not permit a ruling that no questions may be raised.
It is the right of the Executive Session of an Annual Conference to have full information presented to it pertinent to the qualifications of any candidate for the ministry. Any principle of confidentiality in this regard must include not only the Board of the Ministry but also the Annual Conference Executive Session. Theodore M. Berry was absent.